Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Bubbling Under the Hot 100

Oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy--the 13th edition of Joel Whitburn's Top Pop Singles (covering the years 1955 to 2010) is due out in June, and a little elf has pre-ordered a copy for me. You don't know who Joel Whitburn is? Really? Do you want to know who he is? Wait--before you have a chance to answer yes or no, I'll tell you.

Joel Whitburn is a 71-year-old music researcher based in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. Since 1970, he has published around 200 data-crammed books based on the rankings and miscellaneous information in Billboard magazine's Pop, Rock, Country, R&B/Hip-Hop, Adult Contemporary, and Dance/Disco record charts. His books are to popular music in America what the old Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia was to our national pastime before the Internet became the main repository of baseball statistics. Whitburn maintains a website but you have to pay to do searches on it; besides, the books are way more fun to use, in my (admittedly book-revering) opinion.  

I own a copy of the 6th edition of Top Pop Singles, which covers the years 1955 to 1990. My knowledge of pop music pretty much fizzles out somewhere in the early or mid '80s, though I'm not averse to listening to contemporary pop. I just stopped caring about the music enough to want to keep tabs on chart performance. So why do I need the latest edition of Top Pop Singles, you ask. (You did ask; I think I heard you ask. It's not altogether inconceivable that you would have asked.)

OK, my friends, I'll tell you: Because the new edition is going to include never-before-included information on "Breakout Singles," a feature that ran in Billboard from January 9, 1961 to February 10, 1973, a period that, in Whitburn's words, represents "the golden era of garage bands and Top 40 radio." It also happens to very nearly coincide with the 10-year period (1963 to 1972, inclusive) in which much of my favorite music was recorded and released.

The "Breakout Singles" were records that were getting airplay, selling well, and effectively becoming local hits in one or more of 32 major markets (including the usual metropolitan suspects but also less influential markets like Buffalo, Milwaukee, Albany, Hartford, Louisville, Oklahoma City, and Newark). Many eventually made the Billboard "Hot 100" or "Bubbling Under the Hot 100" charts, but in the 12+ years during which the "Breakout Singles" feature existed, precisely 631 of the "Breakout Hits" made neither of those national charts. We're talking about the bands that played at your and my (if you've read this far you're close to me in age) junior-high and high-school dances in the era right after the era in which they called those dances "sock hops." No wonder, then, that a needy nerd like me needs the new edition of Top Pop Singles, even if you don't. 

The other point I want to make, besides the general point about the greatness and coolness of the entire Joel Whitburn Record Research franchise up there in Menomonee Falls, is that I can't imagine Whitburn's books being studied or browsed on an e-reader. From a technical standpoint, you could do that, of course. But why would you want to? I just this second picked up my copy of the 6th edition of Top Pop Singles, opened it to a random page (page 592), and . . . there they are, the British group, the Tremeloes, with a listing of the five songs of theirs that made the U.S. Top 100 from 1964 to 1968, including their fine cover of Cat Stevens's "Here Comes My Baby" (the Tremoloes' version peaked at #13 in 1967), and their equally fine cover of the gorgeous Four Seasons B-side (to "Rag Doll"), "Silence is Golden" (peaked at #11, also in 1967).

But then I let my eyes wander across the two-page spread that includes the Tremoloes, and say, there's Doris Troy, who sang "Just One Look," and the Troggs, who made "Wild Thing" famous before Jimi Hendrix made it even more famous at Monterey Pop, and Pat Travers, who reached #56 in 1979 with his annoyingly testosteronic "Boom Boom (Out Go the Lights)." Gee, did the Cat Stevens original of "Here Comes My Baby" ever chart in the U.S? I flip back to the Cat Stevens entry on page 554--no, it didn't. Did any other version of the song do so, other than that of the Tremeloes? I flip to the index, page 711--none did.

Ah, but what about the "Bubbling Under the Hot 100" chart? Did any version of "Here Comes My Baby" make it to "Bubbling Under" without subsequently advancing to the "Hot 100"? Let me grab my 1992 edition of Whitburn's Bubbling Under (in recent years, all the "Bubbling" info has been folded into Top Pop Singles, but at one time it constituted a separate book). Holy moly--there's a 1967 Perry Como version of "Here Comes My Baby" that peaked only at #124. Oh wait--it's not the Cat Stevens song, it's a different song with the same title. Not a song I'm familiar with, although Dottie West, who later recorded with Kenny Rogers, apparently had a #10 Country hit with it in 1964. And . . . .

Maybe there'll come a time when the look-what-I-stumbled-on serendipity that we experience when we browse through a hard-copy reference book will be capable of being roughly approximated with e-books and e-readers. Approximated but not replicated. I can't imagine that e-books will ever e-licit quite the same feeling. Not in me. And probably not in you.

--Barry Hoberman

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