Casey Kasem, the internationally famous radio broadcaster with the cheerful manner and gentle voice who became the king of the top 40 countdown with a syndicated show that ran for decades, died Sunday. He was 82.
Danny Deraney, publicist for Kasem’s daughter, Kerri, says Kasem died Sunday morning.
Kasem’s “American Top 40” began on July 4, 1970, in Los Angeles, when the No. 1 song was Three Dog Night’s cover of Randy Newman’s “Mama Told Me Not to Come.” The show expanded to hundreds of stations, including Armed Forces Radio, and continued in varying forms – and for varying syndicators – into the 21st century. He stepped down from “American Top 40” in 2004 and retired altogether in 2009, completing his musical journey with Shinedown’s “Second Chance.”
In his signoff, he would tell viewers: “And don’t forget: keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.”
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It was emblematic of his sentimental appeal in an otherwise raucous business. While many DJs convulsed their listeners with stunts and “morning zoo” snarkiness, Kasem would read “long distance dedications” of songs sent in by readers and introduce countdown records with sympathetic background anecdotes about the singers.
“The idea from the beginning was to do the type of thing on radio that Ed Sullivan did on television, good, honest stories with human interest,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1975.
In recent years, Kasem was trapped in a feud between his three adult children and his second wife, former actress Jean Kasem. In 2013, his children filed a legal petition to gain control of his health care, alleging that Kasem was suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease and that his wife was isolating him from friends and family members. Kasem also suffered from Lewy Body Disease, a form of dementia.
A judge in May temporarily stripped his wife of her caretaker role after she moved him from a medical facility in Los Angeles to a friend’s home in Washington state. Jean Kasem said she moved her husband to protect his privacy and to consult with doctors. Casey Kasem developed a severe bedsore while in Washington and was in critical condition by the time he was hospitalized in early June.
It was a sad, startling end for a man whose voice had entertained and informed music lovers worldwide.
Kasem’s legacy reached well beyond music. His voice was heard in TV cartoons such as “Scooby-Doo” (he was Shaggy) and in numerous commercials.
“They are going to be playing Shaggy and Scooby-Doo for eons and eons,” Kasem told The New York Times in 2004. “And they’re going to forget Casey Kasem – unless they happen to step on his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I'll be one of those guys people say `Who’s that?' about. And someone else will say, `He’s just some guy who used to be on the radio.“’
Kasem was a co-host of Jerry Lewis’ annual Labor Day telethons, which benefited the Muscular Dystrophy Association. He also had been on the advisory boards of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, which criticized media bias and censorship, and the Washington-based American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
The son of Lebanese immigrants, Kasem was active in speaking out for greater understanding of Arab-Americans – both on political issues involving the Mideast and on arts and media issues.
“Arab-Americans are coming out of the closet,” Kasem told The Associated Press in 1990. “They are more outspoken now than ever before. People are beginning to realize who they really are, that they are not the people who yell and scream on their nightly newscast.”
Kasem was born Kemal Amin Kasem in 1932 in Detroit, where his father was a grocer. As a boy, he dreamed of becoming a baseball player. Instead, he covered sports as a member of the radio club at Northwestern High School in Detroit, where his interest in broadcasting began.
Kasem was drafted by the U.S. Army in 1952 and sent to Korea. He was an announcer and disc jockey on the Armed Forces Radio Network and also coordinated and acted in radio dramas.
After two years overseas, Kasem returned home and worked as a radio disc jockey in Detroit while finishing college. After graduating in 1957, he landed jobs playing music at radio stations in Cleveland, Buffalo, New York, and Oakland, Calif.
In a 1997 visit with high school students in Dearborn, Michigan., home to a large Arab-American community, he was asked why he changed his name to Casey.
“It didn’t sound like a deejay; it wasn’t hip. So we decided I’d be `Casey at the Mike' – and I have been since,” Kasem said.
In the 1975 Los Angeles Times interview, he said he had been doing “a regular screaming DJ show” in San Francisco in the early 1960s when his boss suggested he talk about the records instead.
He was unconvinced, since his screaming routine had brought him top ratings. But he said he had learned “after a particularly unpleasant situation in Buffalo never to argue with general managers.”
With files from Bloomberg News.