Music Geek Heaven: New Reference Books!

The space devoted to music references on my bookshelves has expanded greatly in the last couple months, and I’m having a great time browsing. Through reference books? Well, yeah. After all, I was the kid who spent hours when he was about ten sitting quietly and reading volumes of Compton’s Illustrated Encyclopedia, one after the other.

(More likely than not, the title was actually Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia, as suggested in a comment by reader Yah Shure. I do have a good memory, but details can sometimes be a little foggy after nearly fifty years. Thanks, Yah Shure!)

The new books on my shelves are, if anything, more interesting than the Compton’s was, though I won’t say more useful. It was the encyclopedia that helped me figure out where Indochina was. And that gave me as a fifth-grader a little bit better grasp of the location and history of those small nations that were being named more and more frequently in the news in the early years of the 1960s.

The new volumes – all by Joel Whitburn – are Top Pop Singles, The Billboard Book of Top Country Hits and The Billboard Book of Top 40 R&B and Hip-Hop Hits. The first was a Christmas present from the Texas Gal; the other two were the product of one of my occasional online buying sprees.

And all three are great fun. Top Pop Singles includes listings by artist and title of every song that reached the Billboard Hot 100 (or its earlier equivalents) and its Bubbling Under section from January of 1955 through the first weeks of July 2009. The R&B/hip-hop book presents data from even earlier, starting with the chart called the “Harlem Hit Parade” in October 1942 and ending in November 2004 with the chart now called R&B/Hip-Hop (a designation that debuted in late 1999). And the country book begins its tale with a chart collated from juke box plays around the country in January 1944 and gathers data through early 2006, with the chart at that time called “Hot Country Songs.”

I can hear some folks thinking: “Great fun”? Well, yeah. I’m a music geek and an information junkie. I’ve read – nearly cover-to-cover – all four editions of the Rolling Stone record and album guides, as well as the similar All-Music Guide to Rock. And I can lose myself browsing through any of the references on my shelf, whether that be any of the three books I mentioned to start this piece or any of the others, from The Billboard Book of No. 2 Hits through the Billboard Top Ten Album Charts, 1963-1998 to either of two editions of the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll.

So I’ve got three new books to divert me and – more to the point – help me be more accurate and broad-based in the information I toss out here. Sharp-eyed readers might have noticed a reference to two of the three books here already. I don’t seem to have cited yet the country hits book.

But all three of them got a little exercise this morning. I decided that I’d check each book for the earliest cited No. 1 hit from February 25 and then take a look at the No. 1 song from February 25, 1966, forty-five years ago today.

We’ll start with the R&B/Hip-Hop book, as its first entries come from a slightly earlier time than do those of the Country book. The No. 1 song on the Harlem Hit Parade for February 25, 1943, was “Apollo Jump” by Lucky Millinder and His Orchestra. Millinder was from Anniston, Alabama, and he and his band had ten records reach the R&B chart (which had various names) from 1942 through 1951. Among those who performed with his band were singers Wynonie Harris – his version of “Good Rockin’ Tonight” was No. 1 on the R&B chart in 1948 – and Gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who had four hits in the R&B Top 40 during the latter half of the 1940s, with her best-known song, “Strange Things Happening Every Day” reaching No. 2 on the R&B chart in 1945.

“Apollo Jump” was the second charted hit and second No. 1 hit for Millinder and his orchestra (though as his band pre-dated the chart data I have, one would assume Millinder had previously released records that were gauged as hits before that). Their 1942 take on the war-time ballad “When The Lights Go On Again (All Over The World)” had also gone to No. 1. And Millinder’s next two records to reach the chart – “Sweet Slumber” and “Who Threw The Whiskey In The Well” – would also go to No. 1. But sixty-eight years ago today, it was “Apollo Jump” and its jazzy, big-band sound that was at No. 1.

Things get a bit more familiar when we move ahead to 1966. The No. 1 record on the Hot R&B chart on February 25 of that year was from a Louisiana-born singer and guitar player who’d already scored an R&B and pop hit (No. 17 and No. 34, respectively) in 1961 with “Rainin’ In My Heart.” Five years later, James Moore, better known as Slim Harpo, would reach the top of the R&B chart (and go to No. 16 on the pop chart) with “Baby Scratch My Back.” Harpo would score two more hits on the R&B chart. One of those two R&B hits and two entirