Casey Kasem Remembered: Iconic DJ Was Tough, Gracious With a 'Garbage' Voice (Guest Column)
Music journalist Ben Fong-Torres remembers the "American Top 40" host as a perfectionist and hard worker who turned his voice into a "treasure."
This story first appeared in the June 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
I first heard of Casey Kasem when I heard him. I was a fan of KEWB, "Channel 91" out of Oakland, Calif. (and a little sister to KFWB, "Channel 98" in Los Angeles). It was 1961, and he was a fast-talking young shouter who kept his engineer busy playing sound effects and wild tracks — comic phrases lifted from Stan Freberg recordings — while "The Caser" yakked with imaginary characters.
He was your typical Top 40 DJ. And then he wasn't. When, one evening, his boss told him to knock off the wacky stuff and just be a DJ, he complied. He found an industry book, Who's Who in Pop Music, 1962, and began mixing artist bios and trivia into his platter chatter. He teased his tidbits. He slowed down. He sounded human. And it was that package that he rode to stardom a few years later in Hollywood, first as a DJ and voice talent and then, in 1970, as host of American Top 40.
Countdowns? Hadn't those gone the way of Your Hit Parade? Top 40? Wasn't that format being ushered out to make way for album rock on FM? Kasem and the people at Watermark Productions didn't care. "Since 1949," he once told me, "I believed I would do a countdown show." He was 17 then, living in Detroit, where he was an actor in The Lone Ranger and other early radio programs. Now, he had his dream show, and by 1980, it would grow to about 900 stations across the country, becoming a weekend habit for some 20 million listeners.
At Rolling Stone and later at Gavin, a radio industry magazine, I had reason to call on Kasem. He sat for an interview for my 1998 book about Top 40, The Hits Just Keep on Coming. In person, he was gracious. I heard that in the studio he could be tough, and I learned firsthand that he was a perfectionist when I wrote scripts for the Radio Hall of Fame inductions in the late '90s. Kasem hosted, and every word, every phrase, had to be just right. In our talk for my book, he revealed that at KEWB, he had doubled as music director. "I was really on top of music, and I could pick hit records." He named Sam Cooke's "You Send Me" among his early finds. Bill Gavin, the founder of Gavin, wanted to bring Kasem in as a partner.
But Kasem had stars in his eyes, and he was off to Hollywood to turn his DJ signoff — "Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars" — into a reality. He did it by mixing ambition, hard work, perfectionism and a sense of self. His husky voice, he said, was "garbage," but he turned it into a treasure.
Ben Fong-Torres is a music journalist who writes the San Francisco Chronicle's "Radio Waves" column.