John Sippel, a Billboard reporter and editor for 25 years and was the last known link to the magazine when it was called The Billboard in the 1940s and 1950s, passed away Jan. 6 from natural causes in Hilton Head, S.C. He was 97.
Sippel had a varied and stellar career at the publication, spread over three different stints beginning in 1945 and ending in 1986. When not at Billboard, he worked for Mercury Records (from 1951-1957 and 1965-1971) and for Monument Records (from 1961-1964.)
A challenging yet creative editorial force, Sippel was best known as the originator, main contributor and editor of Billboard’s “Inside Track” gossip column. For almost three decades, reader surveys cited this column as the magazine’s most-read feature, first under the stewardship of Sippel and then his “Inside Track” successor, Irv Lichtman.
“John loved covering the music industry, especially retail, for which he felt a special affinity and prided himself on giving voice to, particularly in ‘Inside Track,’ ” says Fred Goodman, a former Billboard and Rolling Stone editor and author of three music industry books. “At its height, ‘Inside track’ was a good mix of breaking news and gossip and was really seen as the weekly must-read. And while everyone [on staff] contributed, that was really Sippel’s column.”
Others also remember Sippel’s deep relationship with the executives who worked for the retail and wholesale side of the industry. “When I became managing editor in 1981, I quickly came to understand that John Sippel knew virtually every retailer and independent distributor who mattered,” recalls ex-Billboard staffer Adam White. “But, unusually, I found that he wasn’t proprietary about those relationships, and his outlook and experience helped us to better cover the retail sector.”
Born in Fond du Lac, Wisc. on May 17, 1920, Sippel graduated from Marquette University with a journalism degree. After jobs as a cub reporter for the Milwaukee Journal and the Associated Press, he landed his first music industry job in 1944 with Downbeat, the storied jazz journal in Chicago. After almost a year with that magazine, in January 1945 he moved across town and began working in Billboard‘s Chicago office, where he met his wife-to-be Betty Blake, who also worked there. They were married in 1947.
In his first Billboard stint, Sippel would lead its country music coverage through a column that began in 1942 called “American Folk Tunes,” which he inherited from editorial staffer Nat Green. Under Sippel from 1945, it would soon be renamed “Folk Talent & Tunes,” reporting on folk and country music. According to a 1979 Master’s thesis by Richard Price Stockdell for Kansas State University, the first country music trade group, Country Music Disc Jockey Assn., grew out of a “small group of country jocks who met through the columns Johnny Sippel wrote every week in Billboard called ‘Folk Talent & Tunes.’”
In 1950, Sippel moved to Billboard‘s Los Angeles bureau, but a cold reception — staffers there thought he was a spy sent by management — led him to leave in May 1951 for a post as Mercury Records’ regional sales manager for the West. “I covered everything west of Milwaukee, going all the way to the Canadian border and down to the Gulf of Mexico,” he told White in an unpublished interview in 2013.
“It was the largest territory; I used to stay out on the road as much as seven weeks at a time,” Sippel said in another interview with Billboard in 2011. “A typical road trip would see me getting in my car and driving up the coast from Los Angeles to Seattle, and then driving to Missoula, Montana, and coming back through Las Vegas on my way home to Los Angeles, hitting wholesalers and retailers at all points along the way.”
At Mercury, Sippel advanced to packaged goods sales manager and national sales manager; and was also instrumental in its signing of the Platters and the Penguins, according to The Billboard Book Of Number One Hits by Fred Bronson.
In 1958, Sippel returned to Billboard, this time to sell advertising out of the Chicago office. Even being on the other side of the ad sales/editorial line, he would often pass news tips to his former editorial colleagues. He also started a softball team, The Ten Percenters, which involved bookers who scheduled bands, singers and entertainers; team members became sources of good copy, according to an obituary on the Uecker-Witt funeral home website, written by his brother and survivor, retired Catholic priest Father Edward Sippel.
