LOS ANGELES — In pop culture, Casey Kasem was as sweet and dependable as a glass of warm milk and a plate of chocolate chip cookies, which only made the ugliness of his last few years of life seem more bizarre and tragic.
The radio host of American Top 40 and voice of animated television characters like Scooby-Doo’s sidekick Shaggy died Sunday morning at a hospital in Gig Harbor, Washington. He was 82. He suffered from a form of dementia, and his three adult children from his first wife fought a bitter legal battle with Kasem’s second wife, Jean, over control of his health care in his final months.
That made Kasem a fixture on news outlets that feed on the sleazier side of celebrity life at a time when it wasn’t clear he was aware of it or even able to understand.
This wouldn’t seem all that remarkable for a bad-behaving pop star or actor who shed spouses with the frequency of changing characters. But this was Casey Kasem, whose work epitomized the gentler, romantic side of pop culture, of a time when stars were admired for their celebrity and worshipped for their talent.
American Top 40, with Kasem’s soft, homey voice counting down the hits, was a refuge from shock jocks or the screaming big-city radio voices. It was dependable, broadcast on some 1,000 stations at its peak, so if you were driving in Connecticut or Kansas, California or Kentucky, you could always take a measure of the pop charts with Casey.
Kasem weaved stories around the songs, anecdotes about interactions with fans or gee-whiz tales about how stars got their starts. Seldom was heard a discouraging word, unless it was a starting point for a narrative about coming back from hardship, the darkness before the dawn.
Interspersed in the countdowns were the long-distance dedications, songs played for a long-lost or distant lover in the hope a heart would be stirred. You’d wince at some of the hokey song selections, but only the truly cynic would laugh at the emotion that spilled out of the letters Kasem read.
At the end of the show, always, would come Kasem’s signature words of advice: “Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.”