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THE MUSIC MAN HIS CHARTING WAYS HAVE MADE JOEL WHITBURN AMERICA'S FOREMOST POP MUSIC AUTHORITY

"That's Boyz II Men," screams the morning deejay, "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 is certainly the one who has kept the closest tabs on it. He has 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.

In his suburban Milwaukee home -- next door to his custom-built indoor basketball court, above a vault that holds perhaps the country's largest private music collection -- the 55-year-old Whitburn is putting the finishing 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 Billboard magazine's weekly Hot 100 or Top 100 charts is listed. Exactly when they first charted, how high they got, if they made it to the top, how long they stayed there. Plus nuggets and factoids about the songs and the artists. Plus lists of the artists with the most charted singles, the most Top 40s, the most Top 10s, the most consecutive 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 Whitburn saw his first record chart. It was in Billboard magazine, with its full-page color pictures of the likes of Johnnie Ray and Rosemary Clooney and Teresa Brewer. 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 fresh reviews. Whitburn would check 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.

Billboard's Top 100 reflected the mix. "There was some country -- Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins. There were some instrumentals -- Les Baxter, Percy Faith, that type of thing. There was rock and roll. There was black. There was a little bit of everything -- and I liked it all."

Billboards stayed, piled on tables, stacked on floors, year after year. He attended college -- Elmhurst College in Illinois (where the 6-foot-6 Whitburn played center on the basketball team), then University of Wisconsin at 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. Start with that, start with Ricky Nelson . . . At that time I just put down the year, like '58, put down the title, 'Poor Little Fool,' the label, . . . and then the highest position it got, and the total weeks it was on the chart."

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 would find out about records he had 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 a record must have been. To me, every position made a difference."

Working nights and weekends on his project, he would get sidetracked, decide to include not just the year the song charted, for instance, but the exact date. Back to the beginning again. By 1966 or so, he was finished -- but what about the earliest years of rock and roll?

Whitburn dove back in, carrying piles of dimes to the Milwaukee Public Library and copying Billboard's Top 100 charts, predecessors to the Hot 100, back to their debut in November of '55, and still earlier Billboard charts back to Jan. 1, 1955.

And then he said, "That's enough."

By that time -- 1969 -- he was selling eight-track tapes, just to be "in the music industry." Whitburn's chart smarts soon impressed the disc jockeys and other radio station types he met on his sales trips.

"You know," he'd say, "I could tell you every record that Fats Domino had in chronological sequence, flip sides, how many No. 1s he had, how many Top 40s, the label, everything, I could tell you that." And they'd say, "That'd be a godsend."

He bought the smallest ads Billboard sold and started offering discographies -- one dollar apiece.

People did start writing, "and I thought, 'This is kind of neat,' because some people are interested.

"And then Casey Kasem called me."
Kasem was a young Los Angeles deejay. His American Top 40 countdown show hadn't begun pouring out of radios coast-to-coast; going national was still just an idea of his. But he would need lots of material, and he had seen the Billboard ad. Could Whitburn actually show him, say, every record Ricky Nelson had, and how high they'd risen, in order? Yes, said Whitburn, if they'd ever been on the charts. What if a record only got to No. 100, and for just one week -- would Whitburn have it? Guaranteed, said Whitburn.

"So he sent me a check for $89 -- I thought that was sensational."

Whitburn also started thinking bigger: Why not put all his information into a little book and market it that way? The result, simply titled "Record Research," -- his company would bear the same name -- was self-published in 1970. (American Top 40 also debuted that year.) "No artist trivia, no biographies, no title trivia, nothing. Just the artists' names underlined and then all their hits in chronological sequence underneath."

He printed 5,000 copies of the 104-page book, but the tiny ads and the anything-but-tiny $50 price made for slow sales. By late 1971, Whitburn decided he'd have to go at it full time. He left his job, got a list of every radio station in the country, and identified stations big enough to afford a book and pop enough to care. He slashed the price to $15. Then he and his parents hand-addressed some 1,000 envelopes and sent along a sample page torn from one of the thousands of copies still unsold.

"That's when it broke."

Whitburn had struck a nerve. "We started getting flooded -- it was just incredible! To see the mailman come with a big smile and this huge stack of letters, it was just way beyond my dreams."

But he'd also struck a nerve with Billboard magazine. He was making use of its charts, its Hot 100. Besides, company execs didn't believe anyone could do what Whitburn was claiming to do; they had tried it themselves and had failed. But Whitburn had even caught and corrected some of Billboard's errors. The magazine's publisher was shocked, then intrigued. Maybe they could work something out: Whitburn could use the Billboard name, get exclusive rights to mine their charts and get discount rates for advertising in their pages. Billboard would get a piece of the action.

A done deal -- and Whitburn quickly realized there were other ways to slice the pie: a country & western book in '72, rhythm-and-blues and pop books in '73. Then an album book, an easy listening book, a book of singles that were -- as Billboard put it -- "bubbling under" the Hot 100, even reproductions of the weekly Billboard charts themselves. Then updates with even more information. Whitburn enlisted family members to fill the orders and help with the research. More books, more orders, more staff.

With "Pop Memories 1890-1954," published in 1986, Whitburn even pushed The quest back to the pre-rock, pre-Billboard era, to the earliest days of music charts. And he has branched out: When Billboard and Rhino Records teamed up to produce their own music collections -- annual compilations and Christmas favorites and the like -- it was Whitburn they picked to pick the hits.

Not bad for a kid with a hobby.

Down here in the environmentally controlled peace and quiet of Whitburn's vaultis more recorded ruckus than you can shake a microphone at. Here, among the rows and rows of metal shelves and wooden drawers, are:

Every song that ever made Billboard's Hot 100 or Pop singles charts back to 1936.

Every album that ever made Billboard's Pop albums charts back to 1945.

Some 75 percent of everything that ever made the C&W and R&B charts.

Every song that made the Bubbling Under charts -- except one. And Whitburn's still trying to track that one down.

For each new book or revision, Whitburn says, he pulls the music off the shelves again -- scouring the label and liner notes, cross-checking his data with newspaper clippings, fan magazines, Billboard profiles and the 1,000-plus books in his library. Though much of the operation has been computerized, Whitburn himself still works by hand, making notes on the printouts -- a new detail here, a cross-reference there. 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."

Top Pop Singles" is now off the presses and available for mail order; 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. Is it all just lists?

"Well, I guess it's all in what you like," Whitburn says with a chuckle. "For me, this really has always been like a hobby.

"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?"
Rick Horowitz is a syndicated columnist based in Milwaukee and a frequent contributor to BUFFALO.

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