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50 Years Ago, Casey Kasem Began Counting Down The Hits On American Top 40

Jul 6, 2020
Originally published on July 3, 2020 8:16 am

On July 4, 1970, the countdown started. Originally hosted by Casey Kasem, American Top 40 played "the best selling and most-played songs from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Canada to Mexico," as he stated on the first program broadcast 50 years ago as of tomorrow.

On any given week, American Top 40 could feature a ballad, next to a country song, next to a funk song, next to a rock song. The show became a national obsession but 50 years ago, it was considered a risky idea.

"You remember, at the end of the '60s, Top 40 was not the most popular format," Casey Kasem told NPR in 1982. "And here we were coming along with a show called American Top 40, and people said, 'You must be nuts!' "

"When American Top 40 launched, it was only played on seven stations," says Chris Molanphy, a pop music critic and host of the podcast Hit Parade. "The Top 40 format, which dates back to early-to-mid '50s, was starting to wane as FM radio was taking off. It would be a stretch to say that American Top 40 made Top 40 music cool again, but it certainly made it viable again."

By the early 1980s, the show was heard on more than 500 stations across America and on the Armed Forces Radio Network around the world. The show succeeded not just because it was a list of popular songs, but because of the humanity that Casey Kasem brought between the songs.

Chris Molanphy credits the show's use of trivia and biographical information for that connection, including a recurring segment called Long Distance Dedications. Kasem read letters sent in from around the world that dedicated songs to loved ones. In one such instance, a soldier stationed overseas wrote that his wife had sent him a handwritten copy of the lyrics to "Faithfully" by Journey and asked Kasem to play the song for her.

"The thing about Kasem was that he had such a warm vibe and he was such a good storyteller that he could read the most mawkish letter and make it very powerfully relatable," Molanphy says. "You find yourself getting choked up listening to these little stories."

But by the end of the 1980s, a different radio network had acquired the rights to American Top 40, and they wanted to make a change. Casey Kasem was out; Shadoe Stevens was in.

Kasem returned to host in 1998, but six years later, he handed the reins to Ryan Seacrest, who still hosts the program to this day.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On July 4, 1970, the countdown started.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "AMERICAN TOP 40")

CASEY KASEM: Here we go with the Top 40 hits in the nation this week on "American Top 40," the bestselling and most played songs from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Canada to Mexico. This is Casey Kasem in Hollywood.

INSKEEP: That's the very first "American Top 40." As of tomorrow, the show will be 50 years old.

NOEL KING, HOST:

On any given week, it could feature a ballad next to a country song, next to a funk song, next to a rock song.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "AMERICAN TOP 40")

KASEM: That was Mountain with "Mississippi Queen."

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCERS: Billboard's No. 20.

KASEM: Here now is a song that debuted higher on the national Top 40 this week than any other. Up from No. 44 last week, here's Bread. And their hit song is called "Make It With You."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAKE IT WITH YOU")

BREAD: (Singing) Hey...

KING: This show became a national obsession. But 50 years ago, it was considered a risky idea, which Casey Kasem told NPR back in 1982.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KASEM: You remember at the end of the '60s, Top 40 was not the most popular format. And here we were coming along with a show called "American Top 40." And people said, you must be nuts.

CHRIS MOLANPHY: When "American Top 40" launched, it was only played on seven stations.

INSKEEP: Chris Molanphy is a pop music critic and host of the podcast "Hit Parade."

MOLANPHY: The Top 40 format, which dates back to the early to mid-'50s, was starting to wane as FM radio was taking off. It would be a stretch to say that "American Top 40" made Top 40 music cool again. But it certainly made it viable again.

INSKEEP: By the early '80s, the show was heard on more than 500 stations across America and on the Armed Forces Radio network around the world.

KING: The show succeeded not just because it was a list of popular songs, it's the humanity that Casey Kasem brought between the songs. Chris Molanphy credits the show's use of trivia and biographical information.

MOLANPHY: And finally, it added the Long-Distance Dedication.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "AMERICAN TOP 40")

KASEM: Listen to this letter from an American serviceman. He begins, Dear Casey...

MOLANPHY: The thing about Kasem was that he had such a warm vibe. And he was such a good storyteller that he could read the most mawkish letter and make it very powerfully relatable. You find yourself getting choked up listening to these little stories.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "AMERICAN TOP 40")

KASEM: When I first arrived in this country, Susie (ph) sent me a handwritten copy of the lyrics to the song "Faithfully" by Journey. There's not a single day that goes by that I don't play that song, look at her beautiful face in a picture and follow along with the words. So Casey, please play it for Susie Clark (ph) in Biloxi, Miss., from her husband, Roy, overseas. Thank you. Roy, here's your long-distance dedication.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAITHFULLY")

JOURNEY: (Singing) Highway run...

KING: I'm literally crying.

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah. There's something about the way that he talked. He's not getting all emotional. He's making you feel...

KING: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...The power of those words.

KING: By the end of the 1980s, a different radio network had acquired the rights to "American Top 40." And they wanted to make a change. Casey Kasem was out. Shadoe Stevens was in.

INSKEEP: Kasem returned to host in 1998. And then, six years later, he handed the reins over again to the man who still hosts "AT40" to this day, Ryan Seacrest.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "AMERICAN TOP 40")

RYAN SEACREST: We're down to the Top 10. "Savage," Megan Thee Stallion and Beyonce.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAVAGE REMIX")

BEYONCE: (Rapping) Queen B, want no smoke with me. Then turn this mother****** up 800 degree.

KING: Now, here we are, 50 years later. And if you're wondering what was the No. 1 song in the country back then, well, let's have Casey Kasem tell you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAMA TOLD ME (NOT TO COME)")

THREE DOG NIGHT: (Singing) That ain't the way to have fun, no.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "AMERICAN TOP 40")

KASEM: "Mama Told Me," Three Dog Night.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES R KIRK'S "AMERICAN TOP 40 THEME")

KING: The sounds of the very first "American Top 40." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.