“History is written by the victors” – often attributed to Winston Spencer Churchill but of unknown origin.
Thanks to the many fine volumes of Billboard charts compiled by Joel Whitburn, and the fact that Billboard is still published today, most fans tend to think of Billboard as being the authoritative source for charting the success and/or popularity of recordings. In the year 2011 that undoubtedly is true, but for much of the history of country music and the country music charts, that was not the case. From 1952 until the late 1980s, Billboard and Cashbox battled it out as the national authority for charting records. In the realm of country music, Billboard and Cashbox were of equal importance with as many country radio stations basing their weekly countdown shows on the Cashbox charts as on the Billboard charts. Normally this presented little controversy as most Billboard #1s made it to #1 on Cashbox, and vice versa. Even when such was not the case, a song reaching #1 on one chart usually would be a top three record on the other chart, or occasionally top five.
The Billboard and Cashbox charts did not measure popularity in quite the same manner. In his fascinating autobiography Me, The Mob and Music, rock artist Tommy James had the following to say:
“…The big three trade papers were Record World, Cashbox and Billboard. Billboard was always the most difficult to deal with. Cashbox had a slant toward retail. It focused on the money generated from records. Record World had a slant toward radio airplay. Billboard claimed to be in the middle. The problem with that was that when you put out a record, back then things happened fast.
In six weeks you needed a new record, that’s how quickly the turnover was if you wanted to stay constantly on the charts. If you put out a record and it generated some excitement, it immediately went on the radio. That would be reflected in Record World. But it would take two or three weeks after you heard a song on the radio before the sales figures would start to hit and the stores would start to report it. That was when your record would start charting in Cashbox. So there was a lag time between those two papers. Billboard claimed to chart records between radio play and sales. But you would always be two to three weeks further ahead in airplay than you were in sales …
… And now because the other trade papers collapsed over the years, Billboard, by attrition, became the keeper of the flame. When young researchers and historians go back to check the archives for a record’s history, they inevitably get a skewed sense of how popular it really was.”
I’m not sure I completely agree with Tommy James, but there is considerable truth in his observations. While the charts usually charted records in approximately the same range, sometimes there were outliers, with a record sometimes making a much bigger impression on one chart than the other, such as Johnny Darrell’s original recorded version of “The Green Green Grass of Home” reaching #12 on Cashbox (it also charted on Record World) but not charting at all on Billboard’s Country Chart. This phenomena normally would occur on songs not reaching the Top 10 on either chart. The most noteworthy outlier to reach #1 was that of the instrumental hit “Groovy Grubworm” by Harlow Wilcox and the Oakies. More about that record a little later.
During the 1970s more traditionally based artists seemed to fare better on the Cashbox charts than on Billboard (the same could be said of the Record World charts as well, but we’ll discuss Record World at another time). Both of the country radio stations I listened to during my high school and college years, WCMS in Norfolk, VA and WHOO in Orlando, FL presented their own local charts that seemed to track more closely with Cashbox than with Billboard.
When you attended a stage show for a country artist from the 1960s, 70s, or 80s, the artist will often introduce a song as a song “that went #1 for me in year 19xx…”, yet when you check on Wikipedia or one of the Joel Whitburn compendiums you’ll see that Billboard did not have the record reaching #1. That doesn’t mean the artist was lying to you – it could mean that the song reached #1 on Cashbox or Record World.
Below you will find a partial list of records reaching #1 on Cashbox but not Billboard. My Cashbox sources are complete only for the years 1958-1982 so there are undoubtedly other records that reached #1 on Cashbox, but not on Billboard. Some of these records were huge hits indeed and it is puzzling that they did not get to #1 on Billboard. Sometimes it was a matter of timing. For instance, Gene Watson’s “Love In The Hot Afternoon” reached #1 in virtually every market but topped out at #3 in both Billboard and Cashbox. Released originally on the small Resco label, the record was picked up by Capitol after it had topped the charts in Texas, California and the southwest and was already sliding down the charts in those areas.
Some random thoughts – based on Cashbox’s methods Charley Pride really was the predominant superstar of his era. In additional to the eleven number ones above, he also had 29 other records reach the top on Billboard, giving him 40 for the period 1969-1984. His closest competitor during this period, Conway Twitty (39 combined Billboard & Cashbox #1s), padded his total with five #1 records in duets with Loretta Lynn. All of Charley’s #1 records were solo efforts.
