AT40 From the Inside

In recent months, I’ve gotten Internet-acquainted with Scott Paton, a veteran advertising, PR, and radio guy who, as a fuzzy-cheeked youth between 1976 and 1979, was a writer/researcher on American Top 40. Recently I asked him about the typical week in the production of AT40, and he was kind enough to share a rundown, the first installment of which I’m posting here, pretty much verbatim. Now on with the countdown:

As a “new” show cycle actually began on Friday, a typical week at AT40 was something like this:

Friday: Look at the Billboard chart that would be hitting the street the following week and focus on the records that were bulleted and likely to debut on the Top 40 the following week or (more proactively) in the weeks to come. This was critical advance work, especially when a song was by a new and unknown act. Casey had to have something to say about these new artists upon their debut, so I’d be calling record labels, PR firms, managers, and agents to start compiling a file of information and hopefully interesting facts on each artist.

Every act that ever charted during AT40‘s run had an 8-by-10 manila folder with bios, press releases, notes, interview transcripts and press clippings inside  As you can imagine, the Elton John folder would be considerably more voluminous than, say, the folder on Blue Swede.

While I was working on gathering human-interest angles on the artists and records, statistician Sandy Stert-Benjamin would be diving into the brand-new second edition of Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles book to come up with interesting chart facts to use in Casey’s intros and outros and, when it was a great statistic—like the highest debut in the Top 40 in more than a decade—occasionally a full-blown tease and hook.

Scott explains the tease and hook this way: “Tease:  ‘Coming up . . . the dramatic story of the songwriter who was kidnapped by a rogue band of Cherokee Indians who threatened to take his life. But with just moments to live, he was spared when he promised to write a song about the mistreatment and plight of the Native American throughout history . . . and in our country today. That terror-inspired composition is this week’s Number One song.’  (Not the original, actual tease, but my current take on it, based on memory.) The hook consisted of the story songwriter John D. Loudermilk told AT40 about his car breaking down in the wilderness, being held at knife-point by crazed Cherokees, and his pleading for his life with the promise of writing an epic tune about all that Native Americans had endured over many generations. The song, of course, was ‘Indian Reservation’ by the Raiders.  And that story was—and would have remained—the very best in AT40‘s history if it wasn’t completely bogus.”

Monday: More of the same. And I’d be setting up interviews with performers potentially any day of the week. Depending on proximity, I’d do them in-person or on the phone. We also had a fellow by the name of Alan Kaltman back in New York who would do occasional interviews as well. In those days, we got everybody, with the notable exceptions of John Travolta and Peter Frampton. They had really hard-ass management. (Frampton today, by the way, couldn’t be a nicer guy.) Meanwhile, producer Nikki Wine would be taking the raw material we provided her and she would start drafting the longer stories. I’d write my share of the feature pieces around my interview and research activities.

On Mondays I’d also head down to the newsstand on Cahuenga at Hollywood Boulevard (still there) to buy all the new weekly and monthly music magazines, or anything with a possible story to be mined from within. Melody Maker and New Musical Express (NME) from England were often incredibly helpful.

Tuesday: Mid-morning copy meetings with Casey, where he would read the drafts we’d written, presumably for that week’s show. Sessions with just the Caser, Nikki, Sandy, and myself were very productive and, for me, very informative. Once Casey was convinced that a story was viable—or better yet, great—it went into the pool.

As I recall, we had a total of four extended stories per hour in each show. But we couldn’t simply have 12 good stories in the hopper ready to go. Depending on how the chart numbers fell each week, we could theoretically have two, three or even four acts in-a-row that were the subjects of those stories. The show’s content had to be spread out evenly, so we had to have lots of extra pieces to choose from every week. And if we had an absolute killer tease and hook on a record that looked like it was heading to Number One, we’d try and save it for that occasion. When Debby Boone was at Number One for 10 weeks, we all wanted to hang ourselves. There simply weren’t ten great stories to tell, although I did volunteer to date her if that would have helped.

Which is just the thing a young researcher looking to ingratiate himself with the bosses ought to do, dammit. Coming in the next installment: Casey sits down behind the mike and does his thing.

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15 responses

  1. “Every act that ever charted during AT40′s run had an 8-by-10 manila folder with bios, press releases, notes, interview transcripts and press clippings inside .”

    Man, to have that now…

    1. Yes, I have often thought that myself these past 30-some years. I’d especially like to have grabbed the Beatles’ folder –two, actually– that were filled with Capitol’s original ’60s press releases, no doubt inherited from Casey’s days at KRLA.

  2. Nice “get,” as old editors used to say.

    I remember Case busting on Steve Forbert for telling different stories of his life to different publications.
    Now I can imagine the behind-the-scenes picture of someone (maybe Scott Paton) sitting with a stack of magazines, going, “In *this* one his dad’s an admiral. In *this* one he’s an onion farmer.”

    1. That’s very funny and, on many occasions, more accurate than you might imagine. When there were discrepancies such as those, we’d do our damnedest to get to the bottom of them, but failing that, we’d say something like, “As Steve Forbert told “Rolling Stone,” etc, putting the onus on the act itself. When we we were pretty certain that tall tales were being told, we tried to write something that would put a “wink” in Casey’s delivery.

      And, of course, when Wink Martindale guest-hosted, we tried to write things that put a little “Casey” in his delivery. Sorry, couldn’t resist. And actually, I can’t recall if Wink did indeed guest for us, although he was there at Watermark on several occasions as he hosted our “Elvis Presley” mega-special. And Wink was the latter-day host of a show I wrote and produced in the early-’80s, “20/20 Musicworld.”

