Category Archives: American Top 40

Great on the Radio

(Pictured: Rick Dees, which rhymes with cheese.)

I was driving the other morning, golden September light all around me, listening to an American Top 40 show from September 1976. I was not really paying attention, I have to say—there are other things on my mind this September, with more than enough weight in the here and now to make it less attractive to deliberately take on the weight of the past. I was distracted enough so that only a few bits of the show were able to break through.

—On that September weekend, eight new stations had joined the AT40 family, including WINO in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. WINO, of course, was the call sign in George Carlin’s famous Top 40 parody, “Wonderful WINO,” such an indelible performance that it seems strange for any real-world radio station to have those call letters. It turns out that Casey’s new affiliate was a student station at Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, but I have learned nothing else about it.

—The Rick Dees novelty “Disco Duck” was on its way to #1 in September 1976. A couple of years ago at Popdose, I described it like this: “It’s just a guy singing about turning into a duck and then, another guy who can do a duck voice speaks in a duck voice.” But the first 10 seconds sound insanely great on the radio, and the record is rich with Memphis connections. Dees worked for a Memphis radio station when he recorded it; it was produced by Bobby Manuel, who had been a studio musician at Stax and became a business partner of Stax co-founder Jim Stewart after Stax went broke. Before it was picked up by RSO Records, it was released on the local Fretone label, owned by the other Stax co-founder, Estelle Axton. So dim as it is, there are several reasons it sounds as good as it does.

—There are different schools of thought on how DJs should handle their levels. My preference is to run the music hot and my microphone hotter, so that the music is always very, very present. If a record is mastered to be really loud—as many records are nowadays—I drop the level of the music a little, but only a little. Other jocks will start with the music up, turn it way down when they talk, then quickly crank it back up to 100 percent. Casey’s producers liked to mix him with his voice at 100 percent and the music barely audible behind him. Only when he’s done talking does the music zoom up to 100 percent. This is fine if you’re listening in a quiet place, but not in the car. Unless you make an effort, you often can’t tell what he’s playing until he stops talking. It sounds somewhat better on the radio, where audio is processed to smooth out the dynamics, but on a CD in the noisy audio environment of the car, not so much.

—Also on the radio in September ’76 was the group Silver. It featured a future Grateful Dead member, Brent Mydland, on keyboards; singer/guitarist John Batdorf had been one-half of Batdorf and Rodney, known primarily to denizens of the cutout racks; bassist Tom Leadon was the brother of founding Eagle Bernie Leadon; the other dudes in the band were known only to their friends and family. The most famous person associated with the group turned out to be future comic actor Phil Hartman, who designed the cover of the band’s lone album during his days as a freelance graphic designer. The band’s lone hit, “Wham Bam (Shang-a-Lang,)” riding the chart in September 1976, is one of the most splendiferously 70s records there is, from the opening drum pickup and the big fat lead guitar to the sunny 70s harmonies and the singalong refrain. And it has one other distinctly 70s thing:

Now that it’s said and we both understand
Let’s say our goodbyes before it gets out of hand

It’s about keeping a one-night wham-bam from becoming more than that.

The First Chapter of Genesis

(Pictured: the marquee for Elvis Presley’s 1969 Las Vegas debut. A future radio icon was in the audience.)

Over Labor Day weekend, the American Top 40 repeat on stations around the country was from August 29, 1970. It was a rarity in that most of the time, when Premiere Radio Networks offers shows from 1970, 1971, or 1972 to affiliates, it also offers an alternate show for those stations who’d rather not air something quite so ancient. Not this time.

The show was the eighth one in AT40 history. Technically, this one is pretty sketchy, like the engineer was having trouble balancing Casey’s audio level with the music, jingles, and sounders. The timing is occasionally off—a record fades before Casey comes on, or a jingle or record starts a split-second sooner than it should. And the beeping synthesizer sounder so frequently heard on the early shows is everywhere on this edition, as if Casey doesn’t want to talk without some kind of sound behind him, even for a couple of seconds. Casey himself doesn’t seem particularly well-scripted—a song will play for three or four seconds before he comes on mike, hurriedly says something that sounds like he just thought it up, and barely gets out of the way of the vocal. He’ll give a title without the artist’s name, or fail to mention the chart position of a song—which is kinda bad on a countdown show.

