"That's Boyz II Men," screams the morning DJ, "with the top-charting single in history!"
"It's a Beach Boys weekend!" shouts the oldies jock. "And here's the record that started it all. . . ."The Five Satins' two lead singers? The hottest song of the '80s? How long "My Sharona" stayed at No. 1? How do these people know all this stuff? They don't. Joel Whitburn does. If Whitburn hasn't exactly made music history, he's certainly the one who's kept the closest tabs on it. He's gone from scribbling notes on 3-by-5 cards to mining a lode of musical gold. With more than three dozen books to his credit that list practically everything that ever shook, rattled or rolled across a radio or turntable, cassette deck or CD player, Whitburn is the high priest and chronicler of: The Quest for No. 1.
Some fans stick with the oldies, others crave the latest stuff, but most of them want to know how their favorites, old or new, stack up against the competition. It's Joel Whitburn who keeps track of the tracks.
In his suburban Milwaukee home - above a vault that holds perhaps the country's largest private music collection - the 55-year-old Whitburn is putting the final touches on the latest edition of "Top Pop Singles." It's 1955 to 1993 this time, nearly 2 inches thick and 21,000 titles strong.
Every single that ever appeared on the Billboard magazine's weekly "Hot 100" or "Top 100" charts is listed. Exactly when it first charted, how high it got, if it made it to the top, how long it stayed there. Plus nuggets and factoids about the song and the artist. Plus lists of the artists with the most charted singles, the most Top 40s, the most Top 10s, the most No. 1s. And more. Lots more.
He was on a big-city shopping trip with his mother when the 11-year-old Joel Whitburn saw his first Billboard record chart. He was already listening to the music at home on a little Motorola phonograph, playing both sides of his records and memorizing everything about them he could.
"But to see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, and recognize a lot of them - I thought it was really interesting."
Eventually, it became a Monday-morning ritual: a fresh Billboard in the mail with fresh charts, and Whitburn checking off the songs he enjoyed, circling the ones he wanted to buy. There was plenty to enjoy in '57: "Elvis, the Everly Brothers, Ricky Nelson, Jerry Lee, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino. . . . Rock was taking over, but there were still gigantic hits by Les Baxter, Nelson Riddle, Nat King Cole, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra. . . ." He liked them, too.
Billboards stayed, piled on tables, stacked on floors, year after year. He attended college - Elmhurst College in Illinois (where the 6 foot 6 inch Whitburn played center on the basketball team), then the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee. He worked as a salesman, a wholesaler, an office manager. He got married. More Billboards, higher piles.
Then, one day in 1965, a decision. "I remember telling my wife, Fran, that I'm gonna go out and get some 3-by-5 index cards and do a little research project that I had in mind. And that was to put down - start with the first `Hot 100' chart, which was August 4th of 1958 - Ricky Nelson, `Poor Little Fool,' the first No. 1 record." He put the name on top: "Nelson comma Ricky." Then the year, the title, the label and number. Then the highest position it managed on the chart, and the total number of weeks it stayed on the chart. That was it.
He figured he'd list all the charted songs from '58 to '64, then transfer the information to the records themselves. "It didn't seem like a very big project at the time."
It got bigger. He'd find out about records he'd missed. Hits on one coast or the other - or both - that hadn't made it to the heartland. Minor hits by major artists, swamped at the bottom of the charts by the Next Big One surging toward the top. And he'd learn how close each song came to the top, or if it had made it all the way.
"Like I wasn't sure if a record like `Chantilly Lace,' you know, if that was a No. 1 record, or Top 10, or Top 40 - I just wasn't sure, how big was it? Was it No. 9? 8? 7? 6? 5? And I always thought that the more a record moved up the charts, the higher it got, the more powerful the record must have been. To me, every position made a difference." Which is why, for instance, when Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" held onto the No. 1 spot for 14 weeks in '92 and '93, "Everyone was writing about the biggest record in Billboard's history." Until late '94, that is, when Boyz II Men came along with "I'll Make Love to You": the same 14 weeks at No. 1, but - Whitburn's tie-breaker - 22 total weeks in the Top 10, compared to Houston's 16. Hail the conquering single! Not bad for a kid with a hobby.
