(July 4, 2020). To me and the millions of other listeners who listened weekly to the world-famous pop music countdown show “American Top 40 with Casey Kasem” every weekend, it was a chance to escape all of the world’s problems – and our own – and see where our favorite songs ranked among many others across these 50 United States.
This weekend, many of us have been celebrating the show’s 50th anniversary while listening to re-airings of the first episode. For a handful of us who’ve been part of an AT40 Facebook community for the past six years or so – since Casey Kasem’s death in 2014 – the celebration included a first-in-a-lifetime chance to interact via an unforgettable July 3 Zoom call with some of those who worked on the show directly with Casey or who had family ties to him or the show’s other co-founders (thanks to Steven Camhi and former AT40 staffer Guy Aoki for hosting the Zoom call!).
American Top 40 debuted July 4th weekend in 1970 on seven radio stations covering just ten radio markets. At the time, Top 40 radio wasn’t the most popular it had been – or would be – to audiences across America. So a fledgling show like AT40, which from its debut and for the next 21 years would take its Top 40 rankings from Billboard Magazine’s weekly Hot 100 chart, was certainly a financial risk for Watermark – the company that produced the show – and a programming risk for any stations willing to take it on.
But AT40 went on the air that July 4th weekend, six year’s shy of America’s bicentennial, with co-founders Tom Rounds, Don Bustany and Ron Jacobs, plus veteran rock disc jockey Casey Kasem at the mic, bringing to those ten markets the 40 most popular tunes “from the Atlantic coast to Waikiki Beach and from Canada to Mexico.”
As I was only four at the time, I wouldn’t discover the show for another seven years, by which time the musical landscape had changed significantly and AT40 was now a profitable venture with the show airing on hundreds of stations across America and internationally via the Armed Forces Radio Network.
I wouldn’t actually get the opportunity to hear that first July 4, 1970, episode until decades after its initial airing, courtesy of replays on nostalgic satellite stations like SiriusXM’s 70’s on 7, where it aired several times this holiday weekend.
Upon hearing it, I realized just how much of a time capsule that début episode was, itself a reflection of the tumultuous times America had just endured during the racially charged 1960s and was still experiencing in the Vietnam War protest era of the early 1970s.
Consider that this particular countdown included two songs by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, including their iconic protest song “Ohio,” which had made its debut that week at No. 30, and their earlier hit, “Teach Your Children,” itself still climbing the chart at No. 24 (ironically, it, too, had occupied the No. 30 slot the previous week).
As Casey put it, CSNY, who were the only act with two songs in that week’s countdown, apparently “had more to say than one hit would allow.”
Indeed they did.
The anti-war song “Ohio” took issue with the Nixon administration, with a direct jab at the U.S. President in the line “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, we’re finally on our own. This summer I hear the drumming, four dead in Ohio.” The four dead were the unarmed students whose lives were lost at Kent State University after being shot by the Ohio National Guard during a peaceful anti-war protest exactly two months before this countdown aired.
“Ohio” is viewed as one of the greatest protest songs of all time, and it helped establish CSNY as leaders of the American counterculture – a status they would enjoy throughout the ‘70s decade.
Anti-war sentiment also pervaded the song at No. 27 by the progressive-rock band Moody Blues, whose pensive hit “Question” was on its way down the list after having peaked at No. 21 the previous three weeks.
Also in the countdown that week were The Impressions, the legendary R&B group who’d hit during the mid-to-late 1960s with gospel-influenced, sociopolitical songs like “People Get Ready” and “We’re A Winner.” During this inaugural AT40 episode, The Impressions were listed at No. 28 with another message song, “Check Out Your Mind,” the title track to their last album featuring the late, great Curtis Mayfield.
Mayfield and the Impressions were known for creating anthems associated with the Civil Rights movement. Another artist in that week’s countdown with such lineage was Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, whose “Spirit In The Dark” was played at No. 35.
That was the title track to her 1970 testimonial album – one that was perhaps the best example of her ability to fuse “house-wrecking gospel” and “gut-wrenching soul” and get pop hits out of that union.
Franklin recorded Spirit after two years of turmoil that saw her singing at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s funeral in April 1968, performing a few months later at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago – the same one that had erupted in protests and riots and likely contributed to Nixon’s election that November, and withstanding family trauma that included 150 people being arrested (and a police officer being killed) during a black-power congregation at her father Rev. C. L. Franklin’s church in Detroit.
