On With the Countdown: Happy 50th Birthday to the ‘American Top 40’ Program

If you were listening to radio station KDEO (now KECR) in El
Cajon, Calif. on the evening of July 3, 1970, you were one of the
first people to hear the very first episode of American Top 40, a
show that would become a pop-culture classic, and that would turn
many people (including me) on to popular music in general and the
Billboard charts in particular.

Casey Kasem kicked off that first countdown with this welcome:
“Here we go with the top 40 hits of the nation this week
onAmerican Top 40 — the best-selling and most-played songs from
the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Canada to Mexico. This is Casey
Kasem in Hollywood, and in the next three hours, we’ll count down
the 40 most popular hits in the United States this week, hot off
the record charts of Billboard magazine for the week ending July
11, 1970. In this hour at No. 32 in the countdown, a song that’s
been a hit four different times in 19 years! And we’re just one
tune away from the singer with the $10,000 gold hubcaps on his
car! Now, on with the countdown!â€

Before we go any further, I should pay off Casey’s trademark
“teases.†The song that had been a hit four different times was
“It’s All in the Game,†then being revived by Motown’s Four
Tops. The singer with way too much money to spend was Mark Lindsay,
the lead singer of Paul Revere & The Raiders, who had a solo
hit at the time, “Silver Bird.â€

The top 10 on that first countdown included hits by Elvis Presley,
the biggest act of the 1950s, and The Beatles, the
biggest act of the ‘60s. Also in the top 10: The Jackson
5
’s “The Love You Save,†which would become their third
No. 1 in a row, Carpenters’
breakthrough hit, “(They Long to Be) Close to You,†and a
politically-charged hit by The
Temptations
, “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is
Today).†Not a bad top 10.

Kasem was one of four creators of American Top 40, along with
Don Bustany, Tom Rounds and Ron Jacobs. All four men lived to see
the show become legendary, though none made it to the 50th
anniversary. They all died between 2014 and 2018.

Every generation, it seems, has had a show focused on letting
people know which songs were most popular. Your Hit Parade was
broadcast from 1935-53 on radio, and from 1950-59 on television.
Dick Clark hosted American Bandstand from 1956 to 1989. TRL was a
generation-defining show on MTV from 1988-98. (It was revived in
2017 and is co-hosted by former Billboard reporter Kevan
Kenney.)

AT40 boosted and celebrated AM pop radio just as that format was
being seriously challenged by album-oriented FM stations. While
millions of us were glued to AT40 wondering if Three
Dog Night
would land a fourth No. 1 hit with “Shambalaâ€
(they didn’t — that 1973 smash peaked at No. 3), millions more
had moved on to free-form album-rock stations, which played such
artists as Led Zeppelin,
David
Bowie
, Joni Mitchell,
Pink Floyd
and Little
Feat
. These FM fans wouldn’t know Blue Swede from
Paper Lace. Jigsaw may have blown it all “Sky High,†but these
fans were focused on the new Patti Smith
album.

If you’re a little hazy on your countdown lore, here’s AT40
101. The first show aired on seven radio stations. At its peak, the
show was heard on more than 1,000 radio stations in 50 countries.
At the start, the show was recorded in mono and distributed on
vinyl disks. It upgraded to stereo in February 1973. It started as
a tight, three-hour show. As hit records got longer, it expanded to
four hours in October 1978.

Casey hosted AT40 continuously through Aug. 6, 1988, after which
he was replaced by Shadoe Stevens. A TV version, America’s Top
10, launched in 1980 and ran through 1992, with Casey as host for
all but two years.

AT40 counted down the top 40 hits from the Billboard Hot 100 for
its first 21 years. The show switched to Hot 100 Airplay (now
called Radio Songs) in November 1991 and switched again to another
Billboard airplay chart, the mainstream top 40-based Pop Songs
survey, in January 1993. The idea was to have more “mainstreamâ€
hits and fewer urban, dance and rap songs. The 2 Live Crew’s 1989
single
“Me So Horny,â€
which reached No. 26 on the Hot 100 with
relatively little pop radio play, is often cited as the type of
record that vexed AT40 listeners.

The show ended a continuous, 24-year run, with Stevens still in
the host’s chair, on Jan. 28, 1995.

The show was off-the-air for a little more than three years, but
on March 28, 1998, it was back—and with Casey as host (but no
longer with Billboard as its chart source). Kasem, who had been
hosting his own countdown, Casey’s Top 40, for Westwood One for
nine years, returned to the AT40 hotseat and stayed for nearly six
years. Ryan Seacrest took over on Jan. 10, 2004, just before the
start of the third season of American Idol, which made him a media
star. He hosts AT40 to this day — an impressive, 16-year run that
probably doesn’t get enough credit.

