Joel Whitburn, whose books of research on the charts were a staple of the bookshelves of anyone who cared about the history or business of pop music for decades, died Tuesday at age 82.
No cause of death was immediately given, although Whitburn was reported to have been in ill health for some time.
The Wisconsin native’s company, Record Research, had been publishing books based on the Billboard charts going back to 1970, with a count of tomes that as of a little under a decade ago amounted to 122 books.
Amid all the genre-specific books he published, Whitburn’s “flagship” book and top seller was “Top Pop Singles.” That book covered everything that was a hit from 1955 forward, with Whitburn throwing in three years worth of mid-’50s stats from a chart that predated the Hot 100’s beginning in 1958 because he “wanted to include that early rock ‘n’ roll history.” But he was never under the delusion that music started with Elvis Presley, as evidenced by his also having publishing a book titled “Pop Memories: 1890-1954.”
His completism wasn’t limited to pure data: Whitburn’s home in Menomonee Falls, Wis. had an underground vault that contained every single to ever chart on the Billboard Hot 100 since it began in 1958 (on 7-inch vinyl records for the first few decades, and official or burned CDs for later years).
Talking with former Billboard bureau chief in 2013, Whitburn estimated he had over 200,000 45 rpm singles in his vault (including an estimated 18,000 with picture sleeves), and claimed to have a copy of every pop album that ever charted in the magazine dating back to 1945, too.
Whitburn’s name was also familiar to oldies fans via a series of compilation CDs issued by Rhino Records.
In a 2014 Q&A conducted for Billboard’s 120th anniversary, Whitburn reminisced about becoming the uncontested chart king in a world full of record geeks who would have fought for the crown if it weren’t so clearly his.
After coming across a weekly edition of Billboard at a bus station in the early ’50s, when he was 12, Whitburn became entranced by the full-page ads for records he was excited about hearing on the radio, as well as the voluminous reviews of new singles (something modern Billboard did away with decades ago). “I started subscribing to Billboard in 1953,” he told Gary Trust. “It was $10 a year … which I had to beg for from my dad. So, he sent the $10 bill in.”
Whitburn kept every issue, a practice that went on for enough years that he was able to indulge in nostalgia looking at old copies. “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.'” He started writing down dates and figures on cards, starting with Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool,” the first No. 1 on the first Hot 100 chart. “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. … I was just doing it as a hobby.”
He went to work for RCA Records, compiling his chart research on nights and weekends over the next five years. In his day job in the late ’60s, “I was working in the music industry,” Whitburn told LeBlanc.” Charley Pride would come to town and I’d go out to lunch with him. I met John Gary, Chet Atkins, and Henry Mancini. This was from ’68 into early ’70.” In the Midwest, “I was going around setting up these 8-track tape departments all over the place. Everybody was getting into 8-track tapes, including gas stations.”
He quit his job and began publishing books in 1970. “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.”
Whitburn was glad he went rogue and self-published before Billboard came into the picture, having seen advertisements for his first book. “I (had) just published my book” when the first call came, he recalled. “It was lucky I did because if I had asked Billboard, they probably would have said no.”
Billboard publisher Hal Cook, rather than claim copyright infringement, called Whitburn and his wife Fran out to Los Angeles and helped work out an agreement in which Billboard would earn royalties in return for exclusively licensing its data about oldies to the enterprising young man. “I ended up with a 26-page licensing agreement with a lot of legal wording. I didn’t even read it because I just wanted to sign it, and get going. I wanted to do the album charts as well as country, and I wanted to do an R&B book.”
At that time, he told Wisconsin’s Patch site in an interview, “they were also working with Casey Kasem’s contract to do ‘American Top 40.’ They gave me the publishing agreement and they gave Casey the broadcast agreement, so we started together.”
Looking back to his teen years. Whitburn figured the timing was right for him to become obsessed with music in the mid-’50s, even though his interest pre-dated rock ‘n’ roll, as he loved the crooners as well. “I was at the perfect age, 14 or 15, when rock ‘n’ roll broke,” he told LeBlanc. “I was able to go down once a week and buy a record. I had to make that awful decision of what record do I buy this week, and what records do I leave out until next week. Sam Cooke was my favorite. Jackie Wilson was a close second. When I was in college, Jackie Wilson had ‘To Be Loved’ (in 1958). I thought that was the greatest song ever made at the time.”
Whitburn’s collected research made the common practice of fibbing about hits harder to pull off than it once was. He told a local Wisconsin paper: “If James Darren came to town and they interviewed him because he was going to appear at the State Fair and if he’d say, ‘My first four records were all No. 1 hits,’ they’d go along with it even though he only had one record that got to No. 3.”
He used to have trucks deliver as many 5,000 books at a time to his home in Wisconsin, when he was personally responsible for mail order sales. “The mailman was pretty excited about it and there were orders coming from all over the world,” Whitburn said. “So we’re getting all these foreign stamps and my wife was all excited and saving the stamps from all these countries. I’m getting calls from KRLA in Los Angeles, WABC in New York, all these big radio stations are calling and saying, ‘I need the book, the whole history.'”
When artists came to Milwaukee to do shows, Whitburn would be there to present them with copies of his books backstage, from Paul McCartney to Sting. When Elton John came through… well, you can probably guess the punchline. “I was going to give Elton John a book, and he said, ‘I’ve got all of your books.'”
Eventually ebooks consumed more of his business, allowing music buffs to free up some shelf space previously devoted to his 200-plus tomes… although many still prefer to keep hard copies of the most essential titles, for easy flipping.
Asked whether he took a rooting interest in newcomers and what makes it to the top, Whitburn said, “I’d say about 60 percent is music fan, 40 percent is ‘chartologist.’
“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,” he said.