My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Tag Archives: Joel Whitburn

Revelations from Music Vendor/ Record World

Hit_Country_RecordsAs the ‘last man standing’ Billboard‘s country charts have taken on an almost mythical importance, yet for most of the 1940s and 1950s, Billboard did a relatively poor job in recording the history of country singles in that their various country charts only went 10-15 places deep.

Music Vendor (later Record World) started tracking country music in 1954 and immediately started tracking 55 chart places for country records, a depth of country charts Billboard wouldn’t approach until 1964 when Billboard went to 50 places. For purposes of simplicity, I will always refer to Music Vendor/ Record World as ‘Record World‘.

Joel Whitburn’s new volume Hit Country Records 1954-1982: Music Vendor/Record World performs a valuable service in restoring to the known discography of country music a staggering 1700 songs and 200 artists that Billboard failed to chronicle.

I always thought that the Wilburn Brothers had a relatively thin representation on the Billboard charts with 31 chart entries from 1954-1972, with many songs that I knew to have been at least mid-level hits not being tracked by Billboard. Turns out that the Wilburn Brothers were the poorest served of all country artists by Billboard with a staggering 30 songs not tracked by Billboard. Other artists with huge holes in their Billboard chart discographies include Hank Snow (26 songs), Eddy Arnold (23 songs), Kitty Wells (21 songs), Hank Thompson (21 songs), Johnnie & Jack (20 songs) and Ernest Tubb, Marty Robbins, Ferlin Husky and George Jones (each with 19 songs).

Among Bluegrass artists, Flatt & Scruggs pick up an extra 15 chart entries, Mac Wiseman (13), Jimmy Martin (6), Bill Monroe (4), and the Osborne Brothers (4).

There were also apparently differences in how artists were classified. Country audiences always loved Brenda Lee, Elvis Presley, George Hamilton IV and Conway Twitty, a fact Billboard somehow failed to acknowledge. After missing “Jambalaya”, Billboard tracked “One Step At A Time”, and then missed the next eleven consecutive Brenda Lee songs including such monsters as “Dynamite”, “Sweet Nothings”, “Fool #1” and “Break It To Me Gently”.

The track record on Elvis was worse as Billboard failed to track “That’s All Right” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “Blue Suede Shoes”, along with 15 more songs.

Record World tracked six George Hamilton IV singles before Billboard got around to recognizing “Before This Day Ends” as a country single. Ditto for Conway Twitty who Billboard picked up as country with “Guess My Eyes Were Bigger Than My Heart”, after ten singles had already been tracked by Record World.

While most of the songs that Music Vendor/Record World picked up were second tier hits, there were some surprising Billboard misses uncovered such as the George Jones favorites “Tall Tall Trees”, “Eskimo Pie” and “Nothing Can Stop Me (Loving You)”. A very famous song from 1955 was Bobby Lord’s 1955 hit “Hawkeye”; Billboard missed the song entirely on any of its charts, whereas Record World had it charting for twelve weeks, reaching #16.

I mentioned that approximately 200 artists show up in this book that Billboard never tracked on its country charts. These include Carl Dobkins Jr (three songs including “My Heart Is An Open Book” which Record World has as a #2 country hit, and Billboard had reach #3 pop), Pete Drake (three instrumental singles), and Buddy Holly (four singles including “Peggy Sue” and “Maybe Baby”).

I’ve only had this fascinating book for two days and I will probably report further as time permits, but it would be remiss of me not to further examine the song that initially got me interested in charts. Yes – I do mean “Groovy Grubworm” by Harlow Wilcox and The Oakies. Cashbox had the record reach #1 on its country chart (#24 pop) for two weeks whereas Billboard had the record stall out at #42 on the country chart while reaching #30 on the pop charts. This was the biggest chart disparity ever between singles that reached #1 on either the Billboard or Cashbox country chart but not the other chart.

The record was hugely successful, selling a million copies between the US and Canadian markets (it was a top ten hit on several Canadian regional pop charts), so I was curious to see how Record World treated “Groovy Grubworm” on its country charts, recalling that Record World had the song chart higher on its pop chart (#23) than did either Cashbox or Billboard.

Drum roll please :

Record World had the song reach #3 for one week on its country chart during its thirteen week chart run.

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Fellow Travelers: Harry Lillis “Bing” Crosby (1903-1977)

bing crosbyBy many measures, Bing Crosby was the most successful entertainer of the 20th century. As such he dabbled in many forms of popular music be it pop, jazz, country, cowboy and rhythm & blues.