Premiere Networks, which currently syndicates the show, is
planning a year-long celebration of AT40’s 50th anniversary.
Seacrest will highlight an iconic artist moment from the show’s
archives every weekend. Listeners will also have the opportunity to
win prizes throughout the year.

“Over the past five decades, American Top 40 has become a
cultural touchpoint for millions of people around the globe,â€
said Julie Talbott, president of Premiere Networks, in a statement.
“Casey Kasem created the gold standard that we carry on today,
and we’re so proud of how Ryan has expanded that legacy.â€

So why did the show become an institution? Casey was a master at
telling the stories behind the hits. Like Arthur Godfrey and Clark
before him, Casey excelled at the art of communicating one-to-one
with his listener.

Here’s a
comment
I found on YouTube that speaks to the show’s appeal:
“AT40 was such an important part of my teenhood in the ’70s. It
was on Saturday mornings on KJR-95 in Seattle and, when I rolled
over in bed on Saturday mornings and heard Casey say ‘on with the
countdown!’, regardless of the amount of crap that went on at
home or in school that week, I knew that everything was okay with
the world.â€

There’s a lot to that. AT40 launched just two months after the
Kent State tragedy stunned America. The show, with Casey as host,
was on throughout Watergate, the fall of Saigon, the Iranian
hostage crisis, the early years of the AIDS epidemic, the
Challenger disaster and much more tumult. But every week, you could
count on Casey’s soothing tones and a certain orderliness. The
song at No. 37, we were assured, was just a little more popular
that week than the song we just heard at No. 38. Here, at least,
things seemed to be under control.

In a
2011 essay
in the New York Times Magazine, Rob Walker wrote
that nowadays people can and do live in their own self-curated
cocoons. “Surely we’ve gained something from the
culture-slicing tech tools that give us so much control over the
pop media we consume,†he noted. “But we’ve lost something
too. Having an official and definitive gauge of the undisputed pop
champion of the week was actually kind of a great thing. It was
joyful to root for a song you liked as it climbed the charts and
gratifying when it reached the pinnacle. And it was even more fun
to be appalled at everyone else’s bad taste when the chart-topper
was an irritating stinker.â€

Nobody would call AT40 an educational program, but I learned a
lot from it listening to it in the ‘70s. Occasionally, they did
“special reports.†When Musical Youth
was in the countdown in early 1983 with “Pass the Dutchie,â€
they did a report on the history of reggae music.

Some of the periodic special countdowns were fairly ambitious.
“Top 40 Songs of the Rock Era 1955-1972†(July 1972) reached
back for such ‘50s hits as Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen
Tons†and Gogi Grant’s
“The Wayward Wind,†which were new to me at the time. The show
may have gotten too ambitious for its own good with its
Bicentennial special, “#1 July 4 Songs of the Past 40 Yearsâ€
(July 1976). Nearly half of those songs predated the 1955 start of
the rock era.

Casey and his team counted down the top 40 albums on the
Billboard 200 for one special (August 1972). They spotlighted the
top 10 producers of the 1970s (October 1974), giving four examples
each producer’s work. “Top 40 Hits of The Beatles: Together and
Apart†(July 1981) was another interesting concept. And they had
at least two incarnations of the “AT40 Book of Records,†the
reverent undertones in the title intended.

AT40 has always emphasized the positive, though surely no artist
wants to be the subject of a “whatever happened to?†featurette
or, even worse, be included in the “Top 40 Disappearing Actsâ€
countdown, which they aired at least twice (in July 1973 and again
in April 1975).

AT40 launched the same year that Joel Whitburn began publishing
his
series of research books
chronicling the Billboard charts.
These two events did much to raise Billboard’s profile with music
fans. By 1970, Billboard had been publishing for more than 75
years, but AT40 and the Whitburn books went a long way toward
making the magazine virtually as well known among the general
public as it had long been in the music industry.

Kasem was inducted into the NAB Broadcasting Hall of Fame in
their radio division in 1985 and the National Radio Hall of
Fame
 in 1992. But not everything went his way. While fellow DJ
(and future countdown rival) Rick Dees landed a
No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1976 with the novelty smash
“Disco Duck,†the closest Casey came to a hit was the
spoken-word entry “Letter from Elaina,†which bubbled under the
Hot 100 in 1964. While the theme from Don Cornelius’ Soul Train
became a No. 1 Hot 100 hit in 1974 (as MFSB’s “TSOP (The Sound
of Philadelphiaâ€), the AT40 theme, the funky instrumental
“Shuckatoom,â€
never charted.

