(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on July 29, 2010.)
June 25, 2009 was a pretty rotten day. I woke up, turned on my computer, and read that Farrah Fawcett had died. I’d never been a fan of the actress but felt sympathetic after watching that television special about her fight to live and beat cancer. Then I opened the L.A. Times and read that Casey Kasem had recorded his last countdown show which was scheduled to air the Fourth of July weekend. On the 39th anniversary of “American Top 40,” he was ending his radio career.
This threw me into a real state of mourning. “Man,” I thought to myself, “If it wasn’t for Casey, I wouldn’t have had a career!” I was still dealing with my grief over that news when Michael Jackson died. Then everything went crazy. Later, many people expressed how unfortunate it was that Fawcett died the same day as Jackson feeling the media didn’t give her the kind of attention she deserved. Well, imagine how I felt about the press all but ignoring the end of an era: Casey Kasem—the best voice on the entire planet—was no longer on the air.
When I was just two years old back in 1964, my babysitter marveled at how I would sit in front of my portable turntable and listen to both sides of her daughter’s copy of Meet the Beatles. The seed of music was planted within me at a young age but for some reason, as I grew older, it wasn’t something I paid much attention to. I thought only girls bought records. In fact, in the 6th grade, I teased a classmate, Alan Tada, for having a record collection. But then, in 1974, I entered adolescence and made a very rough transition from elementary to junior high school. The teachers, previously more comforting, were more standoffish as if expecting us to be more independent. About every other day while waiting for the bus to go home, I got harassed and was subjected to racial slurs because I was of Japanese descent. The girl I liked from the first grade on and waited all summer to see again shot up a few inches, began walking like a model, and had a new boyfriend. I no longer knew how to talk to her. I was crushed. Suddenly, I longed for “the good ole days.”
When I’d hear older songs on the radio, they’d bring back specific memories of simpler times. Now, I regretted not paying attention to what had been going on all those years. Yes, I went through a mid-life crisis at the age of 12.
“American Top 40” had been in the background for a while, but I’d never sat down to seriously listen to it. So beginning in January 1975, I promised to do just that. I wrote down every song from #40 to #1, how much each hit went up or down, and any bit of trivia Casey Kasem offered. It was a way to understand the music currently coming out and to learn about past songs I’d missed out on. I could hear many of these records on local radio stations, but every week, I counted on Casey and that great voice of his to tell me how they ranked nationwide and place them in perspective.
And I asked Alan Tada if I could look through his record collection and if he’d play my requests.
I also began analyzing the liner notes of albums. After a while, I began to see everything as being interconnected. For example, Quincy Jones produced the Brothers Johnson. Quincy also used the brothers on records he produced for Michael Jackson and later got Heatwave songwriter Rod Temperton to contribute cuts to most artists he supervised including George Benson and Donna Summer.
And I had a great memory. By 12th grade (1979-1980), after studying Joel Whitburn’s compilation of the Billboard charts, my classmates could name any song from the late ‘60s on and I’d be able to tell them the artist, how high the record peaked on the chart, who wrote it, who produced it (and maybe who arranged it), the record label that issued it, and the company that distributed it.
During my senior year one afternoon, I was listening to “AT40” and my mother said, “You know, I wish you’d spend as much time studying as you listen to that show. It’s not like you’re going to get a job out of it or anything!” I agreed and felt bad, believing she was right. Little did we know…
Although I started out at Occidental College in the Fall of 1980, I went to the University of Hawaii at Manoa for a year and a half still very concerned that I hadn’t chosen a career path. In the summer of 1983, just before returning to Oxy, I sent a trivia question to “AT40”: Who sang lead with the most groups that hit the Top 40? Unlike most fans, I also supplied the answer—Englishman Tony Burrows with five: “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)” by Edison Lighthouse, “My Baby Loves Lovin’” by White Plains, “Gimme Dat Ding” by the Pipkins, “United We Stand” by the Brotherhood of Man, and “Beach Baby” by First Class. They ran the piece and gave me credit during my finals week at Oxy in December ‘83.
