July 13, 1987
A Discographic Deception
Joel Whitburn’s Pop Memories, 1890‑1954. Menomonee Falls, WI: Record Research, Inc., 1986. 657 pages.
A review for APM by Tim Brooks
This is perhaps the most unusual book ever issued on the subject of early recordings. On one hand, it is a fascinating attempt to rank by popularity the records and artists of the first 65 years of recording, week by week, year by year, all the way back to the days of brown wax cylinders. On the other, it must be said, the entire book is a colossal fraud.
It is a sad commentary on the quality of the reviews found in most collectors’ publications that reviewers have not even noticed the latter fact–yet. Goldmine magazine wrote “Whitburn used numerous sources… so there’s no reason to doubt (the book’s) accuracy” (sic). Record Collector’s Monthly called it “the most complete and accurate research covering this period of time in musical history.” Even the estimable New Amberola Graphic, known for its accuracy, published without comment an endorsement by one of its writers calling it “the most important book for record collectors since (I) started collecting over 44 years ago.”
What is Pop Memories? It is a 657 page index, by artist and title, of the popular record charts from 1890 to 1954. Appendices list the artists with the most #1 singles, the top charted artists by decade (starting with the 1890′s), every record that reached #l on the charts, and so on. But wait, you say, you didn’t know there were any popular charts in 1890? You are right. Whitburn simply made them up.
This is a pretty gross deception and it deserves some discussion. Whitburn is famous for his chart indexes, which until now have begun, sensibly enough, with 1940, the year in which Billboard magazine introduced the first national best‑selling records chart. His introduction cites all sorts of pre‑1940 sources for the “charts” indexed in this book. The wording is somewhat evasive (sources were “not in precise chart or rank form,” were “far from definitive,” etc.) however the clear impression is left of extensive research which turned up a great deal of reasonably accurate data, allowing Whitburn to reconstruct national rankings of the best selling cylinders and discs, week by week. Goldmine, Record Collector’s Monthly and others have obviously bought this malarky hook, line and sinker. APM readers will know better. Let’s look at some of these so‑called “chart sources.”
“From 1896‑1899,” Whitburn says, “The Phonoscope… printed monthly lists of top popular recordings.” This is simply not true. The Phonoscope printed a list called “New Records for Talking Machines” which was nothing but a summary of new releases by selected companies. (A long, parallel listing of “The Latest Popular Songs” also made no attempt whatever to rank titles or otherwise distinguish which were the most popular). Bert Williams’ first record is listed on the New Record Chart for Jan.-Feb. 1897; try finding it!
“Several years earlier The Phonogram provided invaluable information on records.” Invaluable, maybe, but all it printed was whatever a few of the better financed regional record makers cared to tell readers in their ads, anecdotes from the business (“Phono‑Chat”) and a few passing comments in the editorial columns. There is nothing even remotely resembling commentary on the best sellers of the day, and no listings of specific recordings.
“The catalogs of Columbia, Edison, Berliner and regional labels helped fill the gaps.” No sales information there, certainly nothing you could believe!
“To compile the charts of (the 1890s) I combined this material with data on sheet music sales and other popular song listings from ASCAP and the books of musicologist David Ewen.” ASCAP’s song listings have nothing to do with records, and little with sheet music sales; those that I have seen are simply lists of “old favorites” beloved in old folks’ homes. ASCAP has no data of its own from the period; the society was founded in 1914. As for David Ewen, the best that could be said is that he is one of the more notorious anecdotal historians for whom a good story told ’round the bar makes far better copy than any actual research about what really happened. I used to believe his books too (along with those of Sigmund Spaeth), until I started digging into original source materials, and finding that many of their colorful yarns simply didn’t hold up. For example Ewen (and Spaeth) will tell you at length about the colorful history of Charles K. Harris’ “After the Ball” (1892), how it was virtually the anthem of the 1890s, upon everyone’s lips, selling millions upon millions of copies. Why is it, then, that the Columbia cylinder catalogs do not even mention the song until 1894, and then only briefly, while hundreds of other titles were featured issue after issue, in multiple versions? The managers of Columbia were no fools; the phonograph business was on very shaky ground then, and they pushed hard to sell as many copies as they could of whatever people would buy. Obviously, “After the Ball” didn’t sell (neither did “Daisy Bell,” also known as “On a Bicycle Built For Two,” another fabled hit of the 1890s). Whitburn, slavishly following his “authority” Ewen, imagines George J. Gaskin’s New Jersey cylinder of the song as #1 for ten weeks in 1893, followed by three more weeks of John Yorke AtLee’s version (which wasn’t even released until the following year). Ewen, it should be noted, never cited sources or included footnotes in his “histories,” so his assertions are undocumentable.
