Joel Whitburn: An Appreciation of the Ultimate Chart Historian

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Steve Greenberg is the founder/CEO of S-Curve Records and manager of the band AJR. He is a two-time Grammy winner, and host of the Speed of Sound pop music history podcast. Like many music executives and music fans, historian Joel Whitburn’s game-changing Top Pop Singles book series were a constant companion — and, to this day, remain an immediate go-to resource. Whitburn died June 14 at the age of 82. Below, he shares in his own words his experiences with Whitburn’s work, and the enormous impact it had on him and so many other music obsessives. 

When I was 15 years old, I got my first Joel Whitburn book, Top Pop Records 1955-1972 — plus three annual supplements for the years 1973-75 — as a gift from my parents, who were surely perplexed that what their teenage son wanted for Chanukah was a monograph. That copy of Top Pop Records was insanely expensive: $30 in 1976. The supplements were each $10. So, it was a very generous Chanukah gift. I don’t know why my parents agreed to indulge me, but I’m grateful they did. Because those books turned out to be priceless to me, and changed my life.

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I read and re-read them obsessively for endless hours over many years, looking forward to the release of every annual supplement to update the story of the charts — which in reality, was the story of pop music. They allowed me to think about pop in an organized, objective fashion, elegantly built around chronology, understanding where the pieces all fit.

Joel Whitburn had a major influence on the lives of so many people like me, interested in the many thousands of songs that rose and fell on the Billboard charts. His books provided the essential scaffolding upon which we could all build our knowledge of pop music history, enabling an understanding of which music was popular when, and how big for how long.

Before Whitburn’s first book was published in 1970, the history of the charts, to paraphrase Genesis (the book, not the band) was all chaos and darkness. If you wanted to find out anything about a song or artist’s chart history, you literally had to go to the library and look at every issue of Billboard over a period of weeks, months, or maybe years. Whitburn put it all in one place and made the history of the pop charts easy to understand.

That first book, Top Pop Singles 1955-1969, came out at about the same time as the debut of Casey Kasem’s radio countdown program American Top 40. Whitburn’s and Kasem’s projects together elevated the Billboard Hot 100 into the closest thing the U.S. has had to an official chart, leaving in the dust lists compiled by rival publications. And all those chart facts that Kasem tossed about on AT 40 week after week? (For example, from Aug. 9, 1975: “This week, Three Dog Night debut with their 21st consecutive Top 40 record.”) That history, central to every American Top 40 broadcast, would have been inaccessible had the AT40 writers not kept a copy of Whitburn’s book close at hand.

The early Whitburn books, published by his company Record Research, based in the exotic-sounding town of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, were pretty bare-bones affairs. Under the name of each artist who’d appeared on the chart, you found a list of their charted singles, with the serial number, date of debut, chart peak and weeks on the chart. Then, in the back, there was an alphabetical list of all the songs ever to chart, plus a chronological list of No. 1 records and a list of the “records of longevity” which had spent the most weeks on the chart.

That was it. No artist biographical material, no photos (although those would begin to be included in later editions). Just the chart facts. As a friend in high school said to me regarding my frequent poring over the Whitburn books, “I know people who collect records, but you’re the only person I’ve ever met who collects lists of records.”

Whitburn’s books may have consisted of nothing more than lists, but within those lists you could find the entire history of pop music. The emergence of 50’s rock; Elvis’ rise, decline, and comeback; the overwhelming domination of Beatlemania and the British Invasion; the disco years; the sudden rise of grunge and alternative music in the 90’s; the teen-pop revolution at the turn of the millennium; on and on until today’s music scene.

I was far from the only person studying Joel Whitburn’s lists. Generations of pop music historians, radio programmers, record executives, journalists and just plain music lovers received their education from those books. And as Whitburn’s company, Record Research, added books based on the R&B, Country, Disco, Album, and Easy Listening charts, plus a fun volume on the Bubbling Under chart, the story those books were telling became increasingly complete, and definitive. Whitburn’s completism even led him to publish a book called Pop Memories, an interesting volume which attempted to construct top singles charts going as far back as 1890, compiled from multiple sources.

Whitburn’s books allowed you to see how big artists really were over the course of their careers. You could trace when they began to become popular, how long their hitmaking period lasted, when they started to decline in popularity, and when they finally disappeared from the charts, never to return. These things were all impossible to quantify in any accessible form before Top Pop Singles appeared.

The information contained in all those lists raised questions that led me down a lifetime’s worth of rabbit holes. They also often confounded my own idiosyncratic assumptions about pop hits I’d heard on local radio: How could it be that “I Know I’m In Love” by Chee Chee and Pepi, a song that sounded like the biggest hit in the world to a 10-year-old me, only peaked at No. 49?

You could of course learn a lot of surprising trivia from a  Whitburn book if you looked closely: Did you know that Sam Cooke hit No. 1 with his very first chart single “You Send Me” — but never reached the summit again, despite hitting the Hot 100 42 more times? Conversely, Peter, Paul & Mary finally hit No. 1 with their 19th chart single “Leaving on a Jet Plane” — but then never hit the chart again. And leafing through the pages of Top Pop Records, you could determine that no other artists had ever done those things.

Most of all, the books provided endless raw material for questions about pop music history that were more than just trivia: What was it about the record business in 1957 that caused all the “records of longevity” in those early editions of Top Pop Singles to have charted in that year? What was going on that caused so many ’50s doo-wop hits return to the charts in 1960 and 1961? Why did all those early ’60s pop idols face immediate chart extinction as soon as the Beatles arrived? Whitburn’s books were a window into pop culture that rewarded those willing to use its data as a launching pad for further research.

Finally, there were so many records I sought out simply because I saw them listed in a Whitburn book. Like “Super Duper Love” by Sugar Billy, a 1975 Top 10 R&B hit that intrigued me because it never made the Hot 100. I eventually found that record and years later recorded it with singer Joss Stone, scoring a top 20 hit with it in the U.K. and bringing belated glory — and financial reward — to Sugar Billy, the song’s writer, just before he died. And it never would have happened if I hadn’t seen the title listed in Top R&B Singles 1942-1988.

That’s Joel Whitburn’s true legacy to me. Enabling pop music to continue to move forward, building on knowledge of all that came before. Knowledge that was put in our hands by Joel Whitburn.

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