In the Beginning, There Was Casey

If you enjoy the original American Top 40 countdowns from the 1970s, you’ll want to catch the one scheduled for this weekend. It’s the very first show, dated July 4, 1970. Casey was on only seven stations that first weekend, and although I won’t hear the show until this weekend myself, I’m told that it’s much, much different from what AT40 would eventually become.

I’ve said before on this blog that when I look at the record charts from the summer of 1970, I see my life mixed up in the test tube but not yet poured out. Songs that will be among my first discoveries in the fall begin appearing, and a few are there on July 4, 1970. Some are in the Top 40 already: “Tighter, Tighter,” “Are You Ready,” “Westbound #9,” “Signed Sealed Delivered.” Many more are in the bottom 60 or bubbling under the Hot 100: “Make It With You,” “I Just Can’t Help Believin’,” “Spill the Wine,” “War,” “Snowbird,” “Groovy Situation.” But in July 1970, I wasn’t paying attention yet. I was more interested in baseball. So let’s take five songs I probably heard on Mom and Dad’s radio stations, but otherwise missed.

72. “Big Yellow Taxi”/The Neighborhood (up from 92). OK, I do remember hearing this one on WLS that fall. It charted before Joni Mitchell’s own version did (in late June compared to late July), and rose higher (29 compared to 67, although Joni’s 1975 live version went to Number 24). The Neighborhood itself is mighty obscure—nine members, apparently; their debut album was the first released on the Big Tree label, which would later release records by Lobo, Brownsville Station, April Wine, Hot Chocolate, England Dan & John Ford Coley, and even Johnny Rivers and Wilson Pickett.

80. “Everything a Man Could Ever Need”/Glen Campbell (debut). When I was a kid, we would occasionally load up the family and go to the drive-in theater, which was located on the way into town from the farm. Mom would make a bucket of popcorn and a jug of Kool-Aid, and we’d enjoy the singular experience of watching a movie in the car. I cannot imagine through what alchemy I can remember seeing the movie Norwood, starring Campbell and Joe Namath, and featuring this song, but I do. (The drive-in is still operating, by the way—one of the few remaining in the Midwest, 56 years after it first opened.)

88. “Hello Darlin'”/Conway Twitty and 90. “I Wonder Could I Live There Anymore”/Charley Pride (debuts). Twitty had a long resume as a pop star, going back to his version of “It’s Only Make Believe” in 1958, and he’d score five Hot 100 hits in all between 1970 and 1976. Pride’s biggest pop success was “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” in 1972. There’s not much that’s pop about either of these: “Hello Darlin'” is a waltz with crying steel guitars; in “I Wonder Could I Live There Anymore,” Pride wants to romanticize rural life, but just can’t do it.

97. “Humphrey the Camel”/Jack Blanchard and Misty Morgan (up from 99). In which Jack and Misty do the only sensible thing given the smash country and pop success of “Tennessee Bird Walk” in the spring—turn it sideways and do it again.

108. “Wear Your Love Like Heaven”/Peggy Lipton (up from 112). With the success of The Mod Squad among young TV viewers, there was little doubt that if any of the stars could sing, they’d get a shot at a recording career. Lipton’s debut album, released circa 1969, included songs by Carole King and Laura Nyro, as well as some compositions of her own. (Larry Grogan discussed it at Iron Leg earlier this month.) “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” is the Donovan song, and it may have been the title song from her second album, although I’m having trouble tracking that down.

So you won’t be hearing any of these on AT40 this weekend. (Apart from “Big Yellow Taxi,” you wouldn’t hear any of them on the show, ever, because it was the only one to crack the 40.) If you can’t get AT40 out of the air where you live, we’ll be streaming that first show on Magic 98 Saturday night from 9 to midnight U.S. Central. It’s part of a whole day of vintage AT40 countdowns on Magic.

“Big Yellow Taxi”/The Neighborhood (out of print)

Casey Country

In my post about the repeat broadcasts of original 70s-vintage American Top 40 a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned how forgotten records of various genres populate the first hour of the show, and that they sometimes clash weirdly when played back to back. Those clashes are part of the fun of hearing the reruns today, although I’m sure they make program directors squirm a little bit—and to be fair, they may have made program directors squirm a little back in the day, too.

I’ve been listening to the May 22, 1976, show over the last few days, and there’s a stretch of that broadcast that makes you wonder just what format you’re listening to. It starts innocuously at Number 36  with Olivia Newton-John’s “Come on Over,” a song by Barry and Robin Gibb that was also a Top-Ten hit on the country charts. Up next at Number 35 is the highest-debuting song of the week, “I.O.U.” by Jimmy Dean. At the time, Dean was known to most as the star of commercials for his sausage company, although  he had been a TV star for years before that, and he scored a number of sizable spoken-word hits in the 1960s, including “Big Bad John” and “P.T. 109.”