Sources for later eras are just as flimsy. Jim Walsh’s excellent articles are cited as a “source for charts,” but in fact Jim wrote artist biographies, not articles about the relative popularity of various records. “From 1914‑1921,” we are told, “the major record companies provided monthly lists of their best sellers to Talking Machine World.” False. TMW published lists of new releases; there was never any attempt to rank them by popularity. (“While not always totally reliable,” Whitburn observes, “they were carefully factored in.” Neat trick.)
“Billboard and Variety provided abundant information on the hit records and songs of the 1920s.” Variety did in fact print a monthly “Six Best Sellers” for each major label, starting in 1921. I have researched these thoroughly and the record lists are in fact simply “plug lists” sent in by the labels to promote their new releases. The titles changed every month; even records known to be phenomenal long term sellers were seldom listed for more than one month (i.e., the month in which they were released), alongside obscurities. The same is true of Variety‘s “Monthly Music Survey” in the 1930s; songs are sometimes listed in a single multi‑publisher ranking, but never records.
As a result of this misuse of sources Pop Memories gives us some bizarre entries. It is lots of fun to see in print a list of Geraldine Farrar records that made the “top 10″ (ten of them, between 1907 and 1916), complete with the highest position each achieved and its number of weeks on the “chart.” However everything we know about Red Seal sales suggests that it is highly unlikely that her arias actually outsold the pop songs of the day. As much as we treasure the early recordings of Louis Armstrong on Okeh, there is simply no way that this poorly‑distributed label was able to place eleven of his now quite rare Okeh Electrics on “the charts” between 1926 and 1929. And do you believe that three of Al Jolson’s rare 1912‑1913 Victors reached number one on the charts, for extended periods?
In some cases the anecdotal basis of Whitburn’s presumptions shows through. Art Landry’s 1923 Gennett recording of “Dreamy Melody” is shown as reaching #1 in that year. Landry himself long regaled listeners with lies about how his first record sold “one and a half million copies”–which is probably more than the entire annual production of the tiny Gennett label! Try to find a copy today.
What about records that we know were actually big sellers? Reliable sales figures are hard to come by but some do exist. Fagan and Moran’s invaluable Encyclopedia Discography of Victor Recordings, Vol. 1, shows the press runs of many early Victors from 1900-1903. Records sold in very small quantities in those days, often only a few hundred copies per title. The largest total I found in skimming the EDVR was for a song called “Truscalina Brown” by Silas Leachman (No. A1132, 10,124 copies in six takes). This record, thus verified as one of Victor’s biggest individual sellers of the pre-1903 period, is not listed at all in Pop Memories. Instead Whitburn’s entry for Leachman shows two other Victor releases, A793 and 1458, which according to EDVR had press runs of 690 and 1,153 respectively. Altogether of the six records with the largest press runs in EDVR only two are on Pop Memories‘ “charts,” neither as a very big hit. Incredibly “The Holy City,” which must have sold enough copies to pave the streets of Camden, is listed by Whitburn as appearing only briefly on the charts. Macdonough’s very familiar version supposedly reached “number two for one week.”