This 50th birthday tribute wouldn’t be complete without some
AT40 trivia.

The first song played on the first AT40 show (ironically, given
its title): Marvin Gaye’s
“The End of Our Roadâ€

The first No. 1 song on the first show: Three Dog Night’s
“Mama Told Me (Not to Come)â€

The first “Long-Distance Dedication†(in 1978): Neil Diamond’s
“Desiréeâ€

The longest-running No. 1 in the 21 years the show was based on
the Billboard Hot 100: (a tie!) Debby Boone’s
“You Light Up My Life†and Kim Carnes’
“Bette Davis Eyes†(10 weeks each)

The most frequent guest host: Charlie Van Dyke (31 times at the
mic in the ‘80s)

And here’s a second “AT40 extra†– something you may not
know about each of the co-creators of AT40.

Kasem: Casey voiced Shaggy in the Scooby-Doo franchise from
1969-97 and again from 2002-09. In 1984, Casey had a voice-over
cameo in the year’s top box office hit, Ghostbusters.

Bustany: In addition to writing and producing AT40 in the
show’s early years, Bustany worked for MTM Productions. He was
technical coordinator on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. (You can spot
his name in the end credits of
every episode.)

Jacobs: The broadcasting giant was the program director of KHJ
in Los Angeles during its market-dominating “Boss Radio†period
(1965–69).

Rounds: TR (as everyone called him) was program director of KFRC
in San Francisco in the mid-‘60s. He quit that job in the fall of
1967; his decision to leave was documented
on the front cover
of the very first issue of Rolling
Stone.

A personal note: I worked part-time as a production assistant on
AT40 for about a year in 1975-76 (while I was also breaking in at
Billboard — and finishing my last year of college). In 1975,
Casey hired me to write a new press bio for him. He paid me the
princely sum of $100. (I didn’t tell him, but I would have done
it for free.)

I was and still am a huge fan of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. When
Don learned that, he got me into two afternoon “run-throughsâ€
of the show on the MTM lot in Studio City, Calif., a short drive
from Watermark’s offices in Universal City. I am still grateful
for that act of kindness.

Let’s all honor Casey by heeding the simple but sage advice he
doled out at the end of every episode: “Keep your feet on the
ground and keep reaching for the stars.

If you were listening to radio station KDEO (now KECR) in El
Cajon, Calif. on the evening of July 3, 1970, you were one of the
first people to hear the very first episode of American Top 40, a
show that would become a pop-culture classic, and that would turn
many people (including me) on to popular music in general and the
Billboard charts in particular.
Casey Kasem kicked off that first countdown with this welcome:
“Here we go with the top 40 hits of the nation this week
onAmerican Top 40 — the best-selling and most-played songs from
the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Canada to Mexico. This is Casey
Kasem in Hollywood, and in the next three hours, we’ll count down
the 40 most popular hits in the United States this week, hot off
the record charts of Billboard magazine for the week ending July
11, 1970. In this hour at No. 32 in the countdown, a song that’s
been a hit four different times in 19 years! And we’re just one
tune away from the singer with the $10,000 gold hubcaps on his
car! Now, on with the countdown!â€
Before we go any further, I should pay off Casey’s trademark
“teases.†The song that had been a hit four different times was
“It’s All in the Game,†then being revived by Motown’s Four
Tops. The singer with way too much money to spend was Mark Lindsay,
the lead singer of Paul Revere & The Raiders, who had a solo
hit at the time, “Silver Bird.â€

The top 10 on that first countdown included hits by Elvis Presley,
the biggest act of the 1950s, and The Beatles, the
biggest act of the ‘60s. Also in the top 10: The Jackson
5’s “The Love You Save,†which would become their third
No. 1 in a row, Carpenters’
breakthrough hit, “(They Long to Be) Close to You,†and a
politically-charged hit by The
Temptations, “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is
Today).†Not a bad top 10.
Kasem was one of four creators of American Top 40, along with
Don Bustany, Tom Rounds and Ron Jacobs. All four men lived to see
the show become legendary, though none made it to the 50th
anniversary. They all died between 2014 and 2018.
Every generation, it seems, has had a show focused on letting
people know which songs were most popular. Your Hit Parade was
broadcast from 1935-53 on radio, and from 1950-59 on television.
Dick Clark hosted American Bandstand from 1956 to 1989. TRL was a
generation-defining show on MTV from 1988-98. (It was revived in
2017 and is co-hosted by former Billboard reporter Kevan
Kenney.)