May 22, 1976, was a Saturday; the previous Sunday would have been Mother’s Day, which explains why “I.O.U,” in which Dean describes how grateful he is for all the services his mother provided him over a lifetime by reciting them over a weepy string track, would have zoomed into the 40 from Number 83.

After “I.O.U,” which runs 5:57 (and which seems twice as long), Casey teases that he’s going to answer a question from a listener about the highest-charting answer record in pop history. Then he kicks into Gary Wright’s latest, “Love Is Alive,” at Number 34, and normalcy seems to return. After the record’s over, he answers the question: the top answer song of all time is Jeanne Black’s “He’ll Have to Stay,” a response to Jim Reeves’ 1960 classic “He’ll Have to Go.” Two more country songs, although both went Top 5 on the pop chart as well. (Hear ’em both here.) And after this bit of trivia, Casey moves on to Number 33.

By this point, a Top-40 listener could scarcely be blamed for thinking he’d tuned in the wrong station, at least until the Doobie Brothers (“Takin’ It to the Streets”) and Rhythm Heritage (“Baretta’s Theme”) set things aright, although Elvis and the Bellamy Brothers will be heard shortly with songs that were also big country hits.

Up at Number 24, Casey plays “Union Man” by the Cate Brothers. As I listen, I remember that four years ago this spring, National Review published a widely mocked list of the Top 50 Conservative Rock Songs, and I wonder why “Union Man” didn’t make the list. It’s highly ambivalent on the subject of labor unions, and the song’s protagonist would probably have ended up a Reagan Democrat.

Well I know I need to help get that raise
There’s one thing I don’t like
Tell me how can I feed my hungry family
When you say I’m going on strike
Hey hey Mr. union man
How’m I gonna pay my dues
Owe more money than I can pay
Looks like I’m bound to lose

YouTube DJ Music Mike has more on the Cate Brothers and “Union Man” here.

Both “I.O.U” and “Union Man” were at their chart peaks on May 22, 1976. “I.O.U.” would bring AT40 to a dead stop again the next week at Number 35 and “Union Man” would hold at 24. “I.O.U.” would be gone from the countdown (and the Hot 100) the week after that, while “Union Man” would spend one last week on the 40 during the week of June 5 before plunging to Number 96 and out. And 34 years after they ran the charts together, “I.O.U.” and “Union Man” stand as dusty, forgotten monuments to the unparalleled diversity of 70s radio pop.

Everybody Listens to Casey

I dig the vintage American Top 40 shows that run across the country every weekend. Magic 98 carries them; so does the Sirius/XM 70s channel. The first hour of the show is often hilariously obscure, juxtaposing rock thrashers, wimp-pop weepers, R&B stompers, and novelty records, few of which are ever on the radio anymore. But the remainder of each show, where the bigger hits live, is also a strong reminder of the incredible variety of 70s radio music.

The rebroadcast shows are edited. When you hear two AT40 jingles back to back, that’s where you would have heard a commercial break back in the day—there were lots more breaks per hour than we typically take today. Casey will tease an upcoming feature or extra, but you don’t always hear it.  The survey songs themselves are frequently edited, too. I’m not talking just about the standard 45RPM edits, although this show is often the only place you’re going to hear them anymore—I’m talking about entire verses hacked off to save time, sometimes gracefully and sometimes not. I suspect that this is occasionally done to fit the rebroadcast time window, but Casey and company cut them to fit the original shows as well. Their rationale apparently was that the songs were being heard repeatedly everywhere on the dial, so it didn’t matter if AT40 listeners didn’t hear complete versions every time.

I’ve long wondered whether some parts of the countdowns have been recreated—that is, if Casey’s bits have been digitally pulled off and then remixed with the music. That’s because the rebroadcast countdowns you hear from 1970 and 1971 seem to be in stereo, even though the show didn’t start airing regularly in stereo until 1972. After listening this past weekend, however, I’m almost completely sure that there’s stripping and remixing going on. The show I heard featured Firefall’s “Cinderella,” which includes the line “And I said, goddamn girl, can’t you see.” The radio version of the single heard in the 70s blanked out the “god” part—“And I said, [beat] damn girl, can’t you see.” But on the Casey rebroadcast, “Cinderella” appeared in its full goddamn glory. I’d bet my house that it didn’t air that way originally; earlier in the show, Casey aired the “funky kicks” version of Steve Miller’s “Jet Airliner.” The same countdown also featured the album version of Leo Sayer’s “When I Need You” instead of the single—and I just don’t believe that would have happened on the original show.