This show contains a couple of random oldies. I missed Casey’s intro of the first one, due to a combination of bad levels and his tendency to hurry unnecessarily. All I heard was that it was from 1966, and I didn’t recognize it at all—some female R&B singer from Memphis, I guessed. But it turned out to be this. The other featured oldie was “Chances Are” by Johnny Mathis, a vivid example of why many program directors today aren’t wild about the shows from the early 70s.

I can only think of a couple of instances in which Casey mentioned his personal life on American Top 40—and one of them was on the August 29, 1970, show. He told the story of seeing Elvis in Las Vegas in 1969, and how Elvis came down to his ringside table to sing to his date and ended the song by kissing her. “It was the only thing she talked about for weeks,” Casey remarked. Then he told how he’d seen Elvis again a few weeks ago with a different date, and how he was careful to sit several tables away from the stage this time. The only similar instance I can recall was on a 1976 show, when Casey told about being a high-school classmate of future jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd and playing in a band with him.

(Listen to most radio shows for several years and you’ll eventually learn something about the person or people behind the microphone. But little of Casey Kasem the man, as opposed to the radio icon, ever leaked over into AT40. He was politically active, a vegan, a baseball fan, and an actor who appeared on Hawaii Five-O, Emergency, and Charlie’s Angels in addition to dozens of voiceover gigs during AT40‘s heyday, but he never betrayed a hint of it on the show.)

A person of scientific mind might find themselves in speechless awe when contemplating the Big Bang. A religious person might get a similar sense of wonder when reading the first chapter of Genesis. In my world, the ur-text is the Hot 100 from the fall of 1970. It’s where the things that have mattered the most throughout my life began to begin. And although I’ve written about that subject many times before, I intend to go to the well again in the next post.

Impossibly Long Ago

(It’s not my intent for this blog to become all American Top 40 all the time, but I suppose I could do worse. And I probably will.)

About a year ago, I wrote about an American Top 40 show from 1972 that made me feel as if I were listening to Emile Berliner explain how the gramophone works. The show and the world in which it was first heard seemed remarkably far removed from everything we are and everything we know today. Recently, Casey did it again, with the show from August 12, 1972.

Part of the way I reacted has to do in part with the way the late summer of 1972 lives on in my head. Songs from that season remain remarkably vivid—I must have had the radio on 18 hours a day in those two or three weeks before school started, hearing the top hits over and over and over again until they made a mark time can’t wash away. Not every season of the 70s is like this, but the late summer/early fall of 1972 definitely is. I can reach back and touch it in a way I can’t do with other periods in my past. So some of the stuff Casey said on the August 12, 1972, show is jarring in 2014 because it makes clear, in a way the music alone does not, just how impossibly long ago 1972 is.

Early in the show, Casey tells about a multi-talented star who had won a Tony, several Grammys, an Emmy, and a Best Actress Oscar, who was nevertheless blackballed when she tried to buy a $240,000 co-op apartment in New York City. The other owners feared that she would bring the wrong element into their building, which was home to Wall Street types and their high society wives. An era in which Barbra Streisand (pictured above) is considered too questionable a sort to hobnob with the Park Avenue swells has to be more than 42 years ago, doesn’t it?

Later, Casey plays Bobby Vinton’s remake of “Sealed With a Kiss,” the teenage summertime anthem that had been a #3 hit for Brian Hyland in 1962. As I listened, with a device in my pocket that can connect me to anyone anywhere in the world in a number of different ways, the lament of a boy separated from his sweetheart for three months and able to communicate only through letters seemed impossibly quaint. Did we ever really live like that?