AT40 boosted and celebrated AM pop radio just as that format was
being seriously challenged by album-oriented FM stations. While
millions of us were glued to AT40 wondering if Three
Dog Night would land a fourth No. 1 hit with “Shambalaâ€
(they didn’t — that 1973 smash peaked at No. 3), millions more
had moved on to free-form album-rock stations, which played such
artists as Led Zeppelin,
David
Bowie, Joni Mitchell,
Pink Floyd
and Little
Feat. These FM fans wouldn’t know Blue Swede from
Paper Lace. Jigsaw may have blown it all “Sky High,†but these
fans were focused on the new Patti Smith
album.
If you’re a little hazy on your countdown lore, here’s AT40
101. The first show aired on seven radio stations. At its peak, the
show was heard on more than 1,000 radio stations in 50 countries.
At the start, the show was recorded in mono and distributed on
vinyl disks. It upgraded to stereo in February 1973. It started as
a tight, three-hour show. As hit records got longer, it expanded to
four hours in October 1978.
Casey hosted AT40 continuously through Aug. 6, 1988, after which
he was replaced by Shadoe Stevens. A TV version, America’s Top
10, launched in 1980 and ran through 1992, with Casey as host for
all but two years.

AT40 counted down the top 40 hits from the Billboard Hot 100 for
its first 21 years. The show switched to Hot 100 Airplay (now
called Radio Songs) in November 1991 and switched again to another
Billboard airplay chart, the mainstream top 40-based Pop Songs
survey, in January 1993. The idea was to have more “mainstreamâ€
hits and fewer urban, dance and rap songs. The 2 Live Crew’s 1989
single
“Me So Horny,†which reached No. 26 on the Hot 100 with
relatively little pop radio play, is often cited as the type of
record that vexed AT40 listeners.
The show ended a continuous, 24-year run, with Stevens still in
the host’s chair, on Jan. 28, 1995.
The show was off-the-air for a little more than three years, but
on March 28, 1998, it was back—and with Casey as host (but no
longer with Billboard as its chart source). Kasem, who had been
hosting his own countdown, Casey’s Top 40, for Westwood One for
nine years, returned to the AT40 hotseat and stayed for nearly six
years. Ryan Seacrest took over on Jan. 10, 2004, just before the
start of the third season of American Idol, which made him a media
star. He hosts AT40 to this day — an impressive, 16-year run that
probably doesn’t get enough credit.

Premiere Networks, which currently syndicates the show, is
planning a year-long celebration of AT40’s 50th anniversary.
Seacrest will highlight an iconic artist moment from the show’s
archives every weekend. Listeners will also have the opportunity to
win prizes throughout the year.
“Over the past five decades, American Top 40 has become a
cultural touchpoint for millions of people around the globe,â€
said Julie Talbott, president of Premiere Networks, in a statement.
“Casey Kasem created the gold standard that we carry on today,
and we’re so proud of how Ryan has expanded that legacy.â€
So why did the show become an institution? Casey was a master at
telling the stories behind the hits. Like Arthur Godfrey and Clark
before him, Casey excelled at the art of communicating one-to-one
with his listener.

Here’s a
comment I found on YouTube that speaks to the show’s appeal:
“AT40 was such an important part of my teenhood in the ’70s. It
was on Saturday mornings on KJR-95 in Seattle and, when I rolled
over in bed on Saturday mornings and heard Casey say ‘on with the
countdown!’, regardless of the amount of crap that went on at
home or in school that week, I knew that everything was okay with
the world.â€
There’s a lot to that. AT40 launched just two months after the
Kent State tragedy stunned America. The show, with Casey as host,
was on throughout Watergate, the fall of Saigon, the Iranian
hostage crisis, the early years of the AIDS epidemic, the
Challenger disaster and much more tumult. But every week, you could
count on Casey’s soothing tones and a certain orderliness. The
song at No. 37, we were assured, was just a little more popular
that week than the song we just heard at No. 38. Here, at least,
things seemed to be under control.
In a
2011 essay in the New York Times Magazine, Rob Walker wrote
that nowadays people can and do live in their own self-curated
cocoons. “Surely we’ve gained something from the
culture-slicing tech tools that give us so much control over the
pop media we consume,†he noted. “But we’ve lost something
too. Having an official and definitive gauge of the undisputed pop
champion of the week was actually kind of a great thing. It was
joyful to root for a song you liked as it climbed the charts and
gratifying when it reached the pinnacle. And it was even more fun
to be appalled at everyone else’s bad taste when the chart-topper
was an irritating stinker.â€