  3. jb, great interview … thanks!

    1. Hey, Pete! No one’s done a better job of chronicling AT40′s glory days than you.

      I’ve always regretted not taking more than a handful of the shows I worked on. Actually, multiple copies of each show, as I would have kept one and eBayed the duplicates! I often grabbed ones, though, and passed them on to the artists I had interviewed, especially the editions that featured their debut, an expanded story on them, or when they reached Number One. I’d say that a majority of the performers were really jazzed to have that keepsake, especially given the show’s unbiquity at the time.

      Good story: Our biggest discrepancy/deviation from one of Billboard’s published charts was when the magazine compiled the Top 100 songs of 1977. We were so adamant that their methodology was flawed in ranking Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night” at Number One –most of his accumulated chart points were earned in ’76– that we made Andy Gibb’s “I Just Want to Be Your Everything” ’77′s biggest hit. This endeared me greatly to Hugh & Barbara Gibb, despite the fact that my voice was just one of many in the chorus that led to that decision. When the Bee Gees had their network TV special in ’79, Hugh made a point of wearing the AT40 shirt I’d given him on-camera, and he let me know to look for it in advance.

      Another good story: This time Billboard tipped things in Andy Gibb’s favor, and it shows how chart rankings could be manipulated. Summer of ’78, and Andy was in the midst of his run at the top of the charts with “Shadow Dancing,” ultimately eight weeks, as I recall.

      But one Wednesday evening during that stretch, we got Billboard’s advance chart numbers at Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” had bumped Andy from the top spot. No surprise as, at that time, no record was programmed more heavily on Top 40 radio than “Baker Street.” So we blocked the show and pulled a story we had on Rafferty to tease the Number One song.

      Well, Thursday morning, as Casey was tracking the show, or perhaps shortly after he’d finished (I can’t remember if we had to get him back to the studio), we get an emergency call from Billboard. They’d gotten the stats wrong: “Shadow Dancing” was still Number One and “Baker Street” was stalled at Number Two.

      It seemed pretty dicey to us as the explanation we got from Bill Wardlow, Billboard’s chart director at the time, seemed a little self-concious and forced. Nevertheless, we had to quickly re-do the last segment of the show, and I think we even contemplated telling the story of what had happened as the tease-and-hook for Andy’s additional week at the top of the chart. However, we thought better of that, not wishing to risk Billboard’s ire.

      Well, by this time, Andy was a good friend of mine, and when I saw him a week or two later, I told him this story, thinking that he would enjoy it. His response? “Oh yeah, when we got the advance chart numbers, we (The Gibbs? Management? RSO Records? I dunno –SP) called Bill Wardlow and told him that if he dropped “Shadow Dancing” from Number One, I wouldn’t perform at Billboard’s Disco Conference in New York (Wardlow’s pet project) later in the summer.”

      I, of course, shared this info with the staff, and we assumed that Wardlow would eventually give Rafferty the pole position he so deserved with “Baker Street,” but it never happened. “Shadow Dancing racked up two months at the top of the chart, and Gerry Rafferty’s classic was relegated to the Numer Two Club for all eternity.

      Is that the only time something like that ever happened? Doubtful. It probably was a frequent occurrence in the first four decades of the charts, throughout the various trade papers.

      Meanwhile, back to AT40 keepsakes: I did keep a large, framed copy of the promo poster with the show’s original logo, an AT40 deck of playing cards, and the best show I snagged on vinyl was an old copy of the classic “Great Disappearing Acts” program, chronicling the Top 40′s top one-hit wonders. And I still have an AT40 T-shirt that no longer fits!

      1. “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”

      2. Ha! Elmore Leonard meets Hunter Thompson meets Wolfman Jack. Excellent!

      3. Sweet mama that “Baker Street” story is fantastic. Thank you sir.

  4. My pleasure, JB. It’s fun remembering.

  5. Love all the info here! Rob Durkee relayed the story to me about “Baker Street” vrs. “Shadow Dancing.” I think he wanted to share more about it in his book (“American Top 40: The Countdown Of The Century”-2001)but would have been up against some opposition there. If anything, Rafferty got the last laugh as his album “City To City” DID go to #1, while “Shadow Dancing” peaked at #7.

    Steve Orchard, Results Broadcast, Michigan

    1. Yeah, Steve. I remember talking to Rob about that incident when he interviewed me for the book many years ago. He may have been concerned about liability issues at the time. Personally, if I had been writing the book I’d have gone with the story ’cause with truth comes impunity, if not immunity! But Rob was getting that story second-hand, and Bill Wardlow was still alive then. As Billboard has changed ownership and management a few times since then, I doubt that this story (and similar ones from the Golden Age) would trouble them much at this juncture.

      As is often the case, there are probably just as many untold stories as those that are fit to print.

  6. Great stories, thanks for sharing!

  7. Hey, Sandy Stert Benjamin here! Thanks for the mention, Scott, and thanks to you as well, JB, for featuring Scott’s recollections. Being a part of American Top 40 was an amazing experience, which takes on an even deeper significance now that Casey Kasem is so ill. I’ve had several jobs during my career, but the nearly six years spent with AT40 remains my favorite.

    1. Hi Sandy,

      How nice seeing you pop here; it’s been way too long. I just left a voicemail on a line that was attended by the former Ernest Evans (tackle that one, trivia fans!), so I trust that you’ll receive it– it has my contact info.

      I hope you and Howard are doing well. I’d love to catch up with you.

      S

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