In March, I wrote a thank you note and, as an afterthought, asked if they needed a statistician because I was looking for a summer job. Producer and “AT40” co-creator Don Bustany tracked me down to my dorm and offered me a production assistant slot without an interview. He’d been impressed with my knowledge of pop music but thought I was living in Hawaii; now that I was back in L.A…
I started working at ABC Watermark, the show’s parent company, in April of 1984. After a couple weeks reading letters, Don thought it was time for me to see how they recorded the show. As usual, I caught the bus (I hadn’t yet bought a car) from Occidental. As it let me off on the north side of Ventura Blvd., I said to myself, “Guy, your life’s about to change.” I certainly got that right.
I entered the O’Halloran building and was told to open the door leading to the studio. I didn’t know where I was; it looked like a maze of brown walls. I heard Casey Kasem’s voice coming everywhere. But he kept repeating lines over and over. It was like someone kept rewinding the tape. Finally, I found the right door and opened it. The staffed looked up at me from their consoles. As I walked in, I turned to my right. There behind a glass booth with a dim light was Casey Kasem reading a script.
Shock #1: Casey Kasem makes mistakes! Constantly! I didn’t realize he kept re-reading lines until he got them perfect and left it to the engineers to edit out all the bad takes. Shock #2: They didn’t do the show live. As Casey introduced each song, the engineers played him the beginning of the record going into the vocal. And as he back announced it, they’d play him the fade out so he’d know how to match the tempo. Later, they took Casey’s voice track into the studio and mixed in the full records to create “American Top 40.” Shock #3: Casey Kasem didn’t know what he was talking about! Everything was fed to him by the writers!
During a break, Associate Producer Matt Wilson brought me into the booth to meet Casey. He shook my hand and said, “Welcome aboard, Guy!” My classmates were excited when I reported I’d met the legend, my idol.
Thank goodness for the archaic system the writing staff used back then: Merrill Shindler and Darryl Morden would type their scripts, make edits in pencil, then give them to me to retype. It’d then go to Bustany for edits. He’d scratch out stuff that was extraneous and add information that would strengthen the heart of the story and give the changes back to me to type on index cards which Casey would read in the studio. After a while, I could predict which elements of Merrill’s and Darryl’s drafts would be taken out. I’d absorbed the story-telling process and realized I’d be able to write the stories myself.
It took two and a half years of sending out sample scripts to syndicators but I finally got to write my own radio show, taking over Dick Clark’s “Countdown America” (later “The U.S. Music Survey”) in January 1989. That job lasted until December 2005.
I was actually in the studio when Casey did his infamous “Dead dog dedication.” “I’m So Excited” by the Pointer Sisters kept sticking in his craw. His reading of the letter sounded fine to me, but it wasn’t good enough for this perfectionist. He kept stumbling and finally blamed it on having to come out of an up-tempo record then being asked to deliver a “death dedication” about a dead dog Snuggles. He complained that making the transition was impossible. It’s probably one of the most bootlegged tapes ever and was later included on a CD compilation called “Celebrities At Their Worst.”
But while many have heard his four-letter-word-filled tirade I have the video in my head!
I think Casey was a frustrated actor. He came to Hollywood to make it as a serious actor, and although he got guest shots on shows like “Hawaii Five O” and “Columbo,” he never became a star. So I think when things went wrong in the studio, he acted out a lot. In 1993 when he joined me for the protest against the film Rising Sun, he told me with a voice of relaxed acceptance, “I like doing radio now. I don’t want to be an actor. I want to help Jean [his second wife]get parts.” By this point, I heard from people at Westwood One, where he went on to record “Casey’s Top 40” in 1989, that he no longer threw temper tantrums.
In 1985, Bustany, respecting my talents as a songwriter, asked me to fill in for Matt Wilson. I’d mix the show with engineers and listen with ear phones to detect pops and ticks on the vinyl until Matt came back from his lunch break and doing his errands. It was fun being able to decide which records to stretch and which to cut in order to fit the 45 minutes and 45 seconds we had allotted per hour without the commercials.
What was really special was later working with Don and Casey outside of “AT40.” Both were involved with the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee educating people about the ways Arab Americans were stereotyped in the media.