There is some other historical data against which to check this book. Several years ago I researched the Columbia files and discovered actual shipping figures for the label’s releases from 1915-1920. Going back over my notes I have compiled a list of 14 of the label’s documented top selling records of that period. Only five of these turn up on Whitburn’s “charts,” three of them briefly and at lower chart positions. In other words, Whitburn got only two of the 14 “right” (as hits). An example: Julian Rose’s “Levinsky at the Wedding, Parts 3 & 4″ (Columbia A2366) shipped 140,000 copies in its first year (1917), a fabulous total for those days, and nearly four times as many as Columbia’s second best seller of the year. According to Pop Memories it ranked “number five for two weeks,” surpassed by dozens of more obscure Columbia issues. Ted Lewis’ “Bo-La-Bo” (A2895) sold over 500,000 copies in 1920, yet here ranks “number 14 for one week.” How long could Columbia fool its shipping department?
Other best selling titles are omitted altogether. They follow a certain pattern which gives us a clue as to what went wrong with these made-up “charts.” Columbia’s top sellers during 1915 and 1916, according to the label’s own files, were nearly all Hawaiian numbers. Hawaiian numbers are not considered very collectible or even interesting by collectors today, certainly much less so than Al Jolson or Geraldine Farrar. However there was a tremendous vogue for Hawaiian songs in the mid-1910s as anyone who has pored through boxes of 78s from that era can attest, and as Columbia’s files confirm. You would never know it from Pop Memories. Instead we get history as today’s collectors would like it to have been. That is simply sloppy, self-indulgent research. How else can we explain all the Louis Armstrong Okeh chart-busters, and some by Bix Beiderbecke as well (try to find them today!). For the classical collector, Louis Graveure is shown as having three top-ten hits for Columbia between 1916-1919, when the company’s own sales figures show most of his releases shipped no more than 3,000-4,000 copies at best. (Louise and Ferera shipped 25,000 copies of “Drowsy Waters” in 1916, and 322,000 copies of that same disc by 1920, but it is not even listed in Pop Memories). Of course the prestigious Graveure was pictured on the cover of the Columbia supplements, and Louise and Ferera were not; perhaps that’s how Whitburn’s sources were “carefully factored in.’
Even more insidious is Pop Memories‘ tendency to assume that record sales patterns of the early 1900s were the same as those of today. Records in those days were manufactured and distributed by a very small number of companies, basically Victor, Columbia and Edison, until their patents ran out around 1919. Their versions were the only ones that could sell in substantial quantities, smaller labels never had a chance. Thus the best selling version of almost any pop song of the 1910s is the Victor version, second is Columbia, etc. Moreover with no mass media to keep changing listeners’ tastes and promote “this week’s hit” (as radio does today) song hits lasted for a very long time. Read the Columbia cylinder catalogs of the 1890s and you will see the same titles featured issue after issue, year after year. If there had been a “chart” in the 1890s the U.S. Marine Band’s “Semper Fidelis” would probably have been the number-one seller for five straight years. But Whitburn, conforming his book to the practice of the rock era (with which he is most familiar), shows cylinders moving up and down the charts with today’s rapidity. “Semper Fidelis” (his first number one, in 1890) is on top for six weeks, replaced by “Washington Post” for six, then “The Thunderer” for four, etc. None of course ever return to sell some more because today‘s practice is that once you’re yesterday’s hit, you’re dead. As history, this is absolute rubbish. Any reading of the trade papers of those days, of remaining company files, or simply a count of copies collectors locate today will tell you that’s not how records sold in the early days.
