Tribute to Joel Whitburn (1939-2022): the Billboard chart historian whose books were an inspiration to many and this blog’s main data source

(June 19, 2022).  For the past several weeks as I wrote one of this blog’s most intense articles yet—a 100-song tribute to super producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis—there were two source books that I regularly had by my side and, after hours of grueling research and writing, often found myself waking up with the pages still opened to where my last look-up had been before nodding off hours before.

This Joel Whitburn book has been a constant companion for the past several weeks as I completed my most recent article

One was Joel Whitburn’s “Top R&B Singles 1942-2016”; the other was his “Top Pop Singles 1955-2015.”  Both books document the entire history of their respective namesake Billboard charts, with a combined 2000+ pages of facts and data from Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and the Hot 100 (and their various predecessors).

Early Tuesday morning, June 14, with the final draft of the Jam/Lewis article complete and my research done, I put away the Whitburn books and loaded the car that morning for the weekly trek to DC for my “paying” job.  The last thing I did before leaving the house was removing Whitburn’s “Top R&B Singles” book from my bed and putting it back with the latest editions of his other books I had accumulated over the years.  

Later that same day—my birthday—I received the sad news that Joel Whitburn had died hours earlier of undisclosed causes.  His longtime friend and employee Paul Haney announced that Whitburn’s health had been in decline, but his passing was unexpected.  He was 82 years old. 

Joel Whitburn (1939-2022)

Joel Whitburn was the founder of Record Research, Inc., the company through which he published the previously mentioned two plus hundreds of other books documenting the fascinating and longstanding histories of various Billboard and other music trade publications’ record charts.  Following the charts was a passion he had developed as a young child (like yours truly and countless other people out there).  And, like so many of us chart fanatics, that passion remained with him well into his adulthood.

Unlike the rest of us, though, he was able to take that passion and turn it into a behemoth publishing business, one in which he became known as the world’s most authoritative chart historian.

How it all got started

Whitburn’s first book, “Top Pop Singles,” was based on data from Billboard’s Hot 100–its flagship singles chart—and it became his most popular.  Now in its 17th edition, that book includes more than 46,000 entries of songs that made the Hot 100 (or its related charts, including the “Bubbling Under” list) by nearly 10,000 artists.  

Whitburn’s company of chart researchers also created similar books for Billboard’s country, rock, disco, adult contemporary and albums charts, as well as the previously mentioned R&B/Hip-Hop songs chart.  His books soon became the data source for radio stations, syndicated countdown shows, retro Billboard compilation CDs, and music trivia buffs everywhere.  

Born on November 29, 1939 in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, Whitburn started this musical journey in the 1950s when, as a teenager, he got his first subscription to Billboard (when subscriptions were just $10 a year).  Even with that price, the young record enthusiast had to scrape together funds just to be able to afford it.  

Whitburn, who had been been collecting and storing records as a youngster, began categorizing his collection by their Billboard chart peaks using index cards.  Soon, he made it his goal to collect every song that made the Hot 100, every album that made the Billboard 200, and all the songs that made Billboard’s specific genre charts.  Eventually, Whitburn built a temperature-controlled, underground vault that was the envy of record collectors everywhere.  There he stored thousands upon thousands of 45 rpm vinyl records and 12” albums, practically every one that charted in Billboard.  It’s reported that his collection is worth millions today.

Joel Whitburn’s record vault in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin

Joel Whitburn and Casey Kasem were kindred spirits

I was more inspired by the wealth of chart data he possessed than his impressive collection of records (although I would done anything to have both!).  Whitburn was to music history books what the iconic countdown show host Casey Kasem had been to syndicated radio.  And, as it turns out, that wasn’t totally by coincidence.

Kasem’s famous American Top 40 show, which counted down the 40 most popular tunes each week, launched in 1970–the same year that Whitburn founded Record Research, Inc. (although Whitburn had already published his first “Top Pop Hits” book before he officially incorporated Record Research).  

As the Wisconsin native recalled in an interview with Larry LeBlanc of celebrityaccess.com a few years ago, his unlikely success was a prime example of sometimes it’s better to ask for forgiveness than to get permission.

In 1970, when Billboard’s then-publisher Hal Cook got wind of Whitburn’s first book using their chart data without authorization, he phoned the young entrepreneur and, as Whitburn told LeBlanc, “He told me that he was the publisher of Billboard, and that I couldn’t use the Hot 100. That was scary for a young kid. But I told him what I did. I told him that I went through all the charts, and researched them. He said I had to get permission. He asked me to send him a copy of the book. So I sent him one. About two weeks later, another phone call came from Hal Cook. I thought, ‘I’m going to be told, “You can’t do this. This is illegal.”’ But he said, “I love the book. I love what you did.”