The two records that hung around for the longest period of time at #2 on Billboard, Webb Pierce’s “I Ain’t Never” and Kitty Wells’ “Making Believe” both reached #1 on Cashbox. The three most extreme discrepancies between Cashbox and Billboard were “Snowbird” by Anne Murray, “Wings Upon Your Horns” by Loretta Lynn and “Groovy Grubworm” by Harlow Wilcox.
“Snowbird” is pretty easy to explain. Capitol didn’t conceive of “Snowbird” as a country song or Anne Murray as a country artist so they didn’t push it to country radio. Instead it was pushed to pop and easy listening radio (reaching #1 on the Billboard’s Easy Listening chart). Country DJs liked the song and played the record, and where the DJs weren’t playing it, country listeners started requesting the song after hearing it played on radio stations using other formats. In a sense, the record crossed over to country of its own volition.
“Wings Upon Your Horns” was the first Loretta Lynn song to really push the envelope, particularly in terms of perceived imagery. A fair number of radio stations banned the record – I guess it was those in the Billboard’s reporting network that banned the song. Loretta was already a superstar so almost anything she released was guaranteed to generate decent sales, even if radio wasn’t especially playing it in some markets.
“Groovy Grubworm” is an entirely different story. There isn’t much to say about Harlow Wilcox; Wikipedia had the following:
“Harlow Wilcox (died August 26, 2002) was an American session musician from Norman, Oklahoma. In 1969 he released an instrumental single on Plantation Records (as Harlow Wilcox & the Oakies) called “Groovy Grubworm,” which hit #30 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart late that year[…] “Groovy Grubworm” has sold over a million copies and was nominated for a Grammy in 1969.”
It seems odd that a record topping out at #30 on the Billboard Hot 100 would sell over a million copies, but everything about this record’s history is odd. For one thing it seemed to appeal across genre borders and the single could not clearly be defined as country or rock ‘n roll. The record does remind the listener of some of the material of The Bill Black Combo or even Johnny & The Hurricanes, both groups that straddled the country/rockabilly border. Our neighbors to the frozen north really took to the record as it reached #1 on the Canadian Country Charts and made the Top 20 on Canadian pop charts, reaching the Top 10 in several Canadian markets.
The song’s American history is interesting. Harlow Wilcox recorded “Groovy Grubworm” in 1969 for the tiny Impel label. Somehow the song came to the attention of Shelby Singleton, the owner of the previously dormant Sun label (which he used for reissues) and the Plantation label. Singleton purchased the master and re-released it as Plantation 28 in the fall of 1969.
“Groovy Grubworm” made its debut on both the Billboard and Cashbox Country charts on September 20, 1969. It hung around the Billboard Country charts for 13 weeks, peaking at #42. At some point, Billboard started tracking the record as a pop or rock ‘n roll record, as it made its debut on the Billboard Hot 100 on November 22, 1969 and stayed there for six weeks, peaking at #30
“Groovy Grubworm” would stay on the Cashbox Country Chart for 19 weeks with the following progression:
09/20/69 – #50, 09/27/69 – #36, 10/04/69 – #26, 10/11/69 – #21,
10/18/69 – #15, 10/25/69 – #11, 11/01/69 – #7, 11/08/69 – #4,
11/15/69 – #1, 11/22/69 – #1
From this point, the song dropped to #4 for two weeks and then slowly slid off the charts.
Cashbox also charted the song on its Top 100 Singles, where it debuted on September 20, 1969 and peaked at #25 on December 13, 1969 before sliding back down the charts, disappearing with the start of the New Year.
Both Billboard and Cashbox charts seemed subject to some manipulation during this period of time. Our esteemed colleague Ken Johnson once commented on this Classic Rewind of Wagoner’s version.
During the 1970s a total of 307 country recordings would reach #1 on Billboard, and during the 1980s a staggering total of 485 records reached #1 (during this period Billboard printed 51 charts per year). Cashbox results for the 1970s and 1980s are similar.
Chart manipulation does not seem a likely explanation for “Groovy Grubworm,” which had an unknown artist recording an instrumental for a minor label. I don’t have a good explanation on why the song reached #1 for two weeks on Cashbox but only #42 on Billboard. Whatever the case, Harlow Wilcox would never chart again on Billboard’s Pop charts, and would have only one more minor country chart hit: “Cripple Creek” which topped out at #54 in 1970.