Joel Whitburn, Chart Historian: On Books, Music & the 'Weekly Thrill' of Billboard (Exclusive Q&A)

Courtesy Photo
 Legendary chart historian Record Research's Joel Whitburn.

For nearly a half-century, Whitburn and his company, Record Research, have joined Billboard as the most prominent trackers of the hits.

Certain names are synonymous with Billboard charts. Elvis. The Beatles. Elton. Madonna. Mariah. More recently, Rihanna, Gaga, Adele, Katy and Taylor. (And, even more recently, Iggy, Ariana and Meghan).

None may say "Billboard," however, more than Joel Whitburn.

For more than four decades, Whitburn has chronicled the moves up, down, onto and off of Billboard charts via his company, Record Research, which has published an array of chart reference books since 1970. From his home in Menomonee Falls, Wis., Whitburn and his staff – including his daughter/vp of the business, Kim Bloxdorf – afford music fans worldwide encyclopedic coverage of decades of Billboard surveys, encompassing a vast range of formats.

Record Research is a mirror of Whitburn's home, which houses an underground vault that he built in the early '90s. It sports chart entries dating to 1940, including hard copies of every Billboard Hot 100 hit dating to the chart's 1958 inception. (The digital era isn't a problem; CD copies are burned of songs available only as downloads.)

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In honor of the 120th anniversary of Billboard's Nov. 1, 1894, launch, Whitburn took time to chronicle his history tracking the hits, cite his favorite music (from the King of Rock & Roll to current Hot 100 queen Meghan Trainor) and share his unparalleled insights as to what makes Billboard charts beloved by fans, year after year, decade after decade; one week at a time.


Billboard: Joel, please tell us how your interest in Billboard began.

Whitburn: I started subscribing to Billboard in 1953. It was $10 a year … which I had to beg for from my dad. So, he sent the $10 bill in.

I actually first picked up a Billboard at a bus station. My mother took me downtown Milwaukee on a shopping trip, and waiting for the bus at the station, I was looking through the magazine section. I saw Billboard and I didn't know what it was. I grabbed it and started paging through it, and saw all these big, full-page ads for all these artists I had listened to on the radio.

I thought that was pretty cool. And then, all these charts … top 20 charts, top 30 charts, with all these songs that I loved …

So, I went and got a quarter from my mother and bought the issue and took it home. Then I kept thinking, "I'd love to get this magazine every week. I'd love to keep up with these charts." Plus, I thought the reviews were awesome, of all the upcoming songs.

Everything about it appealed to me, because I was the only one in the family who really used our little Motorola record player. All these 78s that the family had, I used to sit and listen every Saturday morning, the A-sides and the B-sides, and I'd look and study the artists. I just fell in love with records. I was just fascinated with them.

I remember the names, like Tony Bennett. Then, I'd look at the magazine, and there they were on the charts. No. 4, No. 5 … I thought, how interesting …

It was October 1953 when I first subscribed, and I don't think I've missed an issue through today. I look forward to it every week. I can't go a week without reading my Billboard.

Sometimes childhood interests lessen as we get older. Clearly that wasn't the case here.

I went to college, and I remember that I had Billboards in my sister's old bedroom. She had moved out and they were stacked up on a table, by year: '53, '54, '55, '56 … My mother asked me, "Can we throw those out now?" I said, "No, why don't you hold on to them. I still kind of like them. I like to go back and refer to them."

Once I finished college, I got married and eventually got my own home. It had a nice library and I stacked all those Billboards up there.

One September day in 1965 – I remember it was rainy – I grabbed an issue from 1958, the year the Hot 100 started. I thought it was just an amazing chart. It combined everything into one, and took up two pages in the magazine. I thought, "I'll start there."

The First Hot 100, August 1958

I had these little cards and I just started researching. The first card was Ricky Nelson, "Poor Little Fool," the first Hot 100 No. 1. I wrote down "No. 1," the date [Aug. 4, 1958] and "Imperial," the record label. Then, I followed its chart history, when it went to No. 4, then to No. 6.

Was it just a casual exercise as a dedicated music fan at this point?

I was just doing it as a hobby. I had the records, so I kept track of more of them on these cards. I didn't publish my first book until June 1970. So, it took me about five years, because I was working for RCA, in record distribution. It wasn't until I quit that job that I was able to do this full-time. Up until then, I was doing my research on late-nights and on weekends. I thought, "If I could do this full-time …"

It was progressing. It was becoming an amazing research project. When I was out on my [RCA] routes talking to radio stations, they all said it would be a godsend to have that information at their fingertips, because there was nothing available. I remember calling Billboard, and all they had was a list of top 1,000 hits, on mimeographed sheets, that sold for $50. I bought that, but I thought it would be neat to have something specific by artists, complete discographies.

So, I decided to publish what I had.

How did that work, permission-wise, since all the information was based on Billboard charts?

I didn't have Billboard's ok. Hal Cook was the publisher at the time, based in Los Angeles. I had run an ad, a little 1/52nd-page ad: "History of the Hot 100, $50." He saw it, and he called me.

"You can't be using the Hot 100 in an ad!" he said. "Not without our permission." I explained to him what it was and he said, "Well, we've got to see what that is. Send me a copy."

So, I sent him a copy. About two weeks passed, and I didn't know what was going to happen.

Then, he called me back. He said, "Joel, we got the book. It's amazing. We love it." Wow, was that a relief. He said, "It's fantastic. You know, we attempted to do this ourselves and" – his exact words were – "everything fell through the cracks."

He said, "Why don't you and your wife come out here, on our nickel." Fran and I went out and he put us up at the Beverly Hilton ... picked us up in his Mercedes. We'd never been wined and dined like this in our lives.