What, then, is the value of Pop Memories? Surprisingly if you strip away the chart positions, the “number one with a bullet” nonsense and all the gobbledygook up front about “researching the hits,” it is a worthwhile volume. As a selective listing of the generally more popular recordings and artists of the 78 rpm era, it is really quite good. Any book that gives us six pages of Billy Murray records, year by year, with labels and record numbers and a short bio making clear his great impact on the recording world, can’t be all bad. In fact, all of the most important artists are here, including many who are seldom recognized elsewhere. There are long lists of records by Henry Burr, Harry Macdonough, the Peerless and American Quartets and many other old favorites, as well as more recent artists such as Bing Crosby, Glenn Miller and Perry Como (remember, the volume goes up to 1954). A top artists of all time appendix, based on number and size of chart hits, is speculative and ought to be labeled as such, but it is not entirely unreasonable. It is certainly egalitarian in its mix of styles and eras. The most successful artist on the charts from 1890-1954, says Whitburn, was Bing Crosby, followed in order by Paul Whiteman, Guy Lombardo, Tommy Dorsey, Billy Murray, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Henry Burr, the Peerless Quartet and Harry Macdonough. Not to be overlooked are the short paragraphs that head many entries giving biographical background on the artists, and notes on some of the records themselves (recording dates, movies and shows from which the songs were drawn, anecdotes, etc.).
The great danger is that Whitburn’s apparently precise data, with its impressive looking sources, will be reprinted and enshrined as historical fact by others. This has already begun to happen. At the ARSC convention in Washington in May 1987, an otherwise learned paper by John Edward Hasse of the Smithsonian Institution on Hoagy Carmichael’s recordings cited Whitburn as the source of chart positions in the 1930s, and drew significant conclusions from them. Hasse, when questioned, seemed unaware of the book’s unreliability and said “it’s all I had.” Whitburn has certainly been misleading in not making it clear that his “charts” are entirely speculative, and, as we have seen, none too accurate. However more to blame, in my opinion, are the reviewers in Goldmine, Record Collector’s Monthly, etc., who turn out sloppy, uninformed reviews that completely miss the fact that the book contains essentially false and deceptive information.
Pop Memories, if taken for what it is (despite its defects), is an entertaining and useful volume. It is not, however, the last, or even the first, word on what was popular during the first 65 years of recorded music. One might hope that more reviewers would look beyond the cover blurb and realize that. Buyer, beware!
From Antique Phonograph Monthly, Vol. VIII, No. 7 (1988):
Joel Whitburn Replies
We have received a lengthy reply from Joel Whitburn regarding Tim Brooks‘ review of Pop Memories, 1890-1954 in the last issue of APM. Joel‘s edited reply follows below, and Tim answers after that. Who ever said that record research wasn‘t exciting?
[Mr. Brooks], in the course of doing considerable research, has committed enough factual errors and missed enough points about Pop Memories to lay bare his fundamental argument as a fraud. When he attacks the intellectual integrity and scholarship of the book (on largely faulty grounds), I deeply resent it.
In regard to The Phonoscope, Mr. Brooks is flatly wrong in suggesting that its listings were nothing more than each company’s new releases. A number of recordings were listed for several months at a time, some for up to eight or nine months. Such multiple listings seem to indicate a significant popularity. Therefore I feel it was absolutely legitimate to include this data as one source for the charts of the 1890s.
The Phonoscope and Phonogram carried anecdotal information about artists and their records. These were also extremely useful in determining popularity.
During the pre-1920 era sheet music sales outstripped the sales of disc and cylinder records. Pop Memories is not just a compilation of best selling records–it includes, especially for the 1890s, data based on the sales of sheet music in addition to records.
Mr. Brooks disparages the “anecdotal historians” (such as David Ewen), but how could his books have been reprinted over more than three decades, establishing his reputation as America’s foremost popular musicologist? In most cases, the songs he cited as top sheet music seller and popular hits were confirmed by other sources.
Regarding ASCAP, Mr. Brooks neglects to mention that in 1978 a reference book entitled ASCAP Hit Songs included a listing of major song hits dating back to 1892 by writers who later became members of the organization. By the way, “After the Ball” and “Daisy Bell,” two 1890s classics whose hit status was questioned by Mr. Brooks, were the first two songs listed in the ASCAP book. I have yet to encounter a musical history that doesn’t include them among the biggest hits of the decade. Columbia’s scant listings for these titles hardly disproves their status as major hits.
