Joel Whitburn, one of the pre-eminent chart historians of the last 50-plus years, has died. The news was first shared on Facebook by Whitburn’s protégé, longtime friend and Record Research co-worker Paul Haney, who wrote that the legendary industry figure “passed away peacefully overnight” on Tuesday (June 14). “He had been having some serious health issues recently, but his passing still comes as a shock,” Haney continued. Whitburn was 82.
After founding the Record Research Inc. company in 1970, Whitburn became one of the leading authors of reference books on the Billboard charts, releasing over 100 total entries of series like Top Pop Singles, Top 40 Hits, Top 40 Albums and Top 40 Country Hits. Particularly in the time before the internet made archival chart information widely available, his books proved invaluable in providing the whole industry with reliable chart stats and records, becoming fixtures on the bookshelves for DJs, execs, writers and artists alike. (His accurate reporting also made it more difficult for publicists and labels to credibly fudge the chart achievements of their artists, a notoriously common practice in the early ’70s.)
“Billboard could not have asked for a better representative to document the history of our charts than Joel Whitburn,” says Silvio Pietroluongo, Billboard‘s SVP of Charts & Data Development. “His passion and innovation led to the creation of what is literally the encyclopedia of music popularity – Record Research – without which the Billboard team, and most in the industry, would be hard-pressed to provide the historical context that we do on a daily basis.
“It was a career thrill to get to know Joel personally throughout the years,” Pietroluongo continues. “He was a true gentleman and will be missed greatly, but his legacy has long been secured.”
Whitburn was born in Menomonee Falls, Wis., just outside of Milwaukee, in 1939. Growing up as a sports and music obsessive in the ’50s, he became a Billboard devotee after seeing the magazine for the first time on a trip to the city with his mother. “I saw Billboard and I didn’t know what it was,” he recalled to Billboard senior director of charts Gary Trust in a 2014 interview. “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… And then, all these charts … top 20 charts, top 30 charts, with all these songs that I loved.” From there, he begged his father to cover the $10 cost to be an annual subscriber to the magazine.
“It was October 1953 when I first subscribed, and I don’t think I’ve missed an issue through today,” he offered. “I look forward to it every week. I can’t go a week without reading my Billboard.”
When the Billboard Hot 100 arrived for the first time as Billboard‘s flagship songs chart in August 1958, Whitburn made it his primary focus. He made index cards cataloguing all the relevant information of the songs listed on the magazine’s then-two-page chart spread, tracking their movement on the chart from week to week. When he got a job at RCA doing record distribution in the mid ’60s, having these chart stats at the ready made him an invaluable resource to the radio stations he would visit. “They all said it would be a godsend to have that information at their fingertips, because there was nothing available,” he said.
Whitburn decided to quit his job at RCA and devote himself full-time to his research, founding Record Research and publishing his team’s findings, with their first release being Top Pop Singles in 1970. After working out a licensing agreement with Billboard — “[Charts manager Don Evans] gave me the exclusive publishing rights to mine the Billboard charts and, in turn, I had to pay Billboard a royalty,” he explained — further series followed, starting with Top Pop Albums and eventually encompassing genre-specific charts for rock, R&B, country, easy listening and more. (Eventually, Rhino Records also started to release dozens of hits compilations based on Whitburn’s books.)
In addition to being a compulsive cataloguer of Billboard chart history, Whitburn was also famous for his peerless record collection — which, he estimated to former Billboard editor Larry LeBlanc in 2013, contained over 200,000 45 rpm singles, as well as “every album that has ever charted [on Billboard] all the way up to today.” His collection took up so much physical space in his and his wife’s home that he said it had “filled the vault, and we have built a second vault.” (One charting record remained forever elusive for Whitburn, however: a Hot 100 Bubbling Under entry by a group called D.A. titled “Ready ‘N’ Steady,” which after extensive research, he concluded: ‘I don’t think it exists.'”)
Whitburn and Record Research continued to release books throughout the decades, expanding to new charts and genres, and publishing their most recent full installment of their flagship Top Pop Singles series in 2018. (An even more recent update necessitated a two-volume release — the first half, covering from 1955-1989, was published in 2021, with the second volume due later this year.) Over the years, Whitburn’s books became an indispensable part of pop discussion — even to the artists most frequently catalogued in their pages. He told Billboard‘s Chart Beat Podcast in 2016 about a time he offered Elton John, nine-time topper of the Hot 100 and seven-time bester of the Billboard 200, one of his books. John’s response: “Oh, I got all your stuff, Joel.”
Though it would have been possible for Whitburn to get lost in the reams of hard data and infinite spreadsheets of his bottomless research, he remained a passionate fan of rock and pop music well into the 21st century. “I’m excited to see everything that debuts, especially on the major charts… I want to hear it,” he told Billboard in 2014. “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… so I get real excited about that.” (He also allowed: “And I like if there’s a debut by an older artist.”)
In his Facebook post announcing Whitburn’s death, Haney grouped his mentor with household name and late legendary longtime American Top 40 host Casey Kasem, in terms of his all-time chart idols. “I never got to meet Casey, but I did have the privilege of working closely with Joel for 30+ years,” he wrote. “I will be eternally grateful to him for giving me my dream job and trusting me to work on the books that bear his name. Rest in peace, big guy.”
“Certain names are synonymous with Billboard charts,” Trust wrote back in 2014. “None may say ‘Billboard,’ however, more than Joel Whitburn.”
Additional reporting and research provided by Gary Trust, Alex Vitoulis, Paul Grein and Keith Caulfield.