Renowned pop music chart historian, and Menomonee Falls native, Joel Whitburn has died

Renowned pop music chart historian, and Menomonee Falls native, Joel Whitburn has died

Jim Higgins
 

| Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Here’s an example of the clout of pop music chart historian Joel Whitburn.

When he met Elton John, Whitburn told a Billboard podcast interviewer in 2016, he tried to give the famous singer one of his books. 

“Oh, I got all your stuff, Joel,” Sir Elton replied.

Whitburn, who grew up in Menomonee Falls, turned his passion for music and fascination with the Billboard charts into a research and publishing behemoth that served music industry professionals and fans alike with books of organized data and trivia. If you wanted to know how many hits Elton John or Beyoncé or Bon Iver had, Whitburn was your guy. 

He “passed away peacefully overnight” on June 14, following serious recent health issues, his friend and employee Paul Haney reported. Whitburn was 82. 

As a youth, Whitburn began reading Billboard, the music and entertainment industry trade magazine. In particular, he was fascinated with Billboard’s weekly charts of the most popular records. 

“I was at the perfect age, 14 or 15, when rock and roll broke,” he told interviewer Larry LeBlanc in a 2009 interview, describing his youthful passion for music. “I was able to go down once a week and buy a record. I had to make that awful decision of what record do I buy this week, and what records do I leave out until next week.”  

Decades before the internet, spreadsheets and personal computers, Whitburn kept track of each week’s top recordings. When Billboard launched its Hot 100 chart in 1958, he began, in those days before personal computers, logging detailed info about every listed song on 3-by-5-inch index cards. 

Working in record distribution for RCA in the 1960s, Whitburn impressed radio staffers with the information he had. “They all said it would be a godsend to have that information at their fingertips, because there was nothing available,” he told Billboard in an interview.

Seeing the opportunity, he quit his RCA job, founded Record Research in Menomonee Falls, and published his first book “Top Pop Records,” in 1970. That book evolved into “Top Pop Singles,” the flagship publication of Record Research, Haney said. 

He was no one-hit wonder. Counting successive editions of works such as “Top Pop Singles,” Whitburn and Record Research are believed to have published nearly 300 books. Whitburn also tapped his chart knowledge to produce some 150 “Billboard Top Hits” compilation CDs for Rhino Records. 

His careful compilation of chart data made his work go-to references — and stymied charlatans. 

“His accurate reporting also made it more difficult for publicists and labels to credibly fudge the chart achievements of their artists, a notoriously common practice in the early ’70s,” Andrew Unterberger wrote in a Billboard obituary article.

Whitburn’s personal music collection, stored at his home, added up to 200,000 singles, albums and CDs, Haney confirmed. That collection includes every record ever listed in the Billboard Hot 100, and every record listed in rival and defunct charts.

In a 2014 interview with the Journal Sentinel, he said that he used his collection as a primary source of accurate information on things like label names and B-sides.

At 6 feet 6 inches tall, Whitburn played basketball for Menomonee Falls High School as well as Elmhurt College in Illinois. He also attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for a time.  

Whitburn was inducted into the Menomonee Falls High School Fine Arts Hall of Fame in 2015. He was also a voting member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Whitburn’s daughter Kim Bloxdorf, a vice president at Record Research, will continue running the company. Haney, an editor and researcher there for 30 years, and Brent Olynick, who’s worked there for more than four decades, will assist her, Haney said. 

Whitburn was an easy boss who trusted employees to get the job done, Haney said. But he was also passionate about detail and a stickler for accuracy.

“If I didn’t get something exactly correct, I would hear about it,” Haney added.

Some of Haney’s favorite memories are of sitting in Whitburn’s office for half an hour or hour, talking about charts and music. 

“He was really like a father figure to me,” he said.

Whitburn’s survivors include his wife of 58 years, Frances; his daughter Kim; his sisters, Joyce Riehl and Julie Rae Niermeyer; his brothers, Charles and David; two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. 

Visitation will begin at 1 p.m. June 24 at Northbrook Church, 4014 WI-167, Richfield, with service at 3 p.m.

Contact Jim Higgins at jim.higgins@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jhiggy.

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Posted in: Music