As Mr. Brooks states, Jim Walsh’s columns were primarily artist profiles, but in 40 years he conveyed a tremendous amount of information on individual hit records. Several dozen of the charted records in Pop Memories were specifically cited by Mr. Walsh.
When Mr. Brooks states that Talking Machine World did not publish listings of best sellers he is flat, dead wrong. In fact, from 1914-21 the record companies did furnish these listings to TMW–many were listed for months at a time, indicating their popularity. Their “New Record Releases” were entirely separate from the “Best Seller” Listings. How accurate were they? While they were not totally reliable, they did provide some extremely useful and revealing information about best-sellers, and they were factored in.
Variety did publish “plug lists” in the 1920s, but these were not used in compiling the charts. Both Billboard and Variety included narrative information on popular records, songs, and artists in their columns, and we drew upon these for the charts. Variety (from 1929-38) and Billboard (from 1935-38) did publish monthly lists of best sellers. Mr. Brooks is absolutely wrong when he says that these were plug lists–their continued appearance indicated their popularity. For the most part, the information they convey is consistent with other sources.
Pop Memories also consulted the following: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music and Jazz by Roger Kinkle (one of the finest reference sources of its kind); Variety Music Cavalcade by Julius Mattfeld; The Great Song Thesaurus by Roger Lax and Frederick Smith (top songs); The Directory of Popular Music (useful); The Book of Golden Discs by Joseph Murrells (imperfect but valuable); Billboard‘s 1913-18 sheet music charts and vaudeville’s most popular hits; I’ve Heard Those Songs Before by Elston Brooks (marginally useful for 1930-35); and Billboard and Variety weekly radio airplay and sheet music charts for 1933-40. All of these books were imperfect in some way–that is a fact of life every historian must learn to accept. This is the reason why the charts in Pop Memories were compiled from many sources–the imperfections could be filtered out!
Certain records cited by Mr. Brooks on the Victor label, “The Holy City” for example, were “evergreens” (selling slowly but steadily for many years)–they would not “make the charts.” If Columbia had a number of heavily shipped items, how strange that Columbia omitted them in its lists submitted to TMW during 1915-20.
I do not doubt that some records should have been included in Pop Memories but weren’t. We had to rely on publicly available materials. For the period before 1930 I would say that the charts were more than 90% accurate, and after that, I would say 97% or 98% accurate. Many of the classical listings for Victor and Columbia were substantiated by other sources.
There is one criticism by Mr. Brooks that has some validity, namely that we created a misleading impression that record popularity was as ephemeral as it is today; however we had to translate the reality of the “slow and steady” sellers of the 1890s record industry into 20th century terms. We couldn’t very well list G.W. Johnson’s “Laughing Song” as #1 for 50 weeks. By listing it for ten weeks we represented its position in the context of overall chart history.
By 1904 this problem was largely solved; the record industry had matured into a recognizable form, with “plug lists” and hits. I would not for a moment insist that the 1890-1904 weekly charts be literally accepted; however the fundamental information about such hits as “Daisy Bell” (their peaks of popularity) is completely accurate and well-substantiated.
In a sense, charted weeks during the 1890s were functionally equivalent to months of popularity. Perhaps this point could be made in a future update. But it is beyond reasonable dispute that the songs listed in Pop Memories as the biggest hits of the decade were the biggest hits in the correct rank; the peak-position information is accurate; and the artists listed as the top recording artists were just that.
To conclude, the claim by Mr. Brooks that the charts were constructed out of thin air is utterly baseless. Every published source was carefully read, weighed for reliability, and carefully factored in. Are the charts perfect? No! This is a pioneering effort, and there is no doubt that we could come closer to the elusive ideal of 100% perfection by locating additional material. But every knowledgeable collector agrees that Pop Memories is overwhelmingly accurate and stands as the single most valuable work ever published on the pioneer recording era. [Edited by APM]
Response to Joel Whitburn’s Letter
by Tim Brooks
I stand by the comments made in my review. Pop Memories was not well researched, and as a result substantially misrepresents the popularity of many individual records (and types of records) during the early years of the industry. Forceful claims like “absolutely legitimate” and “overwhelmingly accurate” unfortunately don’t change that. Mr. Whitburn’s full letter is longer than the original review, and readers who wish the full point-by-point response may send a SASE to the editor.
