Falls’ Joel Whitburn Transforms Records Passion into Global Enterprise

Joel Whitburn is known by music industry experts around the world for the detailed record research he began as a hobby in his Menomonee Falls home.

Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life. - Confucius

It all started when Joel Whitburn began collecting records as a teenager in the 1950s.  He simply couldn’t get enough of the pop and rock ‘n roll tunes flooding the airways during the Golden Age of radio. Elvis Presley. Bill Haley and the Comets. Chuck Berry. Buddy Holly. Like a gathering storm, his collection grew and grew. He was captivated, absolutely smitten. 

In 1965, Whitburn began to sort and categorize his records, assembling hand-written note cards for each one. Consulting the Top 100 charts in Billboard magazine, he compiled an astounding file of information, similar to the card catalogues used in public libraries. Each card was rich in detail. Song title. Artist. Label. What tune was on the “B” side of each record.

“I just had this massive 3x5 card index for my record collection,” Whitburn recalled. “I could pull up Rick Nelson’s card and see that in 1958, ‘Poor Little Fool’ was number one and stayed that way for two weeks. It was on the Imperial label and charted for this many weeks, who the songwriter was, and such.  I went through every Billboard chart starting in 1955.  The research took me five years because I was working full time and could only devote evenings or weekends to the project.”

By 1970, Whitburn found himself at a crossroads.  He was married, had a child and a full-time job working with the RCA records distributor for Illinois and Wisconsin in Milwaukee, as well as different local disc jockeys and other radio and music people.

“I would mention my project of verifying these records and the research I was doing,” said Whitburn. “They said it would be a godsend to have something like that because they had nothing. If James Darren came to town and they interviewed him because he was going to appear at the State Fair and if he’d say, ‘My first four records were all number one hits,’ they’d go along with it even though he only had one record that got to number three.” 

Whitburn decided it was time to publish his files in a book he titled, simply, Record Research. He quit his day job so he could devote all of his time and attention to the project and his business was born. He conducted the research by himself.

“I had a car and a home and a lot of people thought I was crazy to quit my job,” Whitburn laughed. “It seemed like a one-in-a-million chance but I gambled and decided to go for it.”

To put it mildly, the gamble paid off.

The rewards of being bold

Whitburn’s original book eventually led to a string of reference books that are now coveted in the music industry around the world, including his best selling Top Pop Singles, Top 40 Hits, Top 40 Albums, Top 40 Country Hits, and Top 40 R&B Hits. Next February, he will publish the 8th edition of Joel Whitburn’s Pop Annual. He now leads a team of researchers who dig into the Billboard charts to an unparalleled degree of detail.

Whitburn got things rolling by sending sample pages of Record Research to the big powerful radio stations around the country.  The orders started pouring in.  He also sent a copy to Billboard’s publisher, Hal Cook, in Los Angeles.

“Two weeks later he called me and said, ‘We love the book!’” Whitburn said.  “He said they had attempted to do a similar project but everything fell through the cracks. So he invited my wife and I out to L.A. and they wined and dined us for a week.

“We got to meet everyone in the chart department and see how they made the charts at Billboard. It was very interesting and we became good friends with the publisher.  I came away with a 26-page license agreement and at that same time they were also working with Casey Kasem’s contract to do American Top 40. They gave me the publishing agreement and they gave Casey the broadcast agreement so we started together.”

For those whose communications experience begins with the Internet, picture this: Whitburn produced all of the index cards and an A-Z cross reference by hand.

“When I did a revision I had to use a scissors to cut and past titles onto pages,” Whitburn said. “We didn’t have computers in the 70s. It was all done by hand and then the pages were turned in to the printer to produce the book. It was just staple stitched back then.

Whitburn said one day a truck delivered 5,000 books to his doorstep. He had to sell them but the orders started coming, more and more.

“The mailman was pretty excited about it and there were orders coming from all over the world,” Whitburn said. “So we’re getting all these foreign stamps and my wife was all excited and saving the stamps from all these countries. I’m getting calls from KRLA in Los Angeles, WABC in New York, all these big radio stations are calling and saying, ‘I need the book, the whole history.’”

Race for the Record

One of those DJs was Bob Barry at WOKY in Milwaukee, Whitburn’s favorite station. One day, Whitburn was driving and listening to Barry’s show and he played a new Nancy Sinatra song, “Summer Wine,” but didn’t know who was the male singer accompanying Sinatra.

“If anybody out there knows who this guy is, please give me a call here at the station,” said Barry.

