Joel Whitburn: Music’s Ultimate ‘Just the Facts, Ma’am’ Guy
Joel Whitburn never to my knowledge recorded a note of popular music, but he did something that was in its own way equally valuable: He helped make popular music a respectable subject for serious historical and artistic discussion.
If that sounds dry and esoteric, then you may not realize how many decades it took for popular music to be regarded as anything more than ice cream cones on the hottest day of summer, briefly satisfying and quickly forgotten.
Whitburn, who died Tuesday at the age of 82, founded Record Research, a company whose primary product was dozens of books detailing the Billboard magazine charts of best-selling records, back to 1890 when records as we know them barely existed.
Whitburn’s books became bibles to music journalists and historians. They were the most opened books in many writers’ libraries. Including mine.
Record Research books contain no commentary, no critical assessments, no essays on the meaning of the music they chronicle. They are reference books in the strictest and most valuable sense of the word.
The core books, which cover early popular music, modern popular music, country, R&B/hip-hop, adult contemporary, Christmas and every other genre for which Billboard published sales/popularity charts, stand out for their meticulous accuracy. Not just the chart numbers and history, but song titles precisely as they appeared on the record.
To ensure that level of care, Whitburn created an unassailable primary source. His personal collection included every record that appeared on any of the charts he chronicled.
If it was printed in Whitburn it was correct, which may sound like it should be a given, but in fact marked a major advance in popular music discography.
The reference books before Whitburn tended toward sloppy and incomplete. Whitburn recalled in a 2005 video that when he first asked Billboard itself for an historical listing, he received only a mimeographed list of the “top 1000” records of all time, riddled with misspellings and mistakes.
And that’s the point here: Popular music was considered so ephemeral, so unworthy of serious cultural consideration, that even the leading music trade publication didn’t see any reason to offer anything other than an indifferent wave at its history.
That dismissive attitude had hung over popular music for decades, despite the efforts of a few serious writers like big band historian George Simon. Ragtime, jazz, swing, country, R&B and other popular genres were routinely trashed by defenders of “good” music, and when rock ’n’ roll showed up in the mid-1950s, those defenders — like Frank Sinatra — confidently declared that we had reached the bottom and this cacophony would soon implode.
They were wrong, Daddy-O. Still, their contempt fueled the notion that popular music, particularly the kind embraced by teenagers, was hardly music at all.
Whitburn didn’t set out with a mission to challenge that attitude. He just wanted a reference book that would accurately record the music Americans had historically listened to and bought. The funny thing is that because of that strict adherence to names and numbers, his books become an even more powerful defense of popular music. Collectively they remind us how much of America — like, almost all of it — has been touched by something in this purportedly valueless music.
By the time Whitburn released his first book, in 1970, other writers and publications were tackling the lack of respect more directly. Rolling Stone magazine launched in 1967, around the same time as articulate fanzines and magazines like Creem. Veteran newspaper and magazine writers like Robert Shelton, Nat Hentoff and Ralph Gleason treated rock ’n’ roll and its allied forms as culture to which we should pay attention.
What Whitburn provided, starting with that 1970 book, was ammunition, unimpeachable data on how popular music had rolled since the days when most people bought their favorite songs as sheet music.
Whitburn said the popularity of this data surprised him, since he figured he might be the lone geek who cared about it. It was out of pure personal interest that one day in 1965 he was looking through old Billboards and wrote down the chart history of Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool” on an index card. Five years later, he had enough index cards for the first book.
Billboard initially was outraged, threatening to shut down Whitburn for appropriating its intellectual property. Instead the two sides met and struck a licensing deal, giving Billboard a 30% royalty and Whitburn exclusive rights to the data.
Whitburn was no absentee landlord. He was a record collector before he was a publisher, and that’s what he remained, with a “vault” in which he had meticulously filed and cataloged everything from Al Jolson 78s to 45s, LPs, picture sleeves, CDs and video.
When he walked the camera through the vault in that 2005 video, he talked like a record collector, clearly proud that he had found original releases and that he could say most of the records were in mint or near-mint condition.
Record collectors, probably like collectors of anything, can be a strange bunch. In Joel Whitburn’s case, he had the not-at-all-strange idea that these records he collected deserved books that memorialized their moment in the sun and therefore their legacy beyond.