WHO WAS HE?

Bing has been dead long enough that if he is remembered at all by the under fifty set, it is for old black and white movies like GOING MY WAY and THE ROAD TO MOROCCO or as the artist singing “White Christmas” on their parents’ (or grandparents’) favorite Christmas album.

Bing was much more than that; he was for many years the most famous entertainer on Planet Earth.

According to Billboard historian Joel Whitburn, Bing Crosby was the number one recording artist for the entire decades of the 1930s and 1940s with some success spilling into the 1950s. He recorded 383 chart hits with 41 number one records and another 152 that landed in the top ten. His recording of “White Christmas” is the biggest selling single in US history. He introduced many songs now known as pop standards.

If that isn’t enough, Bing Crosby was among the top ten movie box office stars fifteen times and from 1944 through 1948 he was the number one box office star. He won an Academy Award for his role in GOING MY WAY. By any measure except dollars (due to ticket price inflation) Bing ranks in the top three of all-time movie stars with 1,077,900,000 movie tickets sold.

Moreover he was a successful radio star and at one time was part owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team and owned a number of successful racehorses.

WHAT WAS HIS CONNECTION TO COUNTRY MUSIC ?

Bing Crosby was a major factor in popularizing the western side of country music, making a number of movie westerns and introducing many western themed songs to the greater American public. Bing had hits on songs such as “Don’t Fence Me In”, “Along The Navajo Trail”, “Sioux City Sue”, “Blue Shadows On The Trail” , “Mule Train”, “Riders In The Sky”, “I’m An Old Cowhand”, The Last Round-up” and “Home On The Range”. He was elected to the Western Music Hall of Fame in 2008.

On the country side of the ledger, Bing covered such songs as “Walking The Floor Over You”, “San Antonio Rose” and “It Makes No Difference Now” for the pop market. When Billboard finally started tracking country music as a separate genre in January 1944, the very first number one record was “Pistol Packing Mama” by Bing Crosby accompanied by the Andrews Sister. It would stay there for five non-consecutive weeks, trading places with Al Dexter’s version (Dexter wrote the song). Bing would only chart one more record on Billboard’s country charts in 1952 when his recording (with Grady Martin & His Slewfoot Five) of “Till The End of The World” reached number ten.

Before his death in 1977 Bing Crosby would record many country songs as album tracks and would record at least one entire album of country music, for Capitol Records in 1963.

Country Heritage: Sonny James

“Let’s give a big Sarasota welcome to Capitol recording artist Sonny James and his Southern Gentlemen.”

Record labels do not have the aura that they had during the period of the 1940s–1970s, when artists were associated by the public with their record labels, and the record labels often put together tours of their artists. If you listen to live record radio programs of the period (or even live record albums), invariably the announcer would say something like this in introducing the artist “… and make welcome Capitol recording artist …”

The Big Four labels through the “Classic Period” of country music history (roughly 1950-1980) were, in order, Columbia/Epic, RCA, MCA/Decca and Capitol. Capitol was the smallest of the labels of the Big Four, with a shallower roster of artists, but during the period 1963-1972 Capitol had three artists who dominated in #1 records – Sonny James with 21 #1s, Buck Owens with 19 #1s and Merle Haggard with 13 #1s (according to Billboard). Yes, I know that all three artists had Billboard #1 records outside this decade, which ends when Sonny James left Capitol to sign with Columbia.

Sonny James is largely forgotten today, since when he retired, he really meant it. The raw numbers compiled by Billboard disguise the level of his success – Joel Whitburn has him as the #12 artist of the 1960s and the #10 artist of the 1970s but as of year-end 1997, Whitburn had Sonny James as #18 all-time. As of 2008, Whitburn still has him ranked at #22 all-time. Sonny James ranks ahead of many famous performers including Tanya Tucker, Kenny Rogers, Porter Wagoner, Tammy Wynette, Don Williams and Garth Brooks.

Born May 1, 1929 in the agricultural town of Hackleberg, Alabama, James Hugh Loden grew up in a musical family, singing with older sisters in the Loden Family group. While still a teen, Loden hosted his own radio show in Birmingham, Alabama. By the time James Loden entered the National Guard at the end of the 1940s, he was a seasoned professional entertainer. Although he had already finished his tour with the National Guard, the outbreak of hostilities in Korea resulted in Loden being recalled to active duty in September 1950, where he remained for the better part of two years.