I’ve also noticed that the audio processing of the old AT40 shows can change from week to week. Some of the mid 70s countdowns sound incredibly hot to me—lots of sibilance on the high end and punch on the bottom—compared to others from earlier and later in the decade. It seems odd that if the show is being digitally reprocessed in other ways, they wouldn’t reprocess it to smooth out the differences, and maybe they do. I’m not much of an audiophile, and I may not be hearing what I think I’m hearing.

If you can’t recall a rebroadcast countdown from late 1978 or 1979, it might be because the show went from three hours to four starting in October 1978. This was due to the increasing length of the average pop single, although this was also the era when Casey started doing long-distance dedications, and each week’s show began with the previous week’s top three records. I guess it would be possible to cut the four-hour shows to fit the three-hour window, but I can’t recall having heard one.

One of the most best parts of the countdown to me is when Casey name-checks the stations carrying or adding the show. You’ll hear a lot of great call letters from major-market stations, stations that have long since abandoned music for talk or sports. Their brief, ghostly reappearance as music stations is a reminder that once, everybody listened to Casey Kasem.

“When I Need You” (single version)/Leo Sayer (buy it here, on a three-disc box set called Singles A’s and B’s, although 61 songs is almost certainly more Leo Sayer than you need. It’s probably one less than you’d expect, though.)

Keep Reaching for the Stars

Casey Kasem turned 77 last April. If you’ve heard him lately, you know that legendary voice isn’t as sharp and clear as it used to be—a contrast made all the more noticeable when you hear repeats of his older shows. Nevertheless, the little item that turned up on a couple of broadcasting websites last Friday was a bit of a surprise: “Premiere Radio Networks has informed its affiliates that they [sic] will stop producing new American Top 10 and American Top 20 countdown shows as of the July 4th weekend. PRN will continue with Casey Kasem’s 70s & 80s-based countdown shows.” With his apparent retirement, one of the most extraordinary careers in voiceover history is coming to an end. You heard him on dozens of commercials. You heard him as the voice of Shaggy in the original Scooby-Doo cartoons, and on many other cartoon series. You heard him as the voice of NBC-TV for a while. But the radio countdowns are what we will remember best, from “This is Casey Kasem in Hollywood” to “Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.”

American Top 40 premiered on the weekend of July 4, 1970, on a network of seven stations. At its peak in the early 80s, it was on 520 stations in the States and aired in 50 other countries around the world. Competing shows came and went—Casey himself came and went, leaving AT40 in 1988 and returning in 1998 for another six-year run—but Casey’s AT40 shows remain the standard against which radio countdown shows are judged. His “teaser” introductions of records, going into a commercial break by saying something like, “Coming up next, the current hit by the artist who played on more Number One songs than any other left-handed bassist in history,” became famous. (Practically every jock who’s ever strapped on headphones has done a variation on that technique.) His long-distance dedications remain memorable precisely because they were so cheesy. His explorations of chart history were fascinating to geeks such as I, especially during the era before chart books were widely available. But what kept you listening each week, and brought you back the next week, was the undeniable momentum inherent in a countdown show—you wanted to know where your favorites ranked. I’d frequently listen to the show with pencil and paper close by to write down the song titles. And when I became a program director in the 80s, one of the first things I did was to get American Top 40 for my station.

The earliest editions of AT40 were in mono—the program didn’t go stereo until 1972. In 1978, the original show expanded from three hours to four, but rebroadcast countdowns from 1978 and 1979 are edited down to three, so the long-distance dedications and chart extras are omitted. (The American Top 40 Wikipedia entry is full of fascinating facts about the show.) Back in the day, the shows were delivered to radio stations on vinyl albums, one hour of the show per disc, so somebody, generally a low-paid part-time jock, would have to sit there in the studio and play ’em each weekend. Thus thousands of radio people got their start in the biz engineering Casey’s show. Now, of course, the 70s and 80s rebroadcasts are digitally remastered, and most stations can automate the show so nobody has to hang around.

For someone as ubiquitous as Casey once was, he gave us few opportunities to glimpse his real, away-from-the-microphone personality. People like Dick Clark and Howard Stern are much fuller characters to us. The most unguarded moment of Casey Kasem’s career was that famously obscene off-air rant about an inappropriate long-distance dedication. He never seemed to give many interviews, and although he was politically active, he didn’t seek publicity in doing so. He was simply a voice—but to many of us, his voice was as familiar as the voices in our own families.