For decades, like uncounted other disc jockeys, Casey Kasem played the hits. But he did it as the host of American Top 40, a countdown show heard on more than a thousand radio stations in 50 countries. The program’s format was so simple that the chief attraction had to be not the music but the man behind it — the voice of the world’s most listened-to record spinner.
Kasem, who died today at 82 in Gig Harbor, Wash., after a debilitating siege of Lewy’s disease, was also the amiably doltish voice of Shaggy Rogers on the Scooby-Doo cartoon TV show. It’s no exaggeration to say that generations of American kids and teens, from the ’70s to today, grew up on a sound track of Casey Kasem.
In an era of angry radio, of bombast and discontent, Kasem brought the sound of anachronistic good cheer — puppy-friendly and syrup-smooth — that was its own apotheosis and self-parody (though Harry Shearer did a sublimely unctuous Casey impression on The Simpsons and on his Le Show podcast). On American Top 40 the Kasem voiced soared and swooped, like an expert aural acrobat, through promos, jingles and dedications, usually rising to a dramatic peak for the top-selling song of the week. The show first aired in 1970 on July 4 — an apt date for the national breakthrough of Casey Kasem, the voice of America.
Kamal Amin Kasem was born in Detroit to Lebanese immigrants who ran a grocery store. Like many children of Lebanese heritage who preceded him (Paul Anka, Michael Debakey, Ralph Nader, Danny Thomas, Helen Thomas, Tiny Tim) and followed him (Doug Flutie, Catherine Keener, Terrence Malick, Johnny “Football” Manziel, Tony Shalhoub and Vince Vaughn), Kasem had the big American dream. And, in a half-century of radio and TV work, no one sounded more like America than Kamal — make that Casey.
(READ: TIME’s Nolan Feeney on the Casey Kasem legacy)
After graduating from Wayne State University he joined the Army, DJ-ing for Armed Forces Radio, then got civilian gigs at stations in San Francisco, Cleveland, Buffalo and Los Angeles. With Don Bustany he dreamed up American Top 40, which premiered on seven stations and quickly became a weekend staple on hundreds more. He kept at it until 2005, when Ryan Seacrest, already ensconced on American Idol, assumed the role of America’s top host.
Among tons of TV voice work, including serving as the chief prime-time announcer for NBC, Kasem spent decades behind the mic as Shaggy. Modeled on the Maynard G. Krebs character played by Bob Denver on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Kasem’s Shaggy voice was an octave higher than his own, suggesting a teen arriving late to puberty, and occasionally sullen or fretful, but always supportive of his pal Scooby. A vegetarian, Kasem quit the role in 1995 when asked to do a Burger King commercial in Shaggy’s voice. He returned seven years later when the producers agreed that Shaggy would also be a vegetarian.
(SEE: Casey Kasem voicing Shaggy Rogers on the Jerry Lewis Telethon, c. 1986)
When the red light wasn’t on, the man with a mild voice could flash a molten temper — as in one famous YouTubed rant in which he was to read a death notice about a Cincinnati listener’s recently deceased dog. Incensed that the lead-in song was inappropriately perky, Kasem protested, “When you come out of those uptempo goddamned numbers, man, … and then you gotta go into somebody dying…” He eventually escalated into a rage that might leave Bill O’Reilly slack-jawed with envy: “I want somebody to use his f–kin’ brain to not come out of a goddamn record that’s uptempo and I gotta talk about a f–kin’ dog dyin’!”
His last years merited a more morose fury. Stricken with the progressive dementia of Lewy’s disease, he was left unable to walk, eat or — the final curse — speak. His daughter Kerri fought in the courts with his second wife Jean over Casey’s custody, finally winning the right last week to grant her father’s wish and allow him to die.
Whatever his private ordeals, his professional voice always oozed with optimism; he would end each broadcast with the motto, “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.” Casey Kasem not only played the music of the stars, he also reached the sunniest-sounding celebrity on his very own. Listening to him on the radio, you could hear America smiling.