Joel Whitburn, legendary map historian and author of reference works, dies at 82
Joel Whitburn, one of the preeminent chart historians of the past 50+ years, has died. The news was first shared on Facebook by Whitburn’s protege, longtime friend and Record Research contributor Paul Haney, who wrote that the legendary industry figure ‘passed away peacefully overnight’ on Tuesday. June 14. “He had had serious health issues recently, but his passing is still a shock,” Haney continued. Whitburn was 82 years old.
After founding Record Research Inc. in 1970, Whitburn became one of the leading authors of reference books on Billboard charts, releasing more than 100 total series entries like Top Pop Singles, Top 40 hits, 40 best albums and Top 40 Country Hits. Particularly in the days before the internet made archival information widely available, his books proved invaluable in providing reliable statistics and records to the entire industry, becoming staples on DJ shelves. , leaders, writers and artists. (His accurate reporting also made it harder for publicists and labels to credibly falsify their artists’ chart achievements, a practice notoriously common in the early ’70s.)
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“Billboard I couldn’t have asked for a better representative to document the history of our cards than Joel Whitburn,” says Silvio Pietroluongo, BillboardSVP of graphics and data development. “His passion and innovation led to the creation of what is literally the encyclopedia of music popularity – Record Research – without which the Billboard team, and most in the industry, would struggle to provide the historical context that we do on a daily basis.
“It has been a career pleasure to get to know Joel personally over the years,” continues Pietroluongo. “He was a true gentleman and will be greatly missed, but his legacy has long been guaranteed.”
Whitburn was born in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, just outside of Milwaukee, in 1939. Growing up as a sports and music enthusiast in the 1950s, he became a Billboard passionate after seeing the magazine for the first time during a trip to town with his mother. “I saw Billboard and I didn’t know what it was,” he recalls Billboard senior charting director Gary Trust in a 2014 interview. “I grabbed it and started looking through it, and I saw all these big full-page ads for all these artists I had listened to on the radio … And then, all these charts… top 20 charts, top 30 charts, with all these songs that I loved. From there, he begged his father to cover the $10 cost to be an annual subscriber to the magazine.
“It was October 1953 when I first subscribed, and I don’t think I’ve missed a number until today,” he said. “I look forward to it every week. I can’t go a week without reading my Billboard.”
When the Billboard Hot 100 first arrived as BillboardIn August 1958, Whitburn’s Greatest Songs chart made it its main focus. He created index cards cataloging all relevant information of the songs listed on the magazine’s two-page chart, tracking their movement on the chart from week to week. When he got a job with RCA as a record distributor in the mid-’60s, having those stats at his fingertips made him an invaluable resource for the radio stations he visited. “They all said it would be a godsend to have this information at hand, as there was nothing available,” he recalls.
Whitburn decided to quit his job at RCA and devote himself full-time to his research, founding Record Research and publishing his team’s findings, their first release being Top Pop Singles in 1970. After entering into a license agreement with Billboard — “[Charts manager Don Evans] gave me exclusive publishing rights to exploit the Billboard graphics and, in turn, I had to pay Billboard a royalty,” he explained – other series followed, starting with Top Pop Albums and possibly encompassing genre-specific charts for rock, R&B, country, easy listening and more. (Eventually, Rhino Records also began releasing dozens of hit compilations based on Whitburn’s books.)
In addition to being a compulsive cataloger of Billboard chart history, Whitburn was also famous for his unparalleled record collection – which he claims was ancient Billboard editor Larry LeBlanc in 2013, contained over 200,000 45 rpm singles, as well as “every album that has ever charted [on Billboard] till today. His collection took up so much physical space in his and his wife’s home that he said she had “filled the safe, and we built a second safe.” (However, one charting record has remained forever elusive for Whitburn: a Hot 100 Bubbling Under entry by a group called DA titled “Ready ‘N’ Steady”, which after extensive research concluded, “I don’t think that it exists.” ”)
Whitburn and Record Research have continued to publish books over the decades, expanding into new ratings and genres, and releasing their last full installment of their flagship. Top Pop Singles series in 2018. (An even more recent update required a two-volume release – the first half, covering 1955 to 1989, was released in 2021, with the second volume due later this year.) years, Whitburn’s books have become an indispensable part of pop discussion – even for the artists most frequently cataloged in their pages. He said Billboard‘s Chart Beat Podcast in 2016 around the time he gifted nine-time Hot 100 and seven-time Billboard 200 top Elton John one of his books. John’s response: “Oh, I’ve got all your stuff, Joel.”
Although it would have been possible for Whitburn to get lost in the reams of hard data and the endless spreadsheets of his bottomless research, he remained an avid fan of rock and pop music well into the 21st century. “I’m excited to see anything debut, especially in the big charts…I want to hear it,” he said. Billboard in 2014. “I’m like, ‘Who is this new band, Sheppard?’ Or Kim Cesarion or Lilly Wood. They arrive and I don’t know who they are. But, maybe it’s something that I really like… so I’m really excited about it. (He also admitted, “And I like if there’s a debut album by an older artist.”)
In his Facebook post announcing Whitburn’s death, Haney grouped his mentor with the surname and late legendary American Top 40 longtime host Casey Kasem, in terms of his all-time idols. “I never met Casey, but I had the privilege of working closely with Joel for over 30 years,” he wrote. “I will be forever grateful to him for giving me the job of my dreams and for trusting me to work on the books that bear his name. Rest in peace, big one.
“Some names are synonymous with Billboard graphics,” Trust wrote in 2014. “No one can say ‘Billboard’, however, more than Joel Whitburn.
Additional reports and research provided by Gary Trust, Alex Vitoulis, Paul Grein and Keith Caulfield.
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