Whitburn's work is "invaluable," rock critic and author Greil Marcus has written. In a field where the past is often hazy and a good story is always better than a true story, "Whitburn almost never makes mistakes."
It's a big business now, this homegrown enterprise - a million dollars in annual sales, he says, and 11 staffers working in an office just down the road. But Whitburn still likes the music. He may have grown up worshiping what he calls "The Three E's" - Elvis, the Everlys and Duane Eddy - but he can still get excited about the latest from Green Day or Cowboy Junkies or Shaquille O'Neal.
Let other middle-agers complain about "Kids these days!" Whitburn insists he can find "100 great songs" every year. He doesn't even buy that favorite boomer myth, that it's nothing but noise out there in Radioland. "Groups like Boyz II Men, Shai, En Vogue, SWV - they're all easy kind of ballads, a capella-type music. The kids love it!"
Where a year ago he might have fretted that the middle was missing - heavy metal on one end of the radio dial, rap on the other and precious little in between - now he's excited again, with R&B "really huge," and alternative rock taking off, too. He even sees signs that the walls between music genres are being breached. "I think you will hear Boyz II Men played side-by-side with the Cranberries or Sheryl Crow," he says with satisfaction. "That's the way I enjoy music."
Take the '60s, for instance. "You listened to the Doors, and then you listened to the Grass Roots, and then you listened to Johnny Horton and James Brown, Aretha Franklin, the Temptations - they were all together and . . . there was such variety. And then `Love Is Blue' or some instrumental would come along right in the middle of it and blast right over the Doors and everybody else - and then the Beatles would come out with something.
"And then Elvis was in a comeback. . ."
`Top Pop Singles" is now off the presses and available for mail order.
Record Research Inc., P.O. Box 200, Menomonee Falls, WI 53052-0200.T So is the new, packed-with-facts "Pop Hits 1940-1954." Expected soon, an updated version of the R&B book, and a new guide to old singles available on CD, and more.
More facts. More numbers. Whitburn developed the concept some 30 years ago, put it into print over 20 years ago. He's sliced and diced and massaged the data nearly every way possible. Could somebody look at him, at his life's work, and say, "You just make lists - what's the fun of that?"
Whitburn considers the question. He chuckles.
"Well, I guess it's all in what you like. For me, this really has always been like a hobby, and I still like nothing better than when I delve into a new research project . . . , getting into it and going through it artist by artist, title by title, and researching it and finding interesting things about that song - backing vocalists, getting the title exactly right. I find that very exhilarating, very exciting. . . .
"I couldn't think of anything I'd rather do than work with charts. It's so fascinating because, unlike baseball - the season starts and it ends, and there's nothing - this never ends.
"You know," says Joel Whitburn, "I'll be getting advance charts tomorrow on the computer. I can't wait! Around 3:30, I think to myself, `Here come the new charts - what's gonna happen now?' " *****
Once upon a time - 1979, to be exact - there was a single. "Ready `N' Steady" was its name, by someone (or something) called D.A., on the Rascal label. For one week in 1979, it "Bubbled Under" the "Hot 100." Then it disappeared. Joel Whitburn's still looking for it.
"It's the only record we've never been able to find in the history of the pop charts. Is that crazy?"Comment on this story
Whitburn has never seen the record, has never even heard the song. "We think - we think - that it's a girl's rock group from Chicago. Punk group, we think - 1979. And we think that the Rascal label was out of a guy's home in Detroit." There was a small ad one time, in some old punk-rock guide, for a Rascal label in Detroit. It even had an address. Whitburn checked it out.
"I sent a guy over there to Detroit," Whitburn recalls, "and it was just a vacant home, a house that was vacant, all boarded up, shut up. There was no business or anything. So we think the guy might have pressed up some records out of his basement or something. Probably sent 'em to radio stations and it got some play in some areas, a couple of Midwest markets or something, and it `Bubbled Under.' "
And it vanished. Whitburn's offering a $100 reward for its capture.
- Rick Horowitz