Billboard’s Paul Grein Talks 40 Years of ‘Chart Beat’ Being Driven by ‘The Best Tool of All: A Sense of Curiosity’
Paul Grein, Billboard's awards editor, looks back at the 1981 beginnings of Billboard's enduring "Chart Beat" charts coverage.
In the March 28, 1981, issue of Billboard, readers thumbing through to page six learned that Blondie’s “Rapture” became “the second rap disco smash to achieve the ultimate” on the Billboard Hot 100 “in less than six months, following Queen’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust.’ “
Another nugget noted that “mainstream hard rock bands have a lock on the top three spots” on the Billboard 200 albums chart, by REO Speedwagon, Styx and Rush, and that the LPs had become “the biggest in all three groups’ careers.”
Those insights might seem like an obvious fit in Billboard‘s pages, but outside of certain clever items — like a headline that read, “Chart Crawls With Beatles,” when the Fab Four infused the Hot 100’s entire top five on April 4, 1964 — such coverage was rare, dating to the July 27, 1940, publication of the first Billboard song sales chart.
On page three of the March 28, 1981, issue, chart news was making news on a greater scale at last. “Billboard this week introduces a new column, Chartbeat” — restylized in 1984 as “Chart Beat” — “which will look behind the numbers and, hopefully, put it all in some perspective,” an announcement read. “It’s not a laundry list of the week’s prime movers; they can be gleaned easily from the charts themselves. Let us know what you think.”
Billboard‘s Paul Grein masterminded the idea; and today, just like Blondie and REO Speedwagon’s hits, Billboard‘s Chart Beat coverage endures, a reflection of the desire of music fans, artists, labels and more to still look behind the numbers. The spotlight has expanded from a weekly print column to its own hub on billboard.com, along with offshoots such as the @billboardcharts account.
Following Grein, Fred Bronson, author of The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, began writing the Chart Beat column in 1993 and, since the late 2000s, Billboard‘s charts department and others, including Grein and Bronson, have continued to chronicle the most notable chart achievements.
Forty years on and over 2,000 chart weeks later (and with rap and rock now a more common mix, although three rock bands can again boast the three best-selling albums in the U.S.), Grein, Billboard‘s awards editor since March 2019, looks back at the beginnings of Chart Beat and some of his favorite experiences writing for Billboard.
How did you originate the idea to start the weekly Chart Beat column, and its name? And how easily did it go from your mind to the magazine?
Grein: I had been writing for Billboard for six years, first as a freelancer and then on staff, when we started Chart Beat as a weekly column in March 1981. New editors were appointed in January 1981: Adam White as managing editor and Irv Lichtman as news editor. They liked what I was doing, and welcomed the idea of giving it a regular weekly home. Before that, I wrote stories and news items that popped up in various places throughout the magazine.
I remember making a list of possible names for the column on a legal pad. Chart Beat was the best one I came up with. I liked the play on the word “heartbeat,” and chart hits have a life force.
At the risk of dating myself, it all started in January 1975 when I was a junior at UCLA. I would go to the library on campus and read Billboard. In the issue dated Feb. 1, 1975, there was a one-paragraph filler item at the bottom of page four titled “John’s Long Life.” Here it is in full: “Elton John’s Greatest Hits LP on MCA remains the No. 1 product on Billboard‘s Top LPs & Tape chart for the 11th consecutive week. It’s been quite some time since an artist stayed up there in the top spot so long.”
I wrote Bill Wardlow, who was Billboard‘s chart director [under the exact title “director, marketing services”], a letter: “Actually, this is its 10th week at No. 1. And I can tell you exactly what the last album to spend 10 weeks at No. 1 was [Carole King’s Tapestry].”
Next, I went up to the Billboard offices in the hip-and-happening 9000 Sunset building, across the street from the Roxy Theater. There were record company promotion execs waiting in the lobby, buzzing about hit songs and their chances of making No. 1. This was definitely more exciting than going to class — though I kept doing that, too.
I met with Bill in his office. He marched me over to meet Eliot Tiegel, who was managing editor. Eliot turned me loose and my first pieces starting running that spring. The first one ran in the April 12 issue, under the header Chart Talk [about Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti tying the then-record for the Billboard 200’s all-time top debut, at No. 3]. I was paid the princely sum of $1 per inch of published copy.
And here I am 46 years later, and let’s say 20 years older …
Overall, why do you think music fans like watching the charts?
I agree with what Clive Davis wrote in his 1974 autobiography: “I was a reader of charts and statistics, and I found an excitement in them which is hard to explain, as if they represented a flow of energy.”
Following music charts is the perfect balance of right-brained and left-brained functions. I should probably explain this: If you’re mostly analytical and methodical in your thinking, you’re said to be left-brained. If you tend to be more creative or artistic, you’re thought to be right-brained. Music charts draw on both sides of your brain.
The charts bring order to a messy world. Cleaning your house or your room or even your desk is hard work. But you can listen to American Top 40 or scan the Hot 100 and everything is lined up in perfect order. The song at No. 37, we are told and we fervently believe, is just a shade more popular than the song at No. 38. Finally, we have order!
Nowadays, insightful readers and charting artists themselves contribute to chart coverage, sometimes with angles that Billboard staffers didn’t even consider. What resources did you have in the ’70s and early ’80s?