Add to that a nasty divorce from her first husband Ted White in 1969, and it was safe to say that “Spirit In The Dark” and the titular album from which it came were a collective statement of triumph for Franklin who was overcoming periods of challenge in her personal life, her country and her race.
On the issue of race, in introducing Aretha’s tune, Casey Kasem referred to the “negro Baptist churches” where Franklin’s father had preached and where young Aretha had honed her vocal instrument before becoming a soul and pop superstar. Kasem’s choice of words were a mere reflection of the times, as America was just transitioning from “negro” to “Black” as the socially acceptable racial descriptor for our race (“African-American” was not part of our vernacular at this point).
While songs of social protest and political commentary were abundant on this countdown – perhaps more so than during any other countdown in AT40’s history – the program wasn’t always so heavy, or it at least offered glimmers of hope.
Sandwiched at No. 29 between “Check Out Your Mind” at No. 28 and “Ohio” at No. 30 was Ray Stevens’ former No. 1 single “Everything Is Beautiful” – the more hopeful, but still serious tune with lyrics that preached social and racial tolerance: “we shouldn’t care about the length of his hair…or the color of his skin.”
“Ohio” itself was sandwiched on the countdown between “Everything Is Beautiful” and the song at No. 31, the Laura Nyro-penned “Save The Country” recorded by Fifth Dimension. Nyro had been inspired to write the song after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy two years earlier. The song’s lyrics, of course, make reference to the murders of both Kennedy brothers and MLK in the following lines: “Come on, people, come on, children; There’s a King at the glory river…And the precious King, he loved the people to sing…Babes in the blinking sun sang ‘We Shall Overcome’.”
And for the two Kennedys: “Come on, people, sons and mothers; Keep the dream of the two young brothers…Gotta take that dream and ride that dove…We can build the dream with love, I know…”
Higher up the countdown were more hopeful songs about the state of racial affairs in America, including “O-o-h Child” by the Five Stairsteps at No. 12 and “Love Land” by Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band at No. 18.
At No. 19 was the song “Are You Ready” by the utility namesake group Pacific Gas & Electric, whose song had a more spiritual take on the prospect of salvation from a world ravaged by corruption and war.
Speaking of war, during this first program, Casey gave a nod to the conflict that led to this country’s birth in a story tied to the Beatles and Louis Armstrong. The black legendary American trumpeter Armstrong had ended the Fab Four’s 14-week domination on the Hot 100 six years earlier when his tenacious left-field hit “Hello, Dolly!” knocked “Can’t Buy Me Love” from the No. 1 spot in May 1964.
Casey drew an analogy between that American triumph and the Revolutionary War from which Americans had emerged victorious from British rule nearly two hundred years earlier. The story culminated with Casey wishing the country (and Satchmo) a “happy birthday” before playing “Hello, Dolly!” as an AT40 extra.
With that show airing on July 4 weekend, what more appropriate – and slightly ironic – way was there to follow the “Hello, Dolly!” piece than with the song ranked at No. 14 that week: “United We Stand” by the Brotherhood of Man. The irony lay in the fact that the Brotherhood of Man were a British group and their song – like Charles Wright’s “Love Land” at No. 18 – was intended as more of an ode to love than a social commentary. However, over the years, both “United” and “Love Land” have taken on new meaning as patriotic and spiritual anthems, respectively.
There was no mistaking the intention of songs further up the countdown in the top ten.
American singer Melanie Safka – who went by only her first name onstage and on record – was moving up the chart to her peak of No. 6 with “Lay Down,” a song she wrote after performing at Woodstock in August 1969. She wrote it to describe the feeling she had experienced as she looked out at the sea of people in the audience. She recorded “Lay Down” with the Edwin Hawkins Singers, the gospel group whose spiritual anthem “Oh Happy Day” had been a pop crossover hit in 1969. One review has since stated that, “like peanut butter and chocolate, Melanie and the Edwin Hawkins Singers just works.”
And at No. 3 – also its peak position – were the Temptations and “Ball of Confusion (Thats What the World Is Today).” Casey Kasem made its point clear when he earnestly cited some of the song’s lyrics as a lead-in. “Evolution, revolution, gun control…segregation, determination, demonstration, integration, aggregation, humiliation, obligation to our nation. Ball of confusion… that’s what the world is today.”
Not everything about this first episode of AT40 was about protest and civil unrest.
There were also uncanny back-to-back couplings of songs that only made the show even more intriguing, if not symbolic of change.