No calls came in and an hour went by. When Whitburn finally got home, he called Barry, informing him that the male voice belonged to Lee Hazlewood. Barry wondered how Whitburn could be so sure.

“Hazlewood was Duane Eddy’s producer and I was a big Eddy fan,” Whitburn explained. “I also told Bob about my research.”

“Joel told me about his research and he had an agent named Robert Meyer who contacted me, saying that Joel and I sounded great on the air. ‘How would you like to do this on a regular basis?’” Barry recalled.

Whitburn became a staple on Barry’s show, playing music trivia with the audience as well as a game they called “Race for the Record.”  Callers would give a song and an artist and Whitburn, who had a direct line to the station from his home, would have 30 seconds to find the record and play it over the air or else the caller would win $100. The segment was extremely popular and Barry found Whitburn’s research an invaluable resource.

“Having those books did a lot for my show,” Barry said. “It added some stuff I could talk about that nobody else at that time knew about.  For example, let’s say I was interviewing Johnny Rivers and I wanted to talk about his number one record, and I ask him what his number one record was. He might answer ‘Memphis’ and I’d say, ‘Well, I beg to differ because ‘Poor Side of Town’ was your number one record.’ He’d ask, ‘How do you know that?’ and I’d mention Joel Whitburn. The station was responsible for selling a lot of his books.”

Barry is still known as “Beatle Bob” or “The Fifth Beatle” in Milwaukee because he was the local radio personality who introduced the Beatles on stage when they did a concert at the Milwaukee Arena in 1964.  Barry knew this group inside and out. But Whitburn was still able to come up with material that amazed him.

“Joel knew about the first Beatles records like ‘My Bonnie’ with the Saints and Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers,” Barry chuckled. “They weren’t even the Beatles yet. Those records are worth $20,000 now and he’s got them all. He’s got every record that ever hit the Billboard charts in the Top 100.”

As recording artists would come through Milwaukee to appear on Barry’s show, Whitburn would be there to give them a copy of his latest book. He now found himself meeting so many of those recording artists whose records he cherished.

“We had backstage passes and we’d present them a book. Billy Joel, Paul McCartney, Kenny Rogers, The Osmonds, Stevie Nicks, Sting. I was going to give Elton John a book and he said, ‘I’ve got all of your books.’ The Carpenters. Ricky Nelson. Bill Haley.”

His all-time favorite, Duane Eddy, even came to Wisconsin to attend Whitburn’s daughter’s wedding. 

“The Moody Blues (Justin Hayward and John Lodge) liked the cover of my book because of the photo of Duane Eddy with his red Gretsch guitar. They thought that was really cool,” Whitburn said.

Today, all of Whitburn’s research is fully digitized and available online (www.recordresearch.com). The MusicVault, complete with chart data and record photos, is just a computer click away. Whitburn still has his monster record collection and his original card catalogue at his home.

“I bought records from shops going out of business, from collectors, and juke box dealers,” said Whitburn.  “I would buy entire collections and bring everything into my recreation room. I set up these big racks to sort them and take everything I needed for my research. Any record that made the Top 100 charts, I kept a copy. I wanted those records to verify my research, to spell the name of the artist and the song title correctly, who was the song writer, what song was on the B side of the record. That was the reason for the success. Once people got my book they’d see the records and they’d see that the info in the book was exactly like the record.”

To date, Record Research has published nearly 200 books, over 50 of which are currently in the catalog. Whitburn’s been at this for 42 years and he has no plans to slow down anytime soon.

“Now we’re looking into introducing eBooks so people with iPads and tablets will be able to click on and get our Top Pop Singles digitally,” Whitburn said. “Most of our customers tell us to keep the print version because they love to have the book.”

Tom Snyder December 27, 2011 at 05:35 PM
In a previous life, I was Tom McCarthy, a DJ at Oldies 95.7 and had the privilege of working with both Bob and Joel there. The music history those guys have in their heads is just amazing. Listeners were always amazed at my knowledge of these old tunes, but I couldn't take the credit. We kept copies of Joel's books in the studio for the questions the DJ's got on the music we played, and those books made us look like geniuses.
Tom Andrews December 27, 2011 at 05:50 PM
Hi, Tom - Thanks for sharing your note. I, too, worked with Bob at WOKY (1975-76) and had also met Joel on numerous occasions. I agree, they both know an amazing amount of music history. I'm biased, of course, but I will always remember the, 50s, 60s and early 70s as the Golden Age of music radio!


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