Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



A written-down musical arrangement is often called a chart, but 'the charts' are lists of current hit records, often manipulated illegally, most famously at the time of the payola scandal in the USA in the late 1950s (but see also Frederic Dannen's book Hit Men '90). The enormous increase in the number of releases each year since WWII and the advent of top 40 radio and broadcasters' playlists in the 1950s means that disc jockeys have become irrelevant and some of the best records never appear in any charts, yet as the decades go by the charts acquire charm of their own. The music industry weekly Billboard (founded 1894) began publishing lists of sheet music hits and top vaudeville songs in 1913, most-played songs on network radio in 1934, and record companies' lists of their own best-sellers in 1935; the rise of the juke box led to recovery of the U.S. record industry and more charts: 'Best-Selling Retail Records' in 1940 changed to 'Top 100' '55, to 'Hot 100' '58; 'Bubbling Under' for singles no. 101-200; the album chart began '45; 'Best-Selling Retail Country & Western Records' '49 was abbreviated to 'C&W' '56, changed to 'Hot Country Singles' '63; the top ten 'Harlem Hit Parade' began '42, changed to top 15 'Race Records', then to 'Rhythm & Blues' '49, to 'Soul' '69, later to 'Black'. There was no Billboard R&B chart between 30 November 1963 and 23 January 1965 because black and white charts were so similar during the golden age of Motown and soul. Billboard c.1990 included eight album charts and 13 singles charts; the Adult Contemporary chart listed singles by Barbra Streisand (whose first USA top 40 hit was in '64), Chicago ('70), and Culture Club ('83), Mariah Carey ('90s): it was not clear what was meant by 'adult'. There were also charts for videos and computer games. Revamping the way the charts were compiled c.1990 (using bar-codes etc) resulted in a big boost for country albums (see entry for Country Music).

Joel Whitburn, a record collector since the early 1950s, began publishing reference books in 1970 using Billboard charts (Record Research Inc., Box 200, Menomonee Falls WI 53051 USA): the fat well-bound books now including Top Pops, Top Pop Albums, Top Black, Top Country and others, each new edition including more info for each entry; an annual update Music Yearbook from '83 reproduced most charts. Pop Memories 1890-1954 '86 collated sheet music sales and other lists, charts from early hobbyist mags, Variety etc; it's not clear how the compilations were done and the results are unreliable. But in the mid-to-late 1930s most records were being sold to juke box operators, so that combining retail and juke box sales with radio plays (and compiling longer charts) revealed how many hits e.g. Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson, Tommy Dorsey etc really had at a time when c.2000 copies was a break-even point. Similarly, Pop Hits 1940-1954 '94 replaced one of Record Research's first books, a slim red paperback from '73, with far more info.

There were certainly million-sellers during the acoustic era, but the Depression had just about destroyed the record industry, so RCA Victor invented the modern gold record gimmick to celebrate recovery, awarding the first one to Glenn Miller's 'Chattanooga Choo Choo' in February 1942. RCA also had the first album to sell a million copies, Harry Belafonte's Calypso in 1957; the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) was established that year and took over 'certification' of gold records; the first RIAA gold records were Perry Como's single 'Catch A Falling Star' and the soundtrack album Oklahoma.

The Guinness books of American charts recycled some of Whitburn's work; Guinness's British Hit Singles and British Hit Albums played the same role for the UK charts. The Official UK Charts Company is operated by the British Phonographic Society and the British Association of Record Retailers, collecting data from any retailer who sells more than 100 chart items per week. But with a tremendous increase in the number of releases and the fragmentation of the market, most of the chart placings changed every week on both sides of the Atlantic, and it was possible to have a hit record in Britain, for example, by selling only a few thousand copies, and the charts became of less interest at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. The rock band Soundgarden had broken up in 1997, and wanted to come back with a bang, so they put together a retrospective called Telephantism and won million-selling status without selling a single copy: it was given away it with a Guitar Hero video game, whose publisher bought a million nonreturnable copies of the CD, satisfying the RIAA's rules.