This was before the Internet, before Wikipedia and Google and these marvelous tools that have made it so easy to double-check facts and spellings. But I did have access to Joel Whitburn’s line of Record Research books, which were, and still are, indispensable. I had access to the office’s bound volumes of Billboard. And I had access to the best tool of all: a sense of curiosity. “Let’s see if anyone has ever done that before …”
How concerned were you ever that a chart week might not contain enough interesting material for a column? Especially in 1981, when Billboard published a relatively small menu of charts.
I was never concerned about that. There are weeks when all hell breaks loose on the charts, but there’s never a week where nothing happens. Sometimes those quieter weeks give you a chance to catch up.
Many Chart Beat columns, even early on, contained questions or trivia from readers. Did it surprise you that the subject matter was making such a connection?
It did, but it probably shouldn’t have. AT40 went on the air in 1970 and Whitburn’s books started publishing around the same time. Both greatly boosted Billboard‘s name recognition among the general public. Now, Billboard questions pop up frequently on Jeopardy. It’s seen as common knowledge, at least in the pop-culture sense of the term, not a narrow niche.
What did strike me, and what still strikes me when I read “Ask Billboard” mailbags, is how smart and well-informed our readers are. Sometimes, these readers don’t even work in the business. This is just their hobby. It always kept me on my toes, because there are a lot of people out there who would probably do a very good job at it, too.
Chart Beat has served not only chart fans but also artists, managers, record labels and other music executives. Did you find that the industry appreciated having a source that celebrated its achievements?
Yes. I got a nice note in 1977 from Clive Davis [then-president of Arista Records]. He had noticed my work and said he appreciated that my pieces were “refreshingly, based on facts.” That was a keeper.
Any favorite or most surprising chart feats over the years that have especially intrigued you?
I’ve got to go with Whitney Houston’s seven consecutive No. 1 hits on the Hot 100 in 1985-88. She surpassed The Beatles and Bee Gees, who each had six No. 1 hits in a row. When you top those two groups, who defined for their eras how hot acts could get in pop music, that really says something.
You’ve chronicled the music industry for Billboard over multiple decades. What stands out to you as having changed the most, and the least?
It still all begins with a song. That’s been true since the days of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” from 1911 … not that I go that far back … and it will be true forever.
As for the biggest change, many fans today no longer feel the need or desire to own physical product. That’s a huge change. Buying someone’s record, bringing it home, looking at the cover image, reading the liner notes and the lyrics, were for many decades a key part of the fan experience.
Also, when I started, it was considered uncool of artists to act like they cared too much about the charts or awards. It was cooler for them to act like they were almost unaware of what was going on with their records. Elton John and Bee Gees were unabashed chart fans who changed that in the ’70s, and I think it’s fair to say that Michael Jackson was obsessed with his record-setting achievements. Nowadays, acts don’t have to pretend they’re barely aware of what happens to their records. Of course they know and of course they care.
Do any artist interviews that you’ve conducted over the years remain especially memorable?
I was able to interview most of the artists who were my favorites when I first got into music in 1971: Carole King, the Carpenters, Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick, Burt Bacharach, Barbra Streisand and many more. I interviewed Dionne in Las Vegas in 1979 as her comeback hit “I’ll Never Love This Way Again” was climbing the charts. She made me lemonade.
From lemonade to “Peaches” … any observations about the charts today? Some feats can be a bit (sorry) apples-to-oranges historically, as songs now more regularly debut at No. 1 on the Hot 100 than before, and certain artists debut an entire album’s worth of songs on a chart due to high streaming totals. At the same time, some honors remain especially rare across various eras, such as Drake having become only the third artist ever to rank at Nos. 1, 2 and 3 on the Hot 100 simultaneously, after The Beatles and Ariana Grande.
The differences between eras are obvious. Now, a record can make the top 10 on the Hot 100 based on a week or two of strong streaming activity and not be a hit in the traditional sense: a song that everyone who follows pop music knows, and has heard on the radio so many times they know it by heart even a half-century later.
But the commonalities between eras are striking, too. Artists still look to the Billboard charts as definitive. They’re the charts that will be quoted decades from now, that their children and grandchildren will look up to see how they did.
And 40 years after that first Chart Beat column, you still write chart-based stories for Chart Beat on billboard.com, in addition to your full-time work as Billboard‘s awards editor …
Writing about the charts all those years was the best training. The two fields, charts and awards, are so similar. It’s still about artists setting records. It’s still about looking for a good hook or an impressive feat. And accuracy is still of paramount importance.
Adam White and Irv Lichtman turned over prime space in the magazine to me every week with confidence and Eliot Tiegel impressed on me the need to be accurate at all times. I wrote about this incident when Eliot died in April 2020, but it was a life-changing moment for me, so I’ll repeat myself: I had written a story in which I mentioned the Doobie Brothers. Only I spelled it “Doobie Bros.” The band was on Warner Bros., so I guess I thought it was okay to shorten the “Brothers” in their name, too. Eliot came back to my desk and asked, “Is this how their name is properly rendered?” I’m sure I thought, “Who cares? Every single reader will know who I’m talking about.” But I dutifully checked and, yes, the word “Brothers” should be spelled out.
I didn’t want Eliot to have to keep coming back to my desk, so I resolved then and there to get every detail right. If he were going to be persnickety, I would give him nothing to be persnickety about. He lit a fire in me that has served me very well: to get it right. All the names, all the dates, all the song and album titles, all the award categories and counts, all the chart peaks and tallies. There’s a lot to keep straight, but if you’re not going to bother to get it right, you have no business writing about it.