Still later, Casey refers to Karen Carpenter as “a modern-day Patti Page.” While the metaphor would zoom over the heads of modern listeners on the repeat, it would have resonated with many AT40 listeners in 1972. Page charted her first hit in 1948 and scored steadily from 1950 through about 1963, and in 1972 was only seven years removed from her most recent Top 10 hit, “Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte.” So to compare her to a contemporary singer in 1972 was little different than comparing somebody who was consistently popular from the late 80s to the early oughts with one of today’s stars. And it’s a fine comparison, really—like Karen Carpenter, Page in her prime had a remarkably pure tone: just listen to her spectacular 1957 hit “Old Cape Cod.” But here in 2014, the comparison knocked me sideways for a second. If this show comes from a time when Patti Page was still relevant, just how long ago a time are we talking about here?

Come August, I am prone to feeling my age. As much as I love fall, the weeks before the seasons change can be hard to take. Maybe it’s a hangover from those days when we’d go back to school late in August and the calendar of life seemed to turn over with a hard and definite click. The clicks seem to come faster now, and there’s been an awful lot of them.

Some Kind of Wonderful

(Pictured: Grand Funk, whose “Some Kind of Wonderful” was #6 for all of 1975, equaling the year-end position of “The Locomotion” in 1974. You want trivia, you got it.)

The second half of the American Top 40 year-end countdown for 1975 was officially scheduled for the week of January 3, 1976. Like the first part, it was a special four-hour show. A station running it back then would have had to find an extra hour for it. Not until 1978 would the show go to four hours regularly.

If your local AT40 affiliate repeated the 1975 countdown today, it could be cut up strangely. When Premiere Radio Networks sends four-hour 70s shows to affiliates today, the first hour contains no national commercials, so stations are not obligated to run it. If an affiliate airs the show in a three-hour window, they pick it up at the beginning of the second hour, and the first hour goes unheard. So if a station with a three-hour window were rebroadcasting the eight-hour Top 100 of 1975 show over two weeks, they’d have started the countdown at #88 (the beginning of hour #2) and carried it through to #51, then picked it up again the next week at #36 (the beginning of hour #6).

I made some observations about the first half of this show in an earlier post. Here are a few thoughts about the second half:

Continue reading →

Never Can Say Goodbye

(Pictured: 70s revelers see in a new year, while geeky teenagers stay home and listen to the countdown.)

American Top 40‘s year-end countdowns varied in length between 1970 and 1973—the top 80 in 1970 and 1972, the top 40 in 1971 and 1973—but by 1974, Casey and company had settled on the top 100, broadcast in two parts, eight hours in all, over two weekends around Christmas and New Year’s. I have been listening to the year-end countdown from 1975 lately, and it might be my favorite edition of AT40 ever. It’s almost all killer and no filler. The crazed variety that made Top 40 radio so much fun in the 70s is clearly evident, and clunkers are few. In addition, although one of the strengths of AT40 in any given week is the balance between Casey and the music, the 1975 countdown seems especially well-constructed: anecdotes are brief, mostly recaps of a record’s chart performance or a quick bit of trivia about the artist’s career, and then it’s back to the hits. There are no lengthy stories or extras to slow the show’s momentum.

A few other observations:

—The survey year covered November to November, so a few key hits from the preceding year would always appear, and some from late in the current year would be missing. Casey reminds the audience of this repeatedly—I lost count after he mentioned it a half-dozen times.

—In compiling the top 100, Billboard listed several ties for year-end positions: “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” by BTO and “Third Rate Romance” by the Amazing Rhythm Aces at #97, “Never Can Say Goodbye” by Gloria Gaynor and “Cut the Cake” by AWB at #71, and others. This strikes me weird, and it makes me wonder about the methodology used to compile the chart. If there had been a tie for #1, I am guessing they would have found a way to resolve it, but maybe not.

—And how is it that “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet,” which hit #1, comes in well behind other songs, some of which failed to make the top 10 at all?

—When playing John Denver’s “I’m Sorry” and “Calypso,” the two-sided hit from that summer, Casey notes a survey taken among Miss USA contestants in 1975. They were asked to pick the “best man in the world.” The winner, with eight votes: Henry Kissinger. (Dear sweet naïve days of the 1970s, we miss you so.) In second place, with three votes: then-president Gerald Ford. In third place, with two votes each, a tie: Billy Graham and John Denver.

—At one point in the countdown, Casey remarks that 250 different songs made the Top 40 in 1975. The top 100 therefore represents 40 percent of the year’s radio music—a larger percentage than I would have guessed.

