I am here to cement my reputation as the ultimate radio/chart geek. On Long Island in the 1980s, I grew up not just listening to top 40 countdown shows but tracking the results in notebooks with an absurd level of dedication that lasted a decade.
And I didn’t just listen to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40. I also tracked individual radio station station countdown shows, sometimes five or six. I’d jot down daily countdown shows, too. I’d visit the library every week and dig through Billboard magazine as well.
Another show I tracked side by side with Kasem’s countdown show was Rick Dees’ Weekly Top 40. Stylistically, the two couldn’t have been more different. Kasem was very formalized in the structure of his show with his long-distance dedications, elocution of artist facts and the odd use of saying “end quote” out loud when quoting somebody. And there was that now legendary closing saying, “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.” Dees, who had a one-hit wonder in 1976 called “Disco Duck,” brought a goofy, lightly ribald sensibility to his countdown show, with features like “Dees Sleaze” and numerous sound effects.
On Friday, I happened upon an entry on Facebook from my friend Jeremy Kennedy, who loves the 1980s and still dresses like it’s 1986. Jeremy’s wife Michelle volunteers for Furkids, a no-kill, no cage cat shelter which was celebrating its 10th year anniversary. He said Rick Dees was going to be at a fundraiser this past Saturday. Being the self-indulgent person I am, I got the PR person’s name from Jeremy. She was cool with me showing up and interviewing Dees.
The connection was rather direct. Dees’ sister Patricia Krebs lives in Smyrna and Kreb’s 42-year-old daughter (and Dees’ niece) Samantha Shelton started Atlanta-based Furkids. Over the years, Rick has helped Samantha with infusions of cash, which he jokingly dubbed his “Disco Duck” money. More than 500 people showed up Saturday at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre to celebrate the organization’s 10th anniversary. Over the past decade, Furkids has placed more than 7,000 cats (and now works with small dogs, too.)
At the event, I got to sit down with the still energetic, youthful 62-year-old Dees and wax nostalgic about his career and why countdown shows are so addictive to folks like me. (To this day, I listen to Sirius/XM’s VJ Top 40 countdowns on 80s at 8.)
Dees has the longest continuously running countdown show in radio history: approaching 29 years. He is also proud of the fact he has saved every single countdown show, converting the original magnetic tape, then the vinyl versions, then the CDs to digital. He now posts old-school original versions of his countdown show on Rick.fm. Check them out here.
Locally, you can hear Dees on Journey 97.9, which airs him in the afternoons. On Sundays at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., the station re-runs original Dees countdown shows from the 1990s. He still does his current countdown show, but that’s not heard in Atlanta.
He said he produces his countdown show almost in real time. “I like to listen to all the music,” he said.
And even at age 62, he said he finds plenty of music he still loves, citing Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger” as a “phenomenal” record. “The production is there. The artistry is there. The juice is there.”
Dees has always come across as a nice guy who creates few enemies. He’s no Howard Stern. Recently, a fan from Mississippi emailed him and said he didn’t like what he had said about Britney Spears, some mild joke about hoping if she ends up on “X Factor,” she’ll wear underwear. The man actually left a phone number. So Dees called him and later apologized to him on air. “He called me back,” Dees said. “He told me, ‘Well, you’ve finally come to your senses!’ ”
Dees started his radio career in the 1970s in North Carolina, Tennessee and Birmingham. In 1980, he had a chance to go to Atlanta’s top 40 station 790/WQXI-AM (”Quixie from Dixie) or Hollywood. He opted for Hollywood. (You have to wonder: he could have been Steve McCoy!)
His gig on an AM station in Los Angeles died after a year as AM stations began moving to talk. He was unemployed for a year until KIIS-FM hired him in 1982. Don Benson, who ran Atlanta’s Star 94 for many years, was the program director at the time. A year later, a dispute between KIIS and Casey Kasem led to Dees starting his countdown show.
He never felt ill will toward his rival.
“We felt like there was room for both of us,” Dees said. “Casey is so talented. I miss him being on the air. We’ve always had a great friendship.”
A few years ago, he was booted from his morning slot on KIIS for former Dunwoody resident Ryan Seacrest. He has nothing but respect for Seacrest. “He has a wonderful sense of business. He has a great show.” (Dees now does mornings on Hot 92.3 in Los Angeles.)
He said he was thrilled to be in Atlanta to support his niece. “She’s the hardest working individual ever,” she said. “She puts in 70 hours a week. I don’t know where she gets that energy.”
Shelton, in an interview Monday, said Dees’ donation in 2004 jumpstarted her capital campaign to create a stand-alone shelter after spending 18 months as the hub of a foster cat program out of her house. “I jumped for joy,” she said. “I held the check. Although it wasn’t $1 million, it felt like $1 million. His endorsement meant so much to me.” At the time, he even interviewed her for his radio show and taped a PSA for her. He has since donated on a regular basis.
She said she used her Dees connection on occasion as a teen in the 1990s. “I could pick up the phone and call his office and get tickets to U2 or Duran Duran,” she said. “I was very popular in high school.”
At age 16, she spent a week out with Dees and even got to be on his show. “I was so scared to even go up to the mic,” she said. He embarrassed her even more by asking callers if they wanted to date her, she recalled.
Below are sample pages from one of my countdown notebooks In this case, it’s from the weeks of June 10, 1984 and June 17, 1984. One sheet includes Rick Dees’ countdown of Radio & Records top 40 chart on the left and the Casey Kasem Billboard chart on the right. (I didn’t mark them as such because I never had any reason to think I’d ever show them to anybody.)
You’ll see a major discrepancy in Jermaine Jackson’s song “Tell Me I’m Not Dreaming.” It was at No. 7 on Radio & Records, which was radio airplay, but hadn’t charted at all on Billboard, which only included songs released as singles. The Wikipedia entry explains why this happened.
The other sheet includes miscellaneous other charts, mostly from local countdowns of specific New York radio stations such as WBLI-FM on Long Island, Z100, K-104 in Poughkeepsie and WPLJ, plus some daily countdowns. (I lived on the north shore of Long Island, which enabled me to hear stations from Long Island, Connecticut, Westchester and New York City.) This was when Duran Duran was at peak popularity so “The Reflex” was entrenched at No. 1 on the WBLI top 6 at 10 for weeks. At this time, current “Regular Guy” Larry Wachs was the night jock at WBLI and I’d call him and vote frequently. One evening the week of June 17, as marked on the sheet below, I voted for “Sister Christian,” “Time After Time” and “Borderline” – three times.
By Rodney Ho, Radio & TV Talk