Joel Whitburn

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Photo Credit: Joel Whitburn

Could He Hold The Greatest And Most Complete Music Collection Ever?

By Barb Oates, ReMIND Magazine

When Joel Whitburn was just 9 or 10, he would cycle through his parents’ stack of 78s sitting in front of their Motorola, melting to the music of Doris Day, Tony Bennett and Johnnie Ray’s “Cry.” Out of the six children growing up in the Whitburn family during the mid ’50s, Joel was the family’s most passionate collector.

“By the time I was a teenager, 45s were coming into vogue. I started collecting those one at a time,” Joel tells. “If we’d go shopping or were at a big department store downtown in Milwaukee, like Gimbels or Schuster’s, my mother would always let me pick out a record.”

As Joel’s collection grew, he was looking for some kind of resource to help categorize and denote which records were No. 1, which were Top 10.

“Some of them I knew both the A and B side were a hit, but which one was bigger? I didn’t know because there was nothing. I remember calling Billboard in New York — the main chart office. The only thing they had was a Top 1,000 records list for $50, so I bought it. It was loaded with mistakes, spelling mistakes, and they didn’t have the titles quite right.”

Joel set out to correct that and started doing his own research and organization, mostly on 3×5 cards as a hobby. In 1970, he quit his job at RCA and started his business Record Research, releasing his first reference book, Record Research. That book was the first of 16 editions, which are now known as Top Pop Singles 1955-2018. Impressed by his work, Billboard gave Joel an exclusive license to mine their charts and craft these 1,000-plus-page music bibles.

“I’m the oldest, longest-living licensing in the history of Billboard. Longer than the American Top 40 or all the other companies that tried to use their products,” Joel tells.

Joel and his company rely on all original source material to compile their books.

“I collected every record and every album that ever charted. I have that now in my library, from 1940 — when there was a little first Top 10 chart — right through today,” Joel says. “We have the first albums, which are in booklets made up of 78s, we have all the early albums of Nat King Cole and all the jazz. All the soundtracks from back in the late ’40s, we have all the originals. … I remember when we were trying to finish collecting the Hot 100 — every record that made the pop charts — and had it narrowed down to I think maybe 40 or 50 that I needed, then 20, then 10, and there was finally one record I didn’t have and that was ‘Girl in My Dreams’ by the Capris. [After advertising for it], a person in Pennsylvania wrote that they had the record and wanted $25 for it. I immediately sent a check. … And that completed my having every record at that time.”

And he hasn’t stopped since, expanding his collection beyond pop to every charted country, R&B, Bubbling Under (hits that fell in the 101 to 125 range) and adult contemporary record, as well as uncharted albums, picture sleeves (he’s credited for having the greatest and most complete collection known) and more. And speaking of picture sleeves, there’s a guy in New York who has been after his “Ruby Duby Du” by Tobin Matthews. “He offered me $2,000, then he offered me $5,000 and recently sent me another note upping the offer to $7,500 for the sleeve that I have from the ’60s. … I’m not willing to sell it at any price.”

Now age 80, Joel’s still working at Record Research (it’s their 50th anniversary) and living in his hometown of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. He’s widely recognized as the most authoritative historian on charted music. You can keep up with him at recordresearch.com.

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