We spent about three days in the offices there. Don Evans was the charts manager. I spent a lot of time with Don, because he was the one in charge of producing the charts, like Silvio [Pietroluongo, VP/charts and data development] is now. We sat down and worked out about a 26-page licensing agreement. He gave me the exclusive publishing rights to mine the Billboard charts and, in turn, I had to pay Billboard a royalty.

I'd also write some advertorials that were published in the magazine, about interesting things on the charts, and there'd be a little coupon to order my book.

That's how it started. Almost 45 years later, we're still doing it.

NEXT: Why we watch the charts

You remain the longest-running licensee in Billboard history.

I've always felt so comfortable with the people at Billboard. I remember being in the New York offices about a decade ago. [Former president/music & literary] John Kilcullen gave me his private number. [Former publisher] Howard Appelbaum was in the office with us and said to him, "You never give anybody your number!" John said, "Well, I admire all the work Joel has done, all the good Joel's done for Billboard over the years."

He put his arm around me and walked me down to the elevator. I just felt so good that we have that mutual feeling for each other; how much I love Billboard and how much he loved the work that I've done.

I also remember sitting with [former editor, the late] Timothy White – he was relaxing, smoking a pipe – just talking music for an hour-and-a-half, and reminiscing about the early years of Billboard, and the early charts. We had so much fun just talking about the history of music. I thought, "Wow, how much fun this is." Music is so much fun.

What do you think, psychologically, is the draw of music charts? Is it that people need to know who's the leader, in anything?

I compare it to the sports world and the music industry. Who's leading the pennant race? Who has the biggest movie in America? There's always that fascination about who's No. 1.

Right now, the big talk in music is about all the ladies dominating the charts. Everybody's talking about that.

Hmm ... who better to ask than Joel Whitburn about that. Why do you think women have done so well on the Hot 100 lately (setting a record of seven straight weeks of all-women top fives, through last week)?

It's a trend. There was a time when the Beatles had the top five [April 4, 1964]. Men dominated the charts in the mid-'60s. Groups, too. You can go back and find all kinds of trends. This is happening now, but it'll change. But, right now, it's the trend of today.

It's similar to the '90s, when Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston, all those big divas, were controlling the charts.

And the women having hits now grew up listening to and idolizing those big voices, so they probably deserve some credit for what's happening on the charts now.

Of course. It's all cyclical. It's the way it goes. It's amazing, isn't it?

Who are some of your favorite artists, from your earliest days as a music fan to now?

I'm partial to a lot of the early artists: Elvis, the Everly Brothers, Duane Eddy. Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Beatles, Rolling Stones – the Stones are probably my favorite rock & roll band. Who else? Ricky Nelson, Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, Eddie Cochran, Sam Cooke, the Drifters, Fats Domino, the Ventures, the Crystals, the Ronettes, the Shirelles – my all-time favorite girl group. Bobby Darin, Buddy Holly. And, Jack Scott, not sure if anybody remembers that guy.

I like the Kingston Trio – they had a nice string of great folk albums. I love that stuff. Brenda Lee, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Mamas and the Papas, Gene Pitney, Roy Orbison.

In country, I like Jim Reeves, Marty Robbins, George Jones. For adult contemporary: Andy Williams.

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For newer artists, I really like Taylor Swift a lot. I think Meghan Trainor is going to be an artist for a long time. I think Sam Smith is going to have a long career, he's got a nice sound. Maroon 5, Nickelback, Ed Sheeran, too. I like this new one ["Trumpets"] from Jason Derulo. Ariana Grande's good. I like Lee Brice, although I really like the old country, like George Strait and Alan Jackson, a lot.

And, we don't know who's going to come along in 2015. There could be something amazing that could just set the world on fire. I'm always looking for that.

Do you follow the charts as a professional, impartial analyst … or as a music fan, hoping that your favorites hit No. 1? Or both?

I'd say about 60 percent is music fan, 40 percent is "chartologist." I'm excited to see everything that debuts, especially on the major charts: Hot 100, Billboard 200, the Bubbling Under charts, R&B, country. I want to hear it. I'm like, "Who's this new band, Sheppard?" Or Kim Cesarion, or Lilly Wood. They come on and I don't know who they are. But, it might be something that I really like. It might have a great twangy guitar, or a vibrato. I don't know, so I get real excited about that.

And, I like if there's a debut by an older artist.

… like how Glen Campbell debuted on the Hot 100 last week, with "I'm Not Gonna Miss You" (a song about his brave battle with Alzheimer's disease).

Wasn't that amazing? I had to re-read that. Glen Campbell?! That's the music fan in you, when you see something like that. I couldn't wait to hear that song. Then, when I did, I thought, wow … really touching.

Just as Billboard charts have evolved, so has Record Research. Please tell us what's new among your offerings.

We're doing e-books – although people still want the print books. About 75 percent of our customers demand print books. We run out of stock, because they sell so well. But we restock as best we can. Our biggest seller is Top Pop Singles, our flagship, which covers the Hot 100; it actually goes back to 1955, and the Top 100 chart, before the Hot 100. It covers the whole history of the rock era, before Elvis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard; that's why I went back a little before the Hot 100 – I wanted to include that early rock & roll history. I'm working on the next edition, which should be out early next year.
 
Plus, I always like to hear, from anyone, what they want from us. They'd like books on the Latin charts, or the Gospel charts. We take into consideration what people are looking for.

Going forward, it's all based on who'll be on Billboard charts that have yet to be written …

It's a beautiful magazine. Such great charts … and stories about all these artists. Who wouldn't want to read about them?

I'm just a huge music fan and I love the charts. 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.