Joel Whitburn is dead: The pop chart guru who wrote hundreds of books was 82

Joel Whitburn, whose chart research books were a staple on the shelves of anyone who cared about the history or business of pop music for decades, died Tuesday at age 82.

No cause of death was immediately given, although Whitburn was reportedly in poor health for some time.

The Wisconsin native’s company, Record Research, had published books based on Billboard charts dating back to 1970, with a tome count that just under a decade ago stood at 122 books.

Of all the genre-specific books he published, Whitburn’s “flagship” and best-selling book was “Top Pop Singles”. This book covered everything that was a hit from 1955, with Whitburn throwing three years of mid-50s stats from a chart before the Hot 100 debuted in 1958 because he “wanted to include that history. early rock ‘n’ roll.” But he was never under the illusion that music started with Elvis Presley, as evidenced by the fact that he also published a book called “Pop Memories: 1890-1954.”

Its comprehensiveness was not limited to pure data: Whitburn’s home in Menomonee Falls, Wis., had an underground vault that contained every Billboard Hot 100 chart since its debut in 1958 (on 7-inch vinyl records for the first decades, and official or engraved CDs for the following years).

While speaking with the former Billboard bureau chief in 2013, Whitburn estimated that he had over 200,000 45 rpm singles in his vault (including about 18,000 with picture covers), and claimed to have a copy of each pop album never listed in the magazine dating back to 1945. , too.

Whitburn’s name was also familiar to alumni fans via a series of compilation CDs released by Rhino Records.

In a Q&A 2014 made for Billboard’s 120th anniversary, Whitburn remembered becoming the undisputed king of the charts in a world filled with record geeks who would have fought for the crown if it hadn’t been so clearly his own.

After coming across a weekly edition of Billboard at a bus station in the early 1950s, when he was 12, Whitburn was fascinated by the full-page advertisements for records he was delighted to hear on the radio, as well as the voluminous reviews of new singles (something Billboard did away with decades ago). “I started subscribing to Billboard in 1953,” he told Gary Trust. “It was $10 a year…that I had to beg from my father. So he sent the $10 bill.

Whitburn kept every issue, a practice that lasted long enough that he could indulge in nostalgia by looking at old copies. “One day in September 1965 – I remember it was raining – I grabbed a number from 1958, the year the Hot 100 started. I thought it was just an amazing chart. It combined everything into one alone and took up two pages in the magazine. I thought, ‘I’ll start there.’ He started writing dates and numbers on cards, starting with Ricky Nelson’s ‘Poor Little Fool’, the first No. 1 on the first Hot 100 chart. 1,’ the date [Aug. 4, 1958] and Imperial, the record label. Then I followed its chart history, when it went to No. 4, then No. 6. … I was just doing it as a hobby.

He went to work for RCA Records, compiling his chart research nights and weekends over the next five years. In his day job in the late ’60s, “I was working in the music industry,” Whitburn told LeBlanc. “Charley Pride was coming to town and I was going out to lunch with him. I met John Gary, Chet Atkins and Henry Mancini. It was ’68 early ’70. In the Midwest, “I was going to set up these 8-track tape departments everywhere. Everybody was getting into 8-track tapes, including gas stations .

He quit his job and started publishing books in 1970. [RCA] roads talking to radio stations, they all said it would be a godsend to have this information handy as there was nothing available. I remember calling Billboard, and all they had was a top 1,000 hits list, mimeographed, for $50. I bought it, but thought it would be nice to have something specific by artists, complete discographies. So, I decided to publish what I had.

Whitburn was glad he had gone rogue and self-published before Billboard came on the scene, after seeing ads for his first book. “I (had just) published my book” when the first call came, he recalls. “I was lucky because if I had asked Billboard, they probably would have said no.”

Billboard publisher Hal Cook, rather than claim copyright infringement, called Whitburn and his wife Fran in Los Angeles and helped work out a deal in which Billboard would earn royalties in return for an exclusive license. from his data on the ancients to the enterprising young man. “I ended up with a 26-page license agreement with a lot of legal wording. I didn’t even read it because I just wanted to sign it and go. I wanted to do the album charts as well as the country, and I wanted to do an R&B book.

At that time, he told the Wisconsin site Patch in an interview, “they were also working with Casey Kasem’s contract to do ‘American Top 40.’ gave Casey the broadcast deal, so we started together.

Back to his teenage years. Whitburn thought the time was right for him to become obsessed with music in the mid-50s, although his interest predated rock ‘n’ roll, as he also enjoyed crooners. “I was at the perfect age, 14 or 15, when rock ‘n’ roll broke out,” he told LeBlanc. “I was able to go down once a week and buy a record. I had to make the terrible decision of which record to buy this week and which records to put aside until next week. Sam Cooke was my favorite. Jackie Wilson was a close second. When I was in college, Jackie Wilson had “To Be Loved” (in 1958). I thought it was the greatest song ever made at the time.

Whitburn’s collected research has made the common practice of lying about hits harder to pull off than it once was. He Told a local Wisconsin newspaper: “If James Darren came to town and they interviewed him because he was going to appear at the State Fair and he said, ‘My first four records were all No. 1 hits,’ they would go with it even if it only had one record that reached No. 3.”

He used to have up to 5,000 books delivered by truck to his home in Wisconsin, when he was personally in charge of mail order sales. “The postman was very excited about it and there were orders coming in from all over the world,” Whitburn said. “So we get all these foreign stamps and my wife was all excited and was saving the stamps from all these countries. I get calls from KRLA in Los Angeles, WABC in New York, all these big radio stations call me up and say, “I need the book, the whole story.”

When artists came to Milwaukee to perform, Whitburn was there to present them with copies of his behind-the-scenes books, from Paul McCartney to Sting. When Elton John came along… well, you can probably guess the punchline. “I was going to give Elton John a book, and he said, ‘I have all your books. “”

Eventually, e-books consumed more of its business, allowing music aficionados to free up shelf space previously devoted to its more than 200 tomes…although many still prefer to keep hard copies of the most popular titles. more essential, for easy turning.

When asked if he takes a deep interest in newcomers and what makes them top, Whitburn said: “I would say about 60% are music fans, 40% are ‘chartologists’.

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

About Marcia G. Hussain

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