Nobody would call AT40 an educational program, but I learned a
lot from it listening to it in the ‘70s. Occasionally, they did
“special reports.†When Musical Youth
was in the countdown in early 1983 with “Pass the Dutchie,â€
they did a report on the history of reggae music.
Some of the periodic special countdowns were fairly ambitious.
“Top 40 Songs of the Rock Era 1955-1972†(July 1972) reached
back for such ‘50s hits as Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen
Tons†and Gogi Grant’s
“The Wayward Wind,†which were new to me at the time. The show
may have gotten too ambitious for its own good with its
Bicentennial special, “#1 July 4 Songs of the Past 40 Yearsâ€
(July 1976). Nearly half of those songs predated the 1955 start of
the rock era.
Casey and his team counted down the top 40 albums on the
Billboard 200 for one special (August 1972). They spotlighted the
top 10 producers of the 1970s (October 1974), giving four examples
each producer’s work. “Top 40 Hits of The Beatles: Together and
Apart†(July 1981) was another interesting concept. And they had
at least two incarnations of the “AT40 Book of Records,†the
reverent undertones in the title intended.

AT40 has always emphasized the positive, though surely no artist
wants to be the subject of a “whatever happened to?†featurette
or, even worse, be included in the “Top 40 Disappearing Actsâ€
countdown, which they aired at least twice (in July 1973 and again
in April 1975).
AT40 launched the same year that Joel Whitburn began publishing
his
series of research books chronicling the Billboard charts.
These two events did much to raise Billboard’s profile with music
fans. By 1970, Billboard had been publishing for more than 75
years, but AT40 and the Whitburn books went a long way toward
making the magazine virtually as well known among the general
public as it had long been in the music industry.
Kasem was inducted into the NAB Broadcasting Hall of Fame in
their radio division in 1985 and the National Radio Hall of
Fame in 1992. But not everything went his way. While fellow DJ
(and future countdown rival) Rick Dees landed a
No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1976 with the novelty smash
“Disco Duck,†the closest Casey came to a hit was the
spoken-word entry “Letter from Elaina,†which bubbled under the
Hot 100 in 1964. While the theme from Don Cornelius’ Soul Train
became a No. 1 Hot 100 hit in 1974 (as MFSB’s “TSOP (The Sound
of Philadelphiaâ€), the AT40 theme, the funky instrumental
“Shuckatoom,â€
never charted.

This 50th birthday tribute wouldn’t be complete without some
AT40 trivia.
The first song played on the first AT40 show (ironically, given
its title): Marvin Gaye’s
“The End of Our Roadâ€
The first No. 1 song on the first show: Three Dog Night’s
“Mama Told Me (Not to Come)â€
The first “Long-Distance Dedication†(in 1978): Neil Diamond’s
“Desiréeâ€
The longest-running No. 1 in the 21 years the show was based on
the Billboard Hot 100: (a tie!) Debby Boone’s
“You Light Up My Life†and Kim Carnes’
“Bette Davis Eyes†(10 weeks each)
The most frequent guest host: Charlie Van Dyke (31 times at the
mic in the ‘80s)

And here’s a second “AT40 extra†– something you may not
know about each of the co-creators of AT40.
Kasem: Casey voiced Shaggy in the Scooby-Doo franchise from
1969-97 and again from 2002-09. In 1984, Casey had a voice-over
cameo in the year’s top box office hit, Ghostbusters.
Bustany: In addition to writing and producing AT40 in the
show’s early years, Bustany worked for MTM Productions. He was
technical coordinator on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. (You can spot
his name in the end credits of
every episode.)
Jacobs: The broadcasting giant was the program director of KHJ
in Los Angeles during its market-dominating “Boss Radio†period
(1965–69).
Rounds: TR (as everyone called him) was program director of KFRC
in San Francisco in the mid-‘60s. He quit that job in the fall of
1967; his decision to leave was documented
on the front cover of the very first issue of Rolling
Stone.

A personal note: I worked part-time as a production assistant on
AT40 for about a year in 1975-76 (while I was also breaking in at
Billboard — and finishing my last year of college). In 1975,
Casey hired me to write a new press bio for him. He paid me the
princely sum of $100. (I didn’t tell him, but I would have done
it for free.)
I was and still am a huge fan of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. When
Don learned that, he got me into two afternoon “run-throughsâ€
of the show on the MTM lot in Studio City, Calif., a short drive
from Watermark’s offices in Universal City. I am still grateful
for that act of kindness.
Let’s all honor Casey by heeding the simple but sage advice he
doled out at the end of every episode: “Keep your feet on the
ground and keep reaching for the stars.

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