Going ‘Through the Years’ with Casey Kasem and an imaginary ‘Weekly Top Million’
You were the voice of music for me as a kid. Not literally: You didn’t sing, you didn’t play an instrument. But in my preadolescent days, there wasn’t a single Sunday that went by where I wasn’t glued to the radio for the four hours it took you to work through the Billboard list of American Top 40 tunes.
Four hours! What could take so long? And yet it didn’t feel long, more like an adventure we were on together. You’d start out at the bottom of the list Billboard had determined were the top hits of the day, based on airplay and sales, and work your way up to the very tip top, where things got increasingly more exciting. I was 9, 10, 11, 12 – early in the days of getting how this whole music business thing worked, early in understanding how awesome music would make me feel, and the organization of the whole thing was appealing. Kids like black and white answers: Telling us who was No. 1 each week meant we knew what was good, and what was bad. Music, which had no boundaries, could be corralled and quantified. That was comforting, then.
Interspersed in all of that music playing you ran through trivia, factoids, history and those wonderful long-distance dedications. I took it all in like a sponge; I still can recall details I learned only through you in those pre-Internet days. I wanted to be Casey Kasem when I grew up, a person whose whole job was to know everything about popular music and tell it to the world. (This was before I made the connection to your voice-over artistry, of course.)
It was exciting, listening as the familiar list of tunes raced up the charts – this week, would Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” trump a far worse tune? Would Duran Duran’s “The Reflex” finally give them the No. 1 hit they’d never had but so clearly deserved? And why, oh, why was Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” still at the top of the charts after what felt like months? What was so great about that song any more?
Casey was there to explain.
You weren’t just someone I tuned into every week. If my family was in the car driving somewhere, we’d put your show on. Your rich, mellifluous tones were delightfully cheerful without being saccharine, thoughtful and informative without being overly intense. You had a classic DJ’s voice, in the days when radio DJs were allowed to have a voice, and it washed over all of us in the car as we traveled to my grandmothers, or to the pool, or on errands. It was like you had a place in the family.
And of course once you were a member of the family you were naturally a source of amusement – when we can poke fun of you, that’s how you know you’re loved. My brother and I decided there should be a “Weekly Top Million,” a version of your radio show that never ended (and mathematically could never happen). Once we had that idea, the question was: What song would be so terrible that it would sit at the very bottom of the Weekly Top Million?
“Song number one million,” we’d intone, trying to get your theatrical sound into our squeaky kiddie voices. Then we’d pick a topic that was near and dear and a little terrifying to both of our hearts at the time, since we were in braces and retainers and all kind of orthodontry – a song that had to be terrible yet chart worthy at the same time. That faux tune: “I Love My Orthodontist.” We’d collapse in giggles at a song that was that silly being sung, and never got around to song number 999,999.
It probably didn’t hurt that our orthodontist looked quite a bit like you, a thought that never occurred to me until now.
The fun-poking got a little more meta as we got older, though. We started making up imaginary long-distance dedications, those heart-wrenching letters written (theoretically) by listeners who just wanted to hear one tune that reminded them of a lost loved one, or which could get them over a difficult period, and they wanted to make sure it was shared with the nation. But we started noticing in the late 1980s that nearly every time there was a long-distance dedication that the song was always one particular song, by Kenny Rogers: “Through The Years.” It was sweet and bland and covered pretty much any imagined or real hurt a human being could have.
So we responded: During our “Weekly Top Million” giggle-fests, we’d make up fake long-distance dedications that could be read on the air: “Dear Casey,” we’d begin, “My car went over a cliff and landed on my dog, and I was climbing up a mountain to get help when my leg broke and I hallucinated the image of a chicken wing. So would you please play, ‘Through the Years’ by Kenny Rogers for me? It would mean the world.”
As I got older and started listening to music that either didn’t chart in the U.S. or didn’t chart at all, American Top 40 held less relevance. I didn’t really care about Aerosmith’s ascent or Bon Jovi’s dominance; why wasn’t R.E.M. everywhere in the Top 10? Or anywhere?
But you didn’t mind. You kept listing those hits, plugging forward, insisting even as the music industry began to change and charts fragmented into genres and subcategories to the point where being No. 1 just meant a song or an album was in a rarefied class, not literally the top of any particular heap.
And when you stepped down – not hiring me to do the job, I might add – and the position of American Top 40 host first to Shadoe Stevens, then later to Ryan Seacrest in 2004, I barely noticed. The closest I came to enjoying AT40 any more was on a rare car trip with the radio on late at night where a retro show from back in the day would run down the hits. That was fun, finding out the top 10 from the week of September 1, 1978. But it wasn’t the same. It was just a way to pass the time, hear some classic hits. I’d moved on.
Yet I knew you were out there, even if I didn’t know where. I didn’t know who was hearing your voice or what categories your top 10s were in your later life. And in reading how you spent your last few years, I was sad for you –illness and old age are not something on anyone’s top list of how to end your days.
And now you’re gone; poignantly on this father’s day your children are now mourning your loss, and my sympathies go out to them. But in my head, when I think about how music came into my life I’ll always hear your voice alongside all of the singers and the musicians. You were an artist, just of a different kind, and you’re at the top of our weekly top million this week, and all weeks.
So Casey, will you play “Through the Years” for me? It’s a heartfelt dedication from me, to you. Rest well, and thanks for all the music.