—At #63, Casey introduces “Only Women” by Alice Cooper by saying that it’s a change from Cooper’s usual brand of outrageousness, mock executions and so forth. Casey calls the song “a touching tribute to women.” And that is a monumental misreading of Cooper’s intentions. The song’s actual title is “Only Women Bleed,” but when it was issued as a single, Cooper’s record label titled it “Only Women,” and that’s how it was known during its run on the radio. By 1975 standards, it’s pretty graphic in its description of the life of an abused wife (“slaps you once in a while and you live in love and pain”, “black eyes all of the time . . . come watch me bleed”). It has the feel of a ballad, but Cooper’s delivery is more creepy than touching, and in fact, “Only Women Bleed” is as much a horror show as “Welcome to My Nightmare,” “I Love the Dead,” or Cooper’s other transgressive songs. Casey was not alone in misreading it: in 1975, almost everybody really really really wanted to believe it was about something other than it is.

I’ll have more about the 1975 year-end countdown in a future installment, probably.

Photographs and Memories

(Pictured: Mike, Casey, and Kerri Kasem in 2005.)

It’s only within the last 20 years or so that the average funeral has included a display of photographs and memories from the life of the departed. It’s a way to bring life back into the midst of death—a way to remember the loved one as the vibrant living creature they were, instead of the shell in the box at the front of the room. Surely a tribute to Casey Kasem, who leaves a trail of nearly 50 years on television, radio, movies, and even on the stage, would positively glow with memories of those triumphs. But the tribute show Premiere Radio Networks produced in his honor, weirdly enough, did not. Not really.

The two-hour show, hosted by Casey’s son Mike, now a radio jock in Singapore, and his daughter Kerri, until recently co-host of a syndicated radio show with Nikki Sixx, was offered to Premiere affiliates over the last couple of weeks, and we listened to it in the car while traveling this past weekend. It contained plenty of memories of Casey—what it was like to grow up with somebody famous, about his career as a cartoon voice, his quiet political activism, that he was a vegan and a baseball fan. It contained plenty of music, some thematically linked to the content of the show (a Paul McCartney song after the veganism story, for example), or songs that Casey especially liked (Faith Hill’s “This Kiss”). It was heavy on music from the 80s and 90s, with only a couple of 70s songs included—a reasonable decision given the need for the show to thread a path appropriate for both the oldies stations and adult contemporary stations that air the reruns.

What the show didn’t contain enough of, however, was Casey himself. He wasn’t heard often, and when he was, the clips were almost always from his last years on the air—maybe for legal reasons—after his vibrant voice had been thickened by age, and he sounded worn out. Apart from the first long-distance dedication, broadcast in 1978, listeners to the tribute show got little of the man in his prime. Surely it would have been possible to snip even a quick intro or outro from an old broadcast for most of the songs, but the choice was made not to do so.

There were some bits that were relatively new to me, and probably to most people. One was “Letter from Elaina,” which I’d heard of several years ago but didn’t actually hear until earlier this year. In 1964, on the air in Los Angeles, Casey received a letter from a girl who had met George Harrison after a Beatles show. Fifty years later, it doesn’t sound like anything special, but he recorded it with music behind it, and it bubbled under the Hot 100 for a couple of weeks in October. Listener letters eventually became a feature of Casey’s radio shows (and on his local TV shows in Los Angeles), and when AT40 expanded from three hours to four in 1978, the need to fill time gave birth to the Long Distance Dedication. A story I never heard before involved Casey’s struggles as a young actor sometime in the 1950s, how he had been assured he had won a particular part, only to never receive a callback. Telling the story at a banquet years later, Casey was interrupted by one of the people at his table, who leaned in to say he knew why Casey hadn’t gotten the part—he had. The other actor was Edward Asner. A clip from a Michael Bublé concert, in which he described what it was like to hear Casey announce his song “Home” as a #1 hit, included Bublé’s impression of Casey, which was pretty good.

By the end of the show, as at any funeral, I found myself thinking fondly of the departed, and wishing I could spend some more time with him. Fortunately, I had a couple of old AT40 shows in the CD bag.

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