Get well, Casey Kasem: You've made me a better music fan

Jun 6, 2014

Casey Kasem counted down the Top 40 for years.
Casey Kasem counted down the Top 40 for years.
Credit Wikimedia

The Associated Press is reporting this afternoon that Detroit native and Wayne State University alum Casey Kasem is in critical condition with an infected bedsore at a Washington state hospital.  St. Anthony Hospital in Gig Harbor says the 82-year-old Kasem is receiving care for a serious pressure ulcer he had when he was admitted Sunday.  Michigan Radio’s Mike Perini has been thinking about the impact the former radio host has had on the current radio host. 

I loved numbers when I was a kid, and I loved music.

Songs and numbers made everything better: songs made me happy and sad and filled my head with delightful tunes. Numbers looked cool, they were reassuringly orderly, and they were fun to count.

In 1975, when I was ten years old, I found out that there was a radio show that put numbers and music TOGETHER—Casey Kasem’s “American Top 40”—and I was a goner.

It was immediately clear I would have to give over my life to the show each Sunday.

Casey would count down the most popular songs in the U.S., from number 40 all the way up to number one, and he had a casual but boundless curiosity about the music that drew me in.

I would grab a pen and cram as many songs and numbers as I could into those tiny diaries they used to have, the ones that only gave you about six lines per day. If you had asked me why, I couldn’t have told you--I was a junior scientist in happy land, taking down vital data, and that’s all that mattered. 

There was a Moog synthesizer theme that became an earworm for me, and there were perky little mini-jingles (♫ “Number Four-teeen!” ♫), all keeping my ADHD mind happily percolating.

“The hits don’t stop ‘til we get to the top!” Casey would say.

He’d have fun facts about the people making the songs, like the band Black Oak Arkansas, which had started giving away land (one square inch per fan), or he’d keep me hooked with the promise of a story, like the one about the musician who came to town with just “an old car, an old guitar, and $300.”

Who could it be? I wouldn’t get the whole story until after the commercial break, and after one more song.

Glen Campbell? Really? Why, he could have been making $300 an hour by that point.

­­­­­And, after three hours of gradually-building suspense, there was the sound of a drumroll… and there it was, the number one song of the week, the biggest hit in all the land!

I would sneak up and write down number 10... number 9... maybe number 8 if I was really lucky. And then my dad would come in, seeing me "asleep," and turn off the radio.

The show ran on the local station until midnight on Sunday, and there was no way I was going to be allowed to stay up on a school night.

I wrote down all I could until about song number 11, and then the room light went off. But I would sneak up and write down number 10... number 9... maybe number 8 if I was really lucky. And then my dad would come in, seeing me “asleep”, and turn off the radio.

One day when I was older, I would get to hear the entire top 40! But right then, I wasn’t going to try my luck.

This was a delightful little universe of songs, filling my head and heart with happy, sad, and silly new tunes. But Casey also had stories about classic hits, and sometimes he would even play these great old songs.

He’d fill me in on incredible moments, like the time in 1960 when “Are You Lonesome Tonight” by Elvis Presley jumped from number 35 to number 2… in a SINGLE WEEK! How was that possible? What mysterious force moved those colorful number magnets around the refrigerator like that?

Clearly the musical past was a strange and wonderful world, ripe for exploration. I learned to be curious about the building blocks of rock and roll and R&B, and about how they connected to the music of the moment.

Beyond classic hits, there was something more mysterious

Every week Casey would take a moment to tell me what the number one song was on the soul music chart and the country music chart. Sometimes these alternative number one songs were familiar to me because they also appeared on the American Top 40 program.

But other times, not so.

Just who was this Bootsy Collins on the soul chart, and what was a “Bootzilla”? And what did this country singer Billy “Crash” Craddock mean by his song title “Broken Down In Tiny Pieces”? Did he break because he crashed? I hoped to visit these other chart worlds someday.

Just who was this Bootsy Collins on the soul chart, and what was a "Bootzilla"?

There were songs I didn’t like, but there must be some reason they were in the top 40, right? I got into the habit of trying to figure out what made a song tick, and of giving an unfamiliar song or style a chance to grow on me. And because country songs and rock songs and pop songs and soul songs were making the top 40, I started to build up a pretty good music library in my head.

We moved from California to Maryland a few months before I turned 11, and I found I had to start my social life all over again and figure out a new me in a new place. Casey was a consistent companion through it all, the reassuring “Casey cadence” of his voice becoming a part of the soundscape of my life.

Even in the basement on a cloudy day, the radio was like a window, and the music was like sunshine.

Even when I felt unsure of what my friends thought of me, I sensed Casey was giving me a wink and saying, “Hey, kid, nice hobby you’ve got here. You’re cool.”

One day when I was 13, I wandered into the Blue Ridge News in Frederick, Maryland, and spotted it … a real live issue of BILLBOARD MAGAZINE, from which all top 40 information, and by extension, happiness, came.

It was really real!

Not just the top 40 but the whole top ONE HUNDRED right in front of my face (cue hyperventilating), and the soul top 100, and the country top 100, and… and… what?

Hits of the World?

The top 40 in Britain?

What WERE these strange songs?

Something called “Don’t Kill The Whale”?

Something called “Jilted John” by a guy named…Jilted John??

I was a world traveler, I was in nerdvana, I was the happiest teenager alive!

A coffee-stained page from my own personal weekly top 10 of favorite songs. Village People, Elvis Costello, Glen Campbell... why not?
A coffee-stained page from my own personal weekly top 10 of favorite songs. Village People, Elvis Costello, Glen Campbell... why not?
Credit Mike Perini / Michigan Radio

As the years went by, one musical association led to another.

I would read British pop music magazines to catch up on the UK top 40, and be exposed to reviews of folk, jazz, and Afro-pop records. I would catch up on R & B, and in the process learn about gospel music and other genres. I would trace contemporary country songs back to their roots, and learn about Hank Williams Jr. and George Jones.

When I was 16, my family moved to Michigan, and Casey’s countdown kept me company through a whole new set of life changes.

When I was 21, I started writing music chart trivia facts to Billboard’s Chart Beat column… and they started appearing in the magazine. My academic and job situations were not the greatest at the time, but there I was, “Mike Perini of Ypsilanti, Michigan”, nationally quoted... thanks to the hobby of a ten year old that had never stopped!

A few years after that I told a friend about my letters to Billboard, and she recommended me to the managers of Schoolkids’ Records and Tapes in Ann Arbor, who gave me an interview. I got a real live record store job, and from this delightful little universe came a flood of new musical experiences from every corner of the world.

Today, I’m as interested in hearing the number one song of the week in 2014 as I am in hearing some great scratchy old recording from 1914.

Thank you, Casey, for the songs, the numbers, the companionship, the musical education … and that reassuring wink.