Whitburn firmly believed that if he had approached Billboard first with the idea of using their chart data in an easy reference book, they would have rejected him on the spot.  Seeing the book after-the-fact allowed Billboard’s execs to realize that this meticulous young author had succeeded in capturing their chart history in ways that they had failed previously.  

Cook also informed Whitburn that he was about to do a licensing agreement with Casey Kasem of Watermark, Inc. to do a countdown show featuring the top 40 positions from Billboard’s Hot 100 each week.  Cook told Whitburn that he would license Kasem to the top 40 on radio and give Whitburn an exclusive contract to create books documenting Billboard’s chart history (with Billboard receiving a cut of the royalties, of course).

Whitburn jumped at the chance, signed a 26-page contract (without bothering to read any fine print) and the rest, as they say, was history!  Whitburn’s life passion became his full-time job, and soon his books were found on bookstore shelves everywhere.  His Record Research, Inc. remains Billboard’s longest licensee to date.

My first Joel Whitburn book

I found my first Whitburn book, “The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits,” sometime in the early-to-mid-1980s, years after I’d discovered American Top 40 with Casey Kasem.  In all the years that Casey had made references in his broadcasts to the “AT40 Book of Records” while recalling on his show some amazing chart feat or an artist’s Billboard history, I’d always figured that this “book of records” was a myth, some imaginary thing designed to give the show an air of mystique—or perhaps maybe just a huge spreadsheet of facts and figures that the show’s creators periodically referenced to provide Casey with enough info to tell one of his famous stories. 

Little did I know then—before discovering Whitburn’s impressive book catalogue—what the likely sources of all those great chart statistics and information were that Casey and his show’s writers delivered to keep us informed.  Those same books would later become the primary data source for this blog as well.

My first Joel Whitburn book, published in 1983

What made his books so intriguing

Whitburn’s books told you everything you needed to know about an artist’s chart accomplishments: how many hits they had, where the songs peaked on the charts and when, how long they lasted, whether or not they were certified gold or platinum, and even—based on Whitburn’s methodology—where artists and songs ranked on decade-based or all-time lists.  

In nearly every case, Whitburn’s books gave you biographical info about the artists, including the names of group members past and present, when and where they were born, key family ties to other artists, and when they died.  In most cases, Whitburn provided these bios no matter how successful the artists were or how many hits they’d had.

Whitburn’s fact-based books settled many debates.  Given his meticulous attention to detail, readers knew they could trust every entry.  You may not have wanted to believe that Drake had more chart hits than anyone in history—including the Beatles—but after checking Whitburn’s latest Top Pop Hits book, you also couldn’t deny it.  

Chart geeks like me were enthralled with his books.  As a huge Michael Jackson fan, for example, I recall the first time reading a Whitburn book and discovering that, not only had the Jackson 5’s first four singles reached No. 1 as Casey Kasem had mentioned so many times before, but that their next two singles stopped at No. 2, denying them a chance at a six-song chart-topping streak!  I recall reacting similarly to discovering how many hits Elton John had charted in the 1970s, or that so many of Earth Wind & Fire’s singles had been certified gold.  I also remember learning for the first time that there were a record-breaking 35 different No. 1 songs in 1974, a feat that was repeated in 1975. Whitburn’s were huge rabbit hole books: you opened them intending to find one thing, which would lead to another, and another, and…

Joel Whitburn kept up with the times

If you were like me, you wondered how Whitburn would adapt to the 21st century and the digital age, particularly with his record collection.  As Billboard changed its rules to no longer require that a song be available in physical form to chart, how would Whitburn catalog more recent digital-only hits?

No problem.  Whitburn simply downloaded every song, including those 45s and CD/Cassette singles he already owned, onto his iPods.  In the interview with LeBlanc, Whitburn stated he owned a 160 GB iPod with 42,000 songs on it, including every song from his iconic “Top Pop Hits” book.

Even with the advent of the internet and Wikipedia, his books are still essential to music historians and bloggers everywhere.  They provide in one place unique information like specific dates that songs entered the charts and how many weeks they spent there, or their label and catalog numbers.  The information is much better curated in Whitburn’s books than in Wikipedia and other internet sources.

My inspiration

People often comment on how much I know about the charts and that I can cite dates and peak positions of many songs on request. I have Joel Whitburn to thank for that. He was a true inspiration, a man whose passing on my birthday and on the eve of the eighth anniversary of Casey Kasem’s death (who was also 82 when he died) seems symbolic, especially given how much both these men meant to me and my musical development.  

If there’s a rock and roll heaven, you can be sure that Casey Kasem is counting down the hits, and Joel Whitburn is right up there with him, scribing them for his first heavenly hits edition!

Joel Whitburn

R.I.P. Joel Whitburn (November 29, 1939 – June 14, 2022).

DJRob

DJRob (he/him/his) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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DJRob (2022)

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