Along the way James Loden had become friends with Chet Atkins who introduced Loden to Ken Nelson, famed record producer for Capitol Records. It was Ken Nelson who tagged James Loden with the Sonny James sobriquet, although apparently “Sonny” sometimes had been used as a nickname for Loden.

Ken Nelson started releasing singles on Sonny James in 1953. Some of the singles charted (others didn’t), starting with Sonny’s version of a song that Webb Pierce covered, “That’s Me Without You”, which reached #9 in 1953. Sonny would chart four more records through 1956, the biggest being “For Rent (One Empty Heart)” which reached #7 in early 1956. Sonny James was making inroads on television as well, appearing on the Big D Jamboree in Dallas, and on the nationally televised Ozark Jubilee hosting the first thirty minutes on a rotating basis with Porter Wagoner and Webb Pierce (Red Foley hosted the final hour of the show).

Sonny’s career song “Young Love” came to Sonny’s attention in 1956 through the recording of one of the co-writers, Ric Cartey. Ric’s record went nowhere but Sonny’s cover shot quickly up the charts reaching #1 for nine weeks in 1957 and reaching #1 on the Pop Charts as well, although Sonny’s recording was eclipsed on the Pop Charts by a note-for-note cover by actor Tab Hunter. Sonny feels that the opportunity for Tab’s cover to succeed came because Capitol could not keep up with the demand for the record.

Despite the success of “Young Love” (the flip side “You’re The Reason I’m In Love” reached #6) Sonny’s career did not kick into overdrive, as subsequent singles failed to maintain the momentum. By 1960 Sonny was off Capitol and recorded for NRC, RCA and Dot without notable success. From early 1958 until July 1963, Sonny charted only one single, that on the NRC label, “Jenny Lou”, which just missed the top twenty.

Reconnecting with producer Ken Nelson at Capitol in 1963, Sonny’s chart success resumed with some top ten singles. Then in January 1965 Sonny kicked off a run of singles that ran from 1965-1972 in which every single made it to the top three on Billboard’s country charts, a total of 25 in all, including a run in which sixteen consecutive singles made it to #1, a record later eclipsed by Alabama and tied by Earl Thomas Conley (the previous record holder had been Buck Owens with fifteen straight #1s). In reality, the string is more impressive than it sounds. After “You’re The Only World I Know” reached #1 for 4 weeks and “I’ll Keep Holding On” stalled out at #2, the next twenty-three singles would make it to #1 on at least one of the three major charts in use at the time (Billboard, Cashbox, Record World).

Sonny’s run of chart-toppers was the perfect blend of a smooth singer with a country sound that did away with fiddle and steel guitar but did not go to the extremes of Countypolitan and Nashville Sound recordings, being (mostly) easily replicated in live performance, and often featuring Sonny’s own excellent guitar playing. The songs were a mix of old Pop, Rock & Roll and R&B covers (13 songs) and original material (12 songs). While the earlier Sonny James hits did feature steel guitar (and he did keep a steel guitar player in his band) most of the later hits featured a guitar-organ, initially played on his stage show by band member Harland Powell.

How successful was the Sonny James during the 1960s and 1970s? Consider this:

1) According to Billboard for the decades of the 1960s and 1970s (1960-1979) Sonny’s recordings spent more time in the Number One chart position than any other artist in country music – a total of 57 weeks.

2) Also, according to Billboard, Sonny was the fifth ranking county artist for the two decade period, ranking behind only (in order) George Jones, Buck Owens, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard.

3) Sonny made more appearances on the Ed Sullivan show than any other country act. For those too young to remember, Ed Sullivan’s Sunday night variety show was “Must-See TV” introducing acts such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley to the American public and Sullivan was one of the first to prominently feature R&B, Motown and country acts on national television.

Clive Davis, President of Columbia Records, was a big fan of Sonny James, and lured him to Columbia where he scored his last #1 of the twenty-five song streak with “When The Snow Is On The Roses”. Sonny would score #1 and a handful of top ten records in his six years with Columbia before moving on to other labels. During his Columbia years Sonny seemed to become less interested in hit records and began recording theme-centered albums. In the chart below, the songs during 1972-1973 that charted at 30 or worse were older material released as singles by Capitol after Sonny left the label.

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The case of the ‘Groovy Grubworm’ (and other chart confusion)

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.

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