In 1991 at the start of the first Gulf War, with Arab Americans getting harassed just as Japanese American had been during World War II, Casey agreed to speak at NCRR’s “Day of Remembrance” program. It was a thrill to introduce the legend and reveal how much of an influence he’d had on my life. Casey ended his speech by profoundly bringing together our two communities: “They aren’t moving quite as fast today to condemn an entire ethnic group as before. And I believe the reason is here in the Japanese American community that worked so hard over the years to call attention to the wrongs of the past and to demand redress and reparations. On behalf of Arab Americans and all other ethnic groups in this diverse country, let me extend my thanks and support to all of you and your friends and your relatives who made this government begin to acknowledge the true loyalty of its citizens. Thank you very much.”
Without being asked to, probably every speaker addressed the unfair treatment of this latest minority group to fall under suspicion. During intermission, Don walked hurriedly toward me and exclaimed, “I am so impressed with the Japanese American community! You guys really have your act together! We [Arab Americans] have to be more like you!”
In July 1993, a year after I helped found Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), Casey and Don joined us for the press conference against the “Rising Sun” film. Casey told the assembled press: “Perpetuating negative stereotypes of Asians in entertainment—as we’ve seen in ‘Rising Sun’—plays into the hands of bigots with baseball bats.” He reminded them of the protest happening later that evening which he’d be joining “with my good friend Guy Aoki.”
Between 1994 and 1995, MANAA expressed outrage to KKBT FM’s management that its morning show, The House Party, kept airing skits mocking well-known Asian Americans (Mike Woo, Tritia Toyota, Judge Lance Ito) with fake Asian accents. As tensions escalated, host John London said he’d been to the South and seen blacks being discriminated against. By comparison, Asian Americans had it easy. “It’s like, What are you talking about?! You don’t know oppression!” I mailed Casey a tape of the broadcast, and he called me back flabbergasted. “Guy, this man is ignorant!” What about the internment camps? he asked, rattling off a few other historic challenges of being Asian in this country. He committed to joining MANAA at a Saturday protest at McDonald’s, one of the station’s sponsors that hadn’t responded to our calls to drop sponsorship of the program.
Casey was such a trooper. He was the first protestor on the scene, he spoke out against the House Party, and we got on the news. Monday morning, the disc jockeys were furious and ran below-the-belt skits mocking Casey and his wife. “Ooh, they went after Casey,” Bustany lamented to me on the phone. I called Casey up and said, “Casey, I’m so sorry!” He said, “Don’t apologize, Guy! This is good for your cause! No, don’t apologize! I’ve been called worse.” To him, this just showed the public the kind of guy London was.
I was impressed by how far Casey was willing to go to stand up for a good cause even at great risk to his reputation. Later that year and in 2002, he narrated a video I wrote, produced, and directed which chronicled the history of MANAA (you can see it here).
I joined Don in a protest against Disney’s treatment of Arab Americans. He and his wife Judy came to several MANAA award dinners. And from 1996 to 1998, while Don was president of the Media Image Coalition, I served as his vice president.
The Saturday before September 11, 2001, I attended a reunion of ABC Watermark employees at the home of Tom Rounds, the former executive producer of “AT40.” Many of my colleagues had since left the radio/music business and told me how lucky I was to still be making a living as a radio writer. Many remembered their Watermark days as the highlight of their lives.
In July of 2006, my sister and her daughters from Hawaii came to visit, and I arranged for us to sit in on a taping of Casey’s “American Top 20” radio show so my sister could get a rare glimpse into the making of a radio show with the legend, mistakes and all. Ever the friendly host, Casey, now 74, did his Shaggy voice from “Scooby Doo” for my 8-year-old niece. Alas, it was lost on her. Before her time.
This month marks the 40th anniversary of “American Top 40,” the best radio show ever created (well, before Ryan Seacrest ruined it). On this occasion, I humbly look back on the lucky break Don Bustany gave me which developed my potential and opened my eyes to career possibilities in the radio and music industry. It finally put to rest the nagging and frustrating question of what I was going to do with my life.
After Casey’s retirement, I couldn’t bring myself to call him. I didn’t know what to say. I could talk about the influence he had on my life when I sorely needed it, but I think he’s uncomfortable with praise. Still, let me thank him for all he’s done for the Asian American community and for elevating our causes to ones which all fair-minded people would support. Casey Kasem’s inspired me to maintain the same levels of perfection he insisted upon for himself.
Yep, I’m still keeping my feet on the ground and reaching for the stars.
Till next time, keep your eyes and ears open too.
Guy Aoki , co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.