In My Opinion

Leonard Pitts Jr.: I once worked for Casey Kasem

 
 
Casey Kasem hosted American Top 40.
Casey Kasem hosted American Top 40.
AP

lpitts@MiamiHerald.com

He remembered everything about that night.

He remembered the song they slow-danced to — You Are My Lady. He remembered the play of the lights in her hair as he held her. He remembered her eyes as she looked up at him. He remembered wanting to spend the rest of his life with her.

But it wasn’t to be. Before they made it to forever, she died of cancer. So would Casey please play You Are My Lady in memory of that angel who was lost too soon?

I may have rolled my eyes as I edited that listener’s letter to be read on the air by Casey Kasem, who died on Father’s Day at age 82 after suffering from dementia. We rolled our eyes a lot in the offices of Casey’s Top 40, the radio show he hosted after leaving American Top 40 — in a contract dispute.

We rolled our eyes at the schmaltz of R&Ds — Requests and Dedications — like the one recalled above. We rolled our eyes at the arcana and minutiae of pop-chart trivia we were required to master. We rolled our eyes as we leafed through rock magazines, searching for anecdotes on the lives of debauched young stars that we could spin into the tales of pluck and success Casey loved. (“Coming up, a rocker from Cleveland who slept on bus benches while chasing his musical dreams …”)

We rolled our eyes. Then we did it his way.

Invariably, when people find out I once worked for Casey, they ask about the infamous outtake — you can find it online — where he’s cursing and ranting about a script that requires an impossible transition from an uptempo record to a letter from a guy whose dog has died. They want to know if that’s the way he really was.

In a word, no. I saw him every Thursday (production day) for over two years — late ’80s, early ’90s. The worst thing he ever gave me was a reproachful look — Casey was a hardcore vegan — when he saw me scarfing barbecue chicken pizza.

Otherwise, the Casey I knew was remarkably at one with the Casey we mourn this week. That Casey is probably best summed up in the words of the philosopher Huey Lewis who said, “It’s hip to be square.”

And human beings did not come at sharper right angles than Kemal Amin Kasem, a grocer’s son from Detroit turned DJ who, in 1970, launched American Top 40, a radio show counting down the top singles of the week. It was precisely the wrong time for that show. Radio was abandoning singles in favor of album-oriented playlists. And it was silly to think a nation still bloody from the 1960s would want to hear Horatio Alger tales and a corny signoff: “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars,” indeed.

People who knew about such things rolled their eyes.

But Casey had the last laugh. By the time he signed off for the last time in 2009, he was a radio icon — and also a television icon, the voice of Shaggy from the Scooby Doo cartoons.

Like Dick Clark and Fred Rogers, Casey understood something we often forget about our national character. For all the cynicism of our people, all the balkanization of our politics, all the studied disaffection of our celebrities, all our pose and pretense of being over it, Americans bend toward optimism. Toward hope and pluck. And toward a moving story, well told.

I sat in the studio the next day as Casey read the listener’s letter in that husky, avuncular, instantly familiar voice. He killed it, of course. To this day, in fact, I think of that poor guy slow-dancing with his doomed girl whenever You Are My Lady is played. That song was by Freddie Jackson — a former gospel singer from Harlem who used to sing backup for Melba Moore — and it peaked at No. 12 on the pop charts.

But the story was told by Casey Kasem, a grocer’s son from Detroit who was square enough to be hip while other people rolled their eyes. He went all the way to No. 1.

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