Joel Whitburn, RIP; We Say Goodbye to Joel Whitburn, The Father of Music Chart Analysis

Menomonee Falls native Joel Whitburn, a pop music chart legend, died on June 14. He was 82.

Photo: Tom Lynn, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

In February 1964, when The Beatles played on Ed Sullivan, my world changed forever. Even though I was only ten at the time and my mom bought Meet The Beatles for me, somehow it took until 1965 for me to discover record stores and then it was all over (I've written about these events previously in this blog). Record stores, for me, started with Gimbels' record department. In those days, most department stores had a record department. Some were even good; I'm thinking not only of Gimbels, but EJ Korvettes and Sears, which had record departments that could compete with record stores. In the 60s, whatever the record store, they all had survey sheets from the local Top 40 stations. In Philadelphia, we had WIBG (990am) with a weekly survey of the Top 99 records of the week. Later, WFIL (560am) joined the fray with their Famous 56 survey. Both of the surveys reflected sales and airplay. Ultimately, data such as this contributed to the Billboard Hot 100. There were other weekly publications with record charts, such as Cashbox and Record World, and later Radio and Records; all of the publications had their place, but for the radio industry Billboard was the behemoth. 

When I wasn't haunting record stores, the next best thing was a good bookstore. The bookstore in question was the Bradd Alan Bookstore, which was located in the Cheltenham Shopping Center, an open air mall that was apparently ahead of its time, in suburban Philadelphia. Some of my classmates may have gone there for their wide array of Cliff Notes, while I was primarily interested in their science fiction section and the newly released paperbacks. Bradd Alan also had a great magazine section. It was where I discovered the early issues of Rolling Stone Magazine when they first started publishing in late 1967. It was also around then that I first discovered Billboard Magazine. Everything about Billboard seemed interesting, especially the charts. 

In researching this piece, we ran across the information that one song was #1 for four consecutive weeks in December '67. When Bev asked me to name that record, I knocked us both over with the correct answer, and not just the artist, but the song as well. I didn't actually know it, but I did make an educated guess. If you'd like to play, the answer is at the end of this article. 

Although it might seem cheap now, the .$75 cover price was a dealbreaker for this thirteen year old nascent record collector, more or less at the beginning of his obsession.  That price rose quickly to $1.00 per weekly issue, which seems pretty minuscule now that the cover price is $16.99. Of course, today there are better deals to be had subscribing with numerous options. Fortunately, I became a radio disc jockey in the 1970s with ample access to Billboard.

One other interesting fact that we noticed while writing this piece was that Billboard Magazine actually started in 1894.  In its early days, it tracked things like actual billboards, hence the name.  They began covering music in the 1930s.

I feel like I've always known the name of Joel Whitburn, primarily from his advertising. I never had the pleasure of perusing one of his books. 

Richard Sandomir's piece in The New York Times is loaded with good information. I didn't know, for example, that the Hot 100 started in 1958 and that on that first chart that Ricky Nelson's "Poor Little Fool" was #1.  As Sandomir points out, all the data that Whitburn derived from the charts tells some incredible stories. To me, it is remarkable that Whitburn tracked six different charts manually and compiled his early books without the assistance of a computer. Even more impressive to me is the fact that Whitburn maintained a collection of every record to hit the Hot 100 and that he kept that collection in a vault. Please read Sandomir's article, and for safe-keeping and convenience, I am reprinting the article below as well as linking to the original on the NYTimes site. 

Joel Whitburn, Tireless Researcher of Music Charts, Dies at 82

His numerous books delved deeply into the Billboard charts, developing what an admirer called “the de facto history of recorded music.”

Credit...Adam Ryan Morris, for Milwaukee Magazine

By Richard Sandomir, New York Times, June 17, 2022 

Joel Whitburn, who relentlessly mined Billboard’s music charts to fill reference books that tell the statistical stories of pop, rock, country, R&B, hip-hop and dance hits since 1940, died on Tuesday at his home in Menomonee Falls, Wis. He was 82.

His death was confirmed by Paul Haney, a longtime researcher and editor at Record Research, Mr. Whitburn’s publishing company. He did not specify a cause. 
Mr. Whitburn was a music lover whose personal collection — meticulously curated in his basement and, later, in a vault — totals more than 200,000 records, including every single ever to make a Billboard chart.

“I go in that library alone — all these records — and it’s like they’re all my old friends,” he said in an interview with The Minneapolis Star Tribune in 1986. 

Mr. Whitburn published nearly 300 books (counting updated editions), most of them highly detailed chart histories of hit records and albums. He started cataloging records on index cards and turned that project into his first volume, “Top Pop Singles,” published in 1970. Computers came much later. 

Disc jockeys and record collectors were among his first customers. But his books also became important additions to other music fans’ libraries. Nearly all used Billboard charts, but Mr. Whitburn also dug into those that were published by the trade magazines Cash Box, Record World and Radio & Records. 

“He had a profound impact on the music industry as a whole,” Silvio Pietroluongo, Billboard’s senior vice president of charts and data development, said in a phone interview. “He was the first person to catalog the history of charted music, and by doing so it became the de facto history of recorded music.”