It was during these years that Sippel also befriended Leonard and Phil Chess, the founders of the iconic Chicago blues label Chess Records that played a seminal role in the evolution of rock ’n’ roll. While selling advertising to Chess, Sippel often hung around the label’s headquarters and soon was authoring liner notes. “I wrote Chuck Berry’s first bios,” Sippel told Billboard in an interview upon the music legend’s death last March. “Chess was very good advertisers with Billboard, so I helped them out. I got paid $25 a cover. Some months I could make as much as $300, writing liner notes for 12 covers.”
Sippel told White in 2013, “Leonard and Phil were dear, dear friends. In fact, when Leonard’s first daughter married, I was the only person from the record business invited to the wedding reception.” He also knew Berry quite well. “We were good friends back then,” he said. “When I knew him, he was a happy-go-lucky person. Look at his lyrics, there is no bitterness in them and he wrote most of his own songs.”
In 1960, Sippel moved to Billboard’s New York office, where the music advertising sales team was based; and in February, 1961, he relocated to Nashville to become head of marketing at Fred Foster’s Monument Records, where he would eventually hold the title of executive vp/GM. There, Sippel worked closely with Roy Orbison, who was in the midst of his big run of hits; Sippel and his wife would often socialize with the “Pretty Woman” singer/songwriter and his family.
In January 1965, Sippel returned to Mercury Records in Chicago, first as head of publicity, then as product manager for the Mercury and Blue Rock imprints, and finally as vp for promotion and artists exploitation. Sippel traded on his relationship with Chuck Berry to help bring the musician to Mercury. “I was the intermediary,” Sippel said. “At that time, he was coming out of a life of turmoil and I was very committed to making sure he was a happy artist with us.”
In May 1971, Sippel returned to Billboard in the Los Angeles office (where he was no longer treated as a mole), first as news editor, then as marketing editor, and finally as retail editor. He was also on the magazine’s executive editorial board. In 1973, Sippel, a devout Catholic, began writing an intermittent column called “Gospel Gambol” that ran for a couple of years.
But in the last stage of his journalism career until retirement, Sippel focused almost exclusively on the account side of the music business — namely, retailers, one-stops, indie distributors and rackjobbers — and built up a vast network of sources. “I don’t think anyone reported as well as I did, because I had more experience in the industry than the entire staff of Billboard put together,” Sippel told White.
While he was a great reporter, Sippel’s writing was another matter. “Admittedly, editing John’s copy could be a challenge,” says White. “I vividly remember arguing with him once that ‘average’ and ‘median’ were not the same thing — and arguing with him was not a task to take lightly. He was a blunt man who would not suffer fools gladly, but his dedication to Billboard was total. That dedication is what I remember the most, and came to respect.”
When nearing retirement, Sippel received a lifetime achievement award from the National Assn. of Independent Record Distributors and Manufacturers (NAIRD), a predecessor to A2IM. At the time, NAIRD board member and Tommy Boy Records owner Tom Silverman was quoted in Billboard as saying the honor was presented “partly in recognition of the fact that while everyone else in the industry was going crazy about the importance of radio, John recognized and championed the retail community and its value to our industry.”
After retirement and his wife’s passing, Sippel stayed in Los Angeles. In 1990, he married Jane Marshall, a childhood school friend from his days in Fond Du Lac. Married by his brother, they chose to live in Hilton Head Island, where Sippel could practice his lifelong hobbies of cooking, listening to his beloved jazz records and entertaining visiting acquaintances from the music business. Throughout this time, he maintained close contact with former industry friends via phone calls.
One of those relationship was with Bruce Ogilvie, chairman of Alliance Entertainment Corp. “Even after he moved to Hilton Head, he would always call me and ask about the music business,” says Ogilvie, who last spoke with Sippel in December. “He would bring up old names and tell me stories, and I was always impressed how sharp his memory was even as he aged. When I hung up, I told myself, ‘I hope I can be as sharp as John is.’ John was well read, stayed on top of current events and was devoted to his Church. I am very sad that I will no longer be receiving calls.”