This weekend marks the 52nd anniversary of American Top 40 with Casey Kasem. The first show aired July 4th, 1970. On that week the top song was “The love you save” by the Jackson Five. The Beatles had just fallen out of the #1 position with “The long and winding road” and a brand new duo named The Carpenters were racing up the chart with their first Top 40 hit, “Close to you”. AT40 became a phenomenon and the go to show for the weekly countdown of the popular songs in America (based off Billboard’s Hot 100 chart). The show also managed an incredible task: mailing out the albums to be played the following weekend to all the radio stations, which was in the hundreds. Amazing!
I can’t remember the exact first time I heard the show myself (I was a very young lad of 5 when it started). It was probably sometime early in 1974. But I remember the trumpet fanfare and a distinctive voice saying “Hi, welcome to American Top 40, I’m Casey Kasem”. I was hooked on the show from the very start. It became such an important part of my childhood. I listened to it each week, rooting for my favorite songs to make it to the top.
Over the years, several features were added to make the show more interesting:
- The long distance dedication. Usually some variation on a theme of two folks meeting on a vacation (or school/summer camp), falling in love and then having to say goodbye. It always seemed to be sad to me.
- Announcing station affiliations: “American Top 40 is heard in the 50 states and around the world on great radio stations like…” and he would usually list 3 or 4 stations and also welcome any new stations to the family. Several years ago I was listening to one of the syndicated broadcasts from the 70’s and he actually mentioned WFIR, the station that carried the countdown in my hometown of Roanoke, VA..
- Questions from listeners: An example would be “What artist has had the most top 40 hits without ever reaching the top 10”? Casey would tease the question then reveal the answer after the first song had played following the commercial break. Some of the questions were really good.
- Top songs of other genre: He would announce the top sellers on the Country, R&B and Album charts before playing that week’s #1 pop song.
- #1 songs of the 70’s: Later in the 70’s, the show started playing the #1 songs starting from 1970 in chronological order. Usually 3 or 4 a week.
- The jingles: Oh those wonderful jingles! And the show opening and closing theme which you can listen to here.
- Special Reports: Sometimes Casey would give details about certain songs or artists. One of my favorites was about “Jet” by Paul McCartney, a song about his dog. Casey said “So we called up Paul and asked him why he named his song after a dog. He said ‘Why not’?” Now that is hilarious!
Recently I was in a record store here in Roanoke called the Vinyl Vault. As I was looking through the selections, I heard the jingle for AT40 over the speakers. Then as a couple of songs were played from the countdown, I quickly realized it was from 1974. That is my favorite year of music and I still remember most of the songs that made the top 40 that year (and there were 35 songs that hit #1 that year). I asked the owner if he was playing from some type of streaming service. He said no, that he was playing a vinyl copy they had in the back of the store. I could hardly believe it! What were the chances of an AT40 show on original vinyl being in a record store in my town? Without missing a beat, I asked him if it was for sale. It was! He offered to sell it to me for a great price (a three album set mind you!). I immediately bought it. I hadn’t been this excited to get a record in decades! They were close to mint condition. Which I guess is not surprising considering whatever radio station played it, only played it the one time. Once I got home, I closed the door to my study room, put on the first record and was transported back in time to August 1974, when I had just turned 9. There were so many great songs on the countdown that week:
“Waterloo” – Abba. This was the Swedish’ group first foray into the Top 40, fresh off winning Eurovision with that song. I’m sure the fashion Abba employed early in their career give today’s current fashion designers fits. I can still remember the first time I heard the song as it entered the top 40.
“Don’t let the sun go down on me” – My absolute favorite Elton John song. I had the 45 and played it over and over. Backing vocals were done by the Beach Boys and Toni Tennille (who a year later reached stardom with her husband, singing ”Love will keep us together”). You can hear her distinctly at the 2:00 mark.
“Who do you think you are” – Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods, who were a very underrated group. This was their follow up to “Billy don’t be a hero” (so they were NOT a one hit wonder). Several years ago, I was at Coney Island and over the loudspeakers I heard a modern-day group doing this obscure song. I was never able to find out who it was.
“Beach Baby” – First Class. Great, great song paying tribute to the surf sound of the 1960’s. What’s interesting about this song is the instrumental bridge towards the end. It is taken directly from a classical piece, Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5. You can listen to the original here from the classical composition at the 1:25 mark. And on “Beach Baby” it starts at the 3:08 mark. A lot of pop songs have nuggets of classical pieces in them.
“Please come to Boston” – Dave Loggins. “I’m the # 1 fan of the man from Tennesseeeeeeeeeeee…”
“Rub it in” – Billy “Crash” Craddock. At 9 years old I thought this song was just so silly. I loved it though (especially the line “And a dab on my chinny-chin-chin”). At least it was a bit less confusing than “Midnight at the Oasis”.
“Tell me something good” – Rufus and Chaka Khan. One of the most unique songs of that era. As a kid I thought the “Tell me, tell me, tell me” part was being played on a guitar and made to sound like the words. It also sounded like the singer was hyperventilating as well.
“The Night Chicago Died” – Paperlace. This song had everything. A wailing siren sound as the hook, a spoken intro, a compelling story about Al Capone (who tried to make that town his own), the ticking of a clock up on the wall, and of course, a happy ending:
“Then the door burst open wide,
And my daddy stepped inside
And he kissed my mama’s face
And he brushed her tears away
The night Chicago died”
Na-na-na, na-na-na, na-na, na-na-na-na”
I do find it fitting that the show’s anniversary is on July 4th. Over it’s run, American Top 40 became an institution in American culture. I wonder how many young kids it inspired to become DJ’s? It did for me. And I was blessed to live out that dream as a DJ for 10 years doing an online oldies show. Thanks, Casey!
In closing, let’s remember Casey’s final words at the end of each show: “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars. And keep your radio tuned right where it is.”
What are your memories of listening to at 40?