Joel Whitburn, 76, is a living encyclopedia of popular music factoids and a platinum-certified Milwaukee treasure.
For nearly 50 years, Joel Whitburn’s company, Record Research, has cataloged the greatest hits in broadcast history in meticulously compiled reference books used by radio disc jockeys and music writers around the country. He’s become a leading authority on pop, rock, R&B and country music. Now, he goes on the record about his personal favorites, and his brush with Walter Cronkite.
On how he got into the biz: In 1965, Whitburn began writing information about popular artists on index cards, including song titles, chart duration and peak position of each hit song. He then took out a tiny ad in Billboard magazine offering these cards for $1 each. He was quickly bombarded with requests from disc jockeys around the country. “The first big order I got was from Casey Kasem. He wanted 89 artists,” he says.
On the first pop song that struck a chord: “Johnnie Ray’s ‘Cry’ (a 1952 hit) … I loved it and used to sing it to my sister.”
On Beatlemania: “I remember driving home from work early in 1964. I got really mad because on every station all I could find were Beatles songs. [Radio stations] were playing everything they could get their hands on. I think it was Louis Armstrong who broke the streak with ‘Hello, Dolly!’” What converted Whitburn? Beatles ’65’s “I’ll Be Back.”
On voting in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Whitburn evaluates candidates on his own 100-point scale and has been a voting member of the Hall of Fame since its inception. “It’s pretty easy for me to go through and recognize who [should be in] and who is on the edge.” The artist he most emphatically voted for? Guitarist Duane Eddy.
On a career high point: Whitburn once appeared on an episode of the short-lived daytime talk show “Home,” where Linda McCartney and Walter Cronkite tried to stump him by playing clips of songs they thought he couldn’t guess. He guessed McCartney’s pick, Henry Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk.”
On what he listens to now: Whitburn enjoys Fall Out Boy, whose drummer, Andy Hurley, shares space alongside him in the Menomonee Falls Fine Arts Hall of Fame. But his favorite song from the last decade is Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars.” “[It’s] one of those records I had to play over and over again. I just couldn’t get enough of it.”
By the Numbers
80,000: The approximate number of copies sold of Top Pop Singles, his most popular book, whose 15th edition debuts this summer.
1890: The earliest year Whitburn can track popular hits.
300-400: Number of songs he listens to each day when he’s working on a book.
$5,500: The minimum estimated worth of his record collection’s most valuable album, the “butcher cover” of the beatles’ 1966 Yesterday and Today.
300: Number of his top favorite musicians, including Johnny Rivers, Leslie Gore, and The Shirelles.