"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.
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