He added, “Joel’s chronicling of the Hot 100 gave it a significant stamp of approval nationally.”

His books, with generic titles and alphabetical listings by artist or group, covered vast musical territory: “Top R&B Singles, 1942-2016,” “Hit Country Records, 1954-1982,” “Across the Charts: The Sixties.”

The ninth edition of “The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits” (2010) listed 52 Beatles songs, with the dates each song entered the Top 40, from the first (“I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “I Saw Her Standing There” on Jan. 25, 1964) to the last (“Real Love,” made by the surviving Beatles from demos cut by John Lennon, on March 23, 1996); their peak chart positions; how long the songs stayed on the chart; how long they remained in the No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3 spot; informational nuggets (like the fact that “Please Please Me,” the band’s fourth Top 40 hit, was recorded in 1962); and the record label (usually Capitol, later Apple, but also a few others in the early days).

He also published books containing a given decade’s worth of charts.

In his review of “Top Pop Singles, 1955-2006” (2007), the Los Angeles Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn noted that Mr. Whitburn augmented his updates to the book with new elements. “This time,” he wrote, “he borrows a page from baseball batting averages and assigns a ‘hit average’ to recording artists.”

Mr. Whitburn explained his fascination with Billboard’s charts — and the reason for his venture’s success — in an interview with that magazine in 2014.

“I’m just a huge music fan, and I love the charts,” he said. “I enjoy following artists’ success. There’s just a joy in that. It’s a weekly thrill. And there are millions more like me all over the world.”

Adam Ryan Morris, for Milwaukee Magazine

Joel Carver Whitburn was born on Nov. 29, 1939, in Wauwatosa, Wis. His father, Russell, worked for a local electrical company. His mother, Ruth (Bird) Whitburn, was a homemaker.

Joel was already a music lover when, at age 12, he saw copies of Billboard for sale at a bus station in Milwaukee. His mother gave him a quarter to buy it, and while reading it at home he was gobsmacked by the information it offered.

“All of a sudden, I knew what the No. 1 song in the nation was,” he said in an interview in 2009 with the music journalist Larry LeBlanc for the entertainment website CelebrityAccess. “I had no idea that there was a chart that told you that information.”
He later became a subscriber, and he held on to every issue.

Mr. Whitburn attended Elmhurst College (now University) in Illinois and the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, but did not graduate. He worked at several jobs before he was hired to represent RCA Records, having told a company distributor in Milwaukee how much he loved music. He was told of a new venture featuring eight-track tapes and got a job setting up eight-track departments at stores in Wisconsin and Illinois. While working for RCA, he met artists like Chet Atkins and Charley Pride.

By then he was deep into his Billboard research as a hobby, using stacks of the magazines that he had collected since 1954. He focused his work on the Hot 100 chart, which began in 1958, jotting down artists’ names and record information on index cards.

“The first card I wrote up,” he told Mr. LeBlanc, was ‘Nelson, Ricky, “Poor Little Fool.”’ That was the first No. 1 song on the first Hot 100.”

He quit his job at RCA in 1970 to devote himself full time to his books.

When the first edition of “Top Pop Singles” was completed in 1970, he took out a tiny advertisement in Billboard that promised buyers a history of the Hot 100. Hal Cook, the magazine’s publisher, spotted the ad and called Mr. Whitburn.

“You can’t be using the Hot 100 in an ad,” Mr. Whitburn, in the 2014 interview, recalled Mr. Cook telling him. “Not without our permission.” Rather than threaten Mr. Whitburn with a lawsuit, Mr. Cook asked to see the book.

Adam Ryan Morris, for Milwaukee Magazine

Two weeks later, Mr. Whitburn said, Mr. Cook called. “He said: ‘Joel, we got the book. It’s amazing. We love it.’” And he conceded that Billboard’s attempts to develop a similar book had failed. He paid for Mr. Whitburn and his wife, Fran, to come to Los Angeles.

After three days, Mr. Whitburn returned home with a 26-page licensing agreement that gave him the exclusive right to use the Billboard charts in his books, in return for royalties he would pay Billboard.

With that permission, Mr. Whitburn built an empire of music research unlike any other.
He is survived by his wife, Frances (Mudgett) Whitburn; his daughter, Kim Bloxdorf, a vice president at Record Research; his sisters, Joyce Riehl and Julie Rae Niermeyer; his brothers, Charles and David; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

The veteran disc jockey Scott Shannon, currently heard on WCBS-FM in New York, said he bought his first copy of “Top Pop Singles” when he was working at a radio station in Mobile, Ala., in the early 1970s. He has bought some of the updated editions since, keeping one copy at the station and one at home.

“There was no other place to go for information about artists, and I wanted to be the authority on the music we were playing at the time,” Mr. Shannon said in a phone interview. “If you use it properly, you sound smarter than you are to the listener and sharper than the next jock.”

A version of this article appears in print on June 19, 2022, Section A, Page 23 of the New York edition with the headline: Joel Whitburn, 82, A Tireless Researcher Of Music Charts, Dies.

[In December 1967, the song that was #1 for four consecutive weeks was the Monkees' "Daydream Believer."] 


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