The news was inevitable, but still sad – yesterday, the legendary disc jockey Casey Kasem passed away at the age of 82. Kasem suffered from Lewy body dementia and in his last few months his family’s private feud over his care and visitation spilled over to the public, a rather undignified end for a man who became famous for his uncontroversial and vanilla radio program.
Like most people who grew up before the rise of the Internet, I have fond memories of listening to Kasem on American Top 40, counting down the most popular hits in the nation. Back in those days, hearing your favorite song was not as easy as it was today and unless you plunked down the cold hard cash to buy the cassette/cd, the only time that you knew that you would hear the most popular songs were on radio programs like Kasem’s. I don’t think that I am alone in saying that I would even hold a tape recorder up to the radio during his shows to capture some songs so I could listen to them again and again; the quality was terrible, but it was better than nothing. Often times you would hear the tail end of Kasem’s voice on these mix tapes that I created, because I never could quite get the timing right for a seamless transition.
My favorite part of American Top 40 were always the long distance dedications, which I secretly assumed were all made up. Hey – even as a kid I was pretty cynical. They always seemed so dramatic and over the top – and occasionally they bordered on unbelievable – but I was fascinated by them. These public declarations of love through a song dedication seemed both completely ridiculous and incredibly romantic to me at the same time and sometimes I wished that they would do a follow-up on some of the stories that they featured to find out what happened. I’m guessing the success rate wasn’t too high, but still – I was curious if these long distance dedications every bore any fruit for the person submitting the request. One of our local radio stations air old episodes of American Top 40 on Sunday mornings and it is surprising after all these years that I still recognize some of the dedications when I hear them. The programs also present a frightening time capsule of what music used to be popular.
I think Casey Kasem’s delivery and on-air persona are a large reason that American Top 40 was able to survive as long as it did. His delivery was no nonsense and attempted to appeal to everyone; while modern radio stations tend more toward niche programming, American Top 40 was a big tent that had room for everyone. As I became older, I remember thinking that Kasem was kind of corny in his earnestness and blandness, but that was kind of the point; he was the comforting voice that was welcoming to everyone, which made it much easier for him to adapt as the musical styles of the era evolved. His cadence was easy to imitate, but there was only Casey Kasem. He and Dick Clark managed to carve out impressive careers in music that spanned generations and I don’t know that we’ll see that again, depending on how Ryan Seacrest fares long term. It’s sad to think that we’ve lost both Clark and Kasem in a relatively short amount of time.
However, as much as I enjoyed Kasem on American Top 40, my real sadness on his passing comes from his work on the cartoon Scooby Doo. I remember the first time that I realized that the guy on the radio was also the voice of Shaggy on Scooby Doo; I’m pretty sure that blew my little kid mind at the time. I have been a fan of Scooby Doo for as long as I can remember (still am), so anyone affiliated with that program holds a special place in my heart (except for whoever voiced Scrappy Doo – anyone associated with that monstrosity should rot in hell). I’ve been known to be late to things because I’ll have discovered a classic episode of Scooby Doo, Where Are You? on Cartoon Network and I have to watch it until the end; I’ve had to talk myself several times out of buying the box set for the series when it is on sale on Amazon. When the voice actors on the show changed, I found Scooby Doo basically unwatchable. Kasem also provided the voice of Alexander on Josie and the Pussycats, another favorite of mine. When Scooby Doo and Josie and the Pussycats did a crossover episode and Shaggy and Alexander had to talk to one another, I could barely contain my excitement. Kasem also turned up occasionally in front of the camera on some of the other shows that I watched as a kid; he had guest appearances on Charlie’s Angels, Quincy and (my personal favorite) ALF.
Due to his illness, Kasem had mostly vanished from public view until the recent controversy in his family brought him back into the limelight. Kasem hasn’t been a part of my daily life in a long time, but knowing that he is no longer around makes me sad. I’ve reached the age where more and more of the connections to my childhood are evaporating and Kasem’s passing is another blow to that nostalgia. I am glad that he is no longer suffering or in pain; having seen family members struggle with dementia, I know what a toll that can take on all involved. Casey Kasem was a big part of my childhood, so I will always think of him fondly. He may not have been revolutionary, but he was a nice constant in the confusing and ever changing world of music. It was reassuring to be told every week to “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.”
Rest in peace Casey Kasem. You will be missed.