(Pictured: Kenny Rogers and the First Edition with drummer Mickey Jones on the right, 1970.)
It’s easy to forget that ubiquitous institutions, things that have been familiar forever, had to be conceived, built, and developed. It’s a rare vision that springs complete from the minds of its creators. The unfolding of that developmental process is why I am fascinated by the earliest editions of American Top 40.
The show from September 5, 1970, displays some serious growing pains, and its biggest problem is with its host. By the time the show launched in 1970, Casey had been a major-market radio jock for a decade in Buffalo, Cleveland, Oakland, and Los Angeles. But on this show, he just doesn’t sound good. He’s ragged and weird and amateurish at times, far more than on other shows from the late summer and early fall of 1970.
At the height of his career, Casey was one of the great communicators in media. You got the sense that he cared that you really heard what he had to say. But he wasn’t consistently that way during the first year of American Top 40. It’s not just his early tendency to rush—to move from point to point too quickly. On this show, the problem is greater. Often, he’s just saying words without being especially mindful of what they are, like his brain has already moved on, thinking of what he’s going to say or do next. Which is what radio jocks do when they’re winging it.
Just as important as what you say is how you say it. And mindfulness is the difference between somebody who is talking with you and somebody who is just talking at you. This is why I have come to rely so much on scripting my radio shows. I almost always have what I’m going to say in front of me before I say it, so when I say it, I can concentrate on communicating the intention of a thought I’ve already had, instead of having to simultaneously come up with a thought and how to communicate it.
(This is something I didn’t learn until I was literally 50 years old, which was about 25 years too late to advance my career.)
If you know what you’re going to say, and how, before you say it, you avoid poorly thought-out ideas like Casey’s tease for Neil Diamond’s “Cracklin’ Rosie,” which he says was inspired by a bottle of wine—only he sings the word “wi-i-i-i-ne.” I have to forgive that one, though, because I’ve done that: some combination of firing synapses makes you think something is a good idea in the moment, but the tape reveals that it was not.
Eventually, Casey’s shows would be largely scripted, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the show became The Show and the man became The Man only after that.
To the extent that this week’s show was scripted in advance, however, the writing is just not very good. An example: introducing “Tell It All Brother” by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, Casey wants to mention that the group’s drummer, Mickey Jones, recently played the vice president in a movie. But the way he does it is a horrible botch. He says, “The group’s drummer, Mickey Jones, told it all in a recent interview. Let me make this perfectly clear. He was vice president of the United States. Not in a dream, but in a movie, Wild in the Streets.” Which is horrid writing. Trying to get “tell it all” and an irrelevant Nixon catchphrase into the bit makes it incoherent. I had to go back and re-listen to the segment to decipher it, but listeners of 1970 did not have the luxury of rewind.
Eventually, Casey would become a master of the tease. But on this show, several teases hang awkwardly in space. It’s as if he has notes he wants to use somewhere but decides on the spur of the moment where to put them. One tease that is well-placed describes Tom Jones as “a guy who could stop the women’s liberation movement, if he wanted to, with a shake of his hips,” which is in keeping with the unconscious sexism of 50 years ago, but is also crappy writing. (And not the only time Casey would refer to the inability of women to keep from swooning over Tom Jones.) Also sexist, and also something he would do on other shows: he refers to 23-year-old Melanie and 25-year-old Anne Murray as “girls.”
Coming next: I stop banging on the host and start banging on the music. Some of it, anyhow.