But a few comments. I am quite familiar with the sources Mr. Whitburn mentions and have photocopies of microfilms of most of them in my library. I double-checked them before writing the review to insure that all my statements were accurate. Put simply, the wealth of popularity information he says he found just isn’t there. What is there has often been misinterpreted; for example the listings in the Phonoscope were clearly headed “list of new records” not most-popular records. Repeat listings were the result of the Phonoscope repeating the whole list, or substantial chunks of it, not singling out individual titles. The “extremely useful… anecdotal information” he constantly refers to are very occasional comments like “Mr. Hunting says his new number —- is going over well.” How do you get week-by-week rankings out of that?
Regarding the many books Whitburn relied on, just because later books reprinted the same erroneous information over and over doesn’t make it correct. Didn’t we have enough of that during the phonograph centennial (e.g., the false date of Aug. 12, 1877 for the date of the invention of the phonograph)? Whitburn speaks frequently of “cross checking and factoring” bits of information, to “filter out” imperfections. However if you cross-check and factor in garbage…
I am amazed that Mr. Whitburn dismisses actual pressing and shipment data from Victor and Columbia (which, apparently, he didn’t know about) because it doesn’t agree with his anecdotes, or with what David Ewen said! The 1914-1921 Talking Machine World company lists he refers to, incidentally, are apparently the top six in Chicago only.
Finally, a more basic point. Whitburn has revealed far more about the sources, methodology and intent of Pop Memories in his attack on my review than he did to readers of the book itself. I think those asked to pay $50 for this volume deserved an equally full explanation of what they were getting. One of the most remarkable revelations of the letter is that, for the early years at least, Pop Memories does not reflect a ranking of records at all, but a ranking of songs, as represented by their most “significant” recordings. This is not what the table of contents, the introduction, the “Researching the Charts” essay or the listings indicate. The author then says “charted weeks during the 1890s reflect months of popularity.” So what is labeled record popularity for specific weeks is actually song popularity for unspecified months! He then says he fixed the 1890s charts to show records (or is it songs?) rising and falling in popularity more rapidly than they really did, because to do otherwise “would so skew chart history as to make it incomprehensible in modern terms.” If that’s not rewriting history to match modern preconceptions, I don’t know what is.
Beyond substituting songs for records and months for weeks, and altering the longevity of hits, all without telling the reader, there remains the fundamental problem of the sources; there just isn’t enough information available to support this detailed a ranking. I’ve made some suggestions in my letter as to how such a project could be done, but that’s another matter.
One last point bears mention here, especially since Mr. Whitburn (unlike some commercial authors) obviously does care about the accuracy of his work. (His prior works, indexes of Billboard‘s post-1940 charts, are highly regarded.) The most unfortunate cases of books gone awry that I’ve seen over the years have been those written by someone who kept to himself, showed his work to virtually no one, then sprung it on the collecting world full-blown. Many experts in early record research could have reviewed this project and offered constructive criticism before it came out; something could have been said ahead of time in APM, The New Amberola Graphic, Record Research or the ARSC Journal. The Association for Recorded Sound Collections (a national organization) exists to help researchers keep in touch and exchange information. I urge Joel Whitburn, and others who undertake major research projects, to write short pieces for magazines, join an organization like ARSC, and show your manuscript to those knowledgeable in the field before this sort of thing hits the fan. Your book, and your readers, will be better served.
P.S.: Mr. Whitburn has indicated in subsequent correspondence that he will consider making modifications in future editions of Pop Memories. I will certainly help him to the extent I can. [Note (2007): this did not occur.]