In the top ten, Elvis Presley (“The Wonder of You”) at No. 9 was followed immediately by the Beatles – who were listed with their last of 20 former No. 1 singles at No. 8 (“The Long and Winding Road”). The two acts were arguably the most successful in rock and roll over the preceding 15 years and beyond.
And in the top five, the Temptations were followed immediately by the “mini-Temptations” as Casey called them. “Ball of Confusion” was at No. 3, which preceded the Jackson 5’s “The Love You Save” at No. 2. The Jacksons wound up being the most successful black group of the first half of the 1970s, while the Temps held that distinction during the latter half of the 1960s.
Interestingly enough, “The Love You Save” had been the actual No. 1 song on July 4, but because AT40 was using the chart from July 11, the song at the top of the countdown had changed and was the new No. 1 by Three Dog Night, for which Casey debuted his oft-told story of how the band got its name before playing “Mama Told Me (Not to Come)” at the end of the show’s final hour.
The Jackson 5 had the highest of six Motown songs on that first countdown, which included the Temptations, and songs by Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye – whose “End of Our Road” was the first song ever played at No. 40, and Rare Earth, who was Motown’s most successful white act at the time.
This racial intermingling in music played out in another way on that first countdown. Stuck at No. 25 that week was soul legend Wilson Pickett with a very soulful rendition of the Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar,” a No. 1 pop hit from the prior year.
Other nuggets in that first show: Casey Kasem explained how Billboard came up with its charts – by surveying 100 record stores and 54 radio stations across the country, and then running the data through its “computer data processing system” to determine the Hot 100 rankings.
Casey was just as likely to cite Hot 100 statistics as he was top-40 ones on this first show. For instance, in the lead-in to the Moments’ “Love On A Two-Way Street,” Casey cited its 14 Hot 100 weeks (13 of which were in the top 40). Notably, he gave a rare personal endorsement of the Moments’ hit, calling it a “good song” as it played under his intro.
He cited chart stats for several other songs on the list, including Rare Earth’s “Get Ready” and the Carpenters’ “(They Long to Be) Close To You,” the latter of which was at No. 7 on its way to becoming the brother-sister duo’s first No. 1 hit several weeks later.
Also historically noteworthy was the fact that only six of the songs in that first week’s countdown featured female lead vocalists, including the hits by Melanie, Aretha Franklin and “Band of Gold” singer Freda Payne, plus songs by the Poppy Family, the Fifth Dimension and the Carpenters.
That 34-6, male-female ratio would be emblematic of AT40’s first decade, with female charting milestones much slower in the making than they would become in the 1980s when Madonna and Whitney Houston and others blew the doors open.
Karen Carpenter would become the first woman to sing on a No. 1 hit in the year that AT40 launched. But a Motown act – former Supreme Diana Ross – would be the only woman to have a No. 1 song solely credited to her that year when “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” topped the charts a month later.
Coincidentally, Diana Ross would also have the highest debuting top-40 hit by a woman during the Casey Kasem era of AT40 (1970-88) with “Upside Down,” but that wouldn’t happen until August 1980 at the beginning of AT40’s second decade.
For now, in July 1970, AT40 was focused on its first few months and a then-lofty goal of hitting 150 U.S. cities plus an additional 20 stations overseas, according to a cover story that ran in Billboard the week after the show’s debut.
By the time I discovered AT40 at age eleven in 1977 on WRVQ-Richmond, Virginia, it had far exceeded that goal on its way to becoming an American institution – one that laid the blueprint for countdown shows everywhere and for every genre of music.
And its beloved host – Lebanese-American Casey Kasem – would become a national treasure, one whose distinctive voice and storytelling ability brought a human side to the artists and the most popular songs in the country.
Oh, and one more cool story was highlighted by Casey on this inaugural program. At No. 15 on the chart was a song that interpolated a famous composition by German composer Ludwig Beethoven. “A Song of Joy” by Spanish singer Miguel Ríos was based on Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony,” a song whose composer was older than America itself.
I’m forever grateful to AT40 for helping take my love of music to a much deeper level in the 1970s and ‘80s and for introducing me to the world of charts and statistics.
But most pertinent to the sentiment of this article, I thank AT40 for showing me that songs – or the groupings of songs together in time – have context and a rich history. Often that history mimics that of our country, as this very first countdown most certainly demonstrated.
Happy 50th Anniversary American Top 40!
And continue to R.I.P. AT40’s founders: Casey Kasem, Don Bustany, Tom Rounds and Ron Jacobs.
DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
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