Joel Whitburn is known by music industry experts around the world for the detailed record research he began as a hobby. He was born November 29, 1939, in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. He started collecting records in his teens and subscribed to Billboard in 1953. When they started the Hot 100 in 1958 Joel would record the chart placings of records on index cards.
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 catalogs used in public libraries. Each card was rich in detail. Song title. Artist. Label. What tune was on the “B” side of each record. By 1970 he was married, had a child, and worked for the RCA Records distributor for Illinois and Wisconsin in Milwaukee.
I just had this massive 3×5 card index for my record collection. 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.Joel Whitburn
Friends thought he was crazy but he quit his job to work full-time on releasing his first book “Record Research”. All the research was completely done by himself. Whitburn sent copies of pages from his new book to radio stations around the country and orders rolled in.
I would mention my project of verifying these records and the research I was doing. 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.Joel Whitburn
He then formed his own company, Record Research Inc., in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, in 1970. This was a team of researchers to put all of his upcoming books together. They have produced over 200 books since then, with 50 or so still in publication. Joel also was an avid record collector who in 2013 had over 200,000 singles. His collection includes a copy of nearly every 78-rpm record, 45-rpm single, LP, and compact disc to reach the Billboard charts.
He said they [Billboard] had attempted to do a similar project but everything fell through the cracks. So [Billboard] 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.Joel Whitburn
Joel Whitburn died at his home in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, on June 14, 2022, at the age of 82. He will be remembered every time one of us record collectors opens one of his books to research that music we all love.
- Billboard is an American music and entertainment magazine published weekly by the Billboard-Hollywood Reporter Media Group, a division of MRC Media & Info. The magazine provides music charts, news, video, opinion, reviews, events, and styles related to the music industry. Its music charts include the Hot 100, the 200, and the Global 200, tracking the most popular albums and songs in different genres of music. [Back]
- The Billboard Hot 100 is the music industry standard record chart in the United States for songs, published weekly by Billboard magazine. Chart rankings are based on sales (physical and digital), radio play, and online streaming in the United States. The first number-one song on the Billboard Hot 100 was “Poor Little Fool” by Ricky Nelson, on August 4, 1958. [Back]