Joel Whitburn, tireless researcher of music charts, dies at 82


Joel Whitburn, who tirelessly mined Billboard’s music charts to fill reference books that tell the statistical stories of pop, rock, country, R&B, hip-hop and dance hits since 1940, died Tuesday at his Menomonee home Falls, Wis. He was 82.

His death was confirmed by Paul Haney, a longtime researcher and editor at Record Research, Mr Whitburn’s publishing house. He did not specify a cause.

Mr. Whitburn was a music lover whose personal collection – meticulously kept in his basement and, later, in a vault – totals more than 200,000 records, each of which has ever made a Billboard chart.

“I go into this library alone – all these records – and it’s like they’re all my old friends,” he said in an interview with The Minneapolis Star Tribune in 1986.

Mr. Whitburn has published nearly 300 books (including updated editions), most of them very detailed histories of hit records and albums. He began cataloging records on index cards and turned this project into his first volume, “Top Pop Singles”, published in 1970. Computers came much later.

Disc jockeys and record collectors are among its first customers. But his books have also become important additions to the libraries of other music fans. Almost all used Billboard charts, but Mr. Whitburn also dug into those published by trade magazines Cash Box, Record World and Radio & Records.

“He had a profound impact on the music industry as a whole,” Silvio Pietroluongo, senior vice president of graphics and data development at Billboard, said in a phone interview. “He was the first person to catalog the history of recorded music, and in doing so it became the de facto history of recorded music.”

He added, “Joel’s column on the Hot 100 has given him significant national endorsement.”

His books, with generic titles and alphabetical listings by artist or group, covered a vast musical territory: “Top R&B Singles, 1942-2016”, “Hit Country Records, 1954-1982”, “Across the Charts: The Sixties”.

The ninth edition of “The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits” (2010) lists 52 Beatles songs, with the dates each song entered the Top 40, from the first (“I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “I Saw Her Standing There” on January 25, 1964) to the last (“Real Love”, made by the surviving Beatles from demos cut by John Lennon, March 23, 1996); their peak chart positions; how many time the songs stayed on the chart; how long they stayed in the No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3 spot; nuggets of information (like the fact that “Please Please Me”, the fourth hit on the band in the Top 40, was recorded in 1962); and the label (usually Capitol, later Apple, but also a few others early on).

He also published books containing a given decade’s worth of charts.

In his review of “Top Pop Singles, 1955-2006” (2007), Los Angeles Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn noted that Mr. Whitburn had augmented his updates to the book with new material. “This time,” he wrote, “he borrows a page from baseball batting averages and assigns a ‘hit average’ to recording artists.”

Mr. Whitburn explained his fascination with the Billboard charts – and the reason for his company’s success – in an interview with this magazine in 2014.

“I’m just a huge music fan and I love charts,” he said. “I like to follow the success of artists. There’s only joy in that. It’s a weekly thrill. And there are millions more like me all over the world.

Joel Carver Whitburn was born on November 29, 1939 in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. Her father, Russell, worked for a local power company. His mother, Ruth (Bird) Whitburn, was a homemaker.

Joel was already a music lover when, at age 12, he saw copies of Billboard for sale at a Milwaukee bus station. His mother gave him a quarter to buy it, and while reading it at home, he was amazed at the information it offered.

“All of a sudden I knew what the No. 1 song in the country was,” he said in a 2009 interview with music journalist Larry LeBlanc for entertainment website CelebrityAccess. “I had no idea there was a chart that gave you that information.”

Later, he became a subscriber and he kept every issue.

Mr. Whitburn attended Elmhurst College (now the University) in Illinois and the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, but did not graduate. He held several jobs before being hired to represent RCA Records, after telling a distributor in Milwaukee how much he loved music. He was told about a new company offering eight-track tapes and got a job setting up eight-track departments at stores in Wisconsin and Illinois. While working for RCA he met artists like Chet Atkins and Charley Pride.

By then he was immersed in his research on Billboard as a hobby, using stacks of magazines he had collected since 1954. He focused his work on the Hot 100 chart, which began in 1958, noting names of artists and recording index information. maps.

“The first chart I wrote,” he told Mr. LeBlanc, was “Nelson, Ricky, ‘Poor Little Fool’. It was the first No. 1 song on the first Hot 100.”

He quit his job at RCA in 1970 to devote himself full-time to his books.

When the first edition of “Top Pop Singles” was completed in 1970, he took out a small ad in Billboard that promised buyers a history of the Hot 100. Hal Cook, the magazine’s editor, spotted the ad and called Mr. Whitburn.

“You can’t use the Hot 100 in an advertisement,” Mr Whitburn, in the 2014 interview, recalled Mr Cook telling him. “Not without our permission.” Rather than threatening Mr Whitburn with a lawsuit, Mr Cook demanded to see the book.

Two weeks later, Mr. Whitburn said, Mr. Cook called. “He said, ‘Joel, we have the book. It’s incredible. We like it. And he conceded that Billboard’s attempts to develop a similar book had failed. He paid for Mr. Whitburn and his wife, Fran, to come to Los Angeles.

After three days, Mr. Whitburn returned home with a 26-page licensing agreement that gave him the exclusive right to use the Billboard charts in his books, in return for royalties he would pay to Billboard.

With this permission, Mr. Whitburn built an empire of musical research unparalleled.

He is survived by his wife, Frances (Mudgett) Whitburn; his daughter, Kim Bloxdorf, vice president of Record Research; his sisters, Joyce Riehl and Julie Rae Niermeyer; his brothers, Charles and David; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Veteran disc jockey Scott Shannon, currently heard on WCBS-FM in New York, said he bought his first copy of “Top Pop Singles” while working at a radio station in Mobile, Alabama, in the early 1970s. He has since purchased some of the updated editions, keeping one copy at the station and one at home.

“There was nowhere else to go for artist information, and I wanted to be the authority on the music we were playing at the time,” Shannon said in an interview. telephone. “If used correctly, you sound smarter than you are to the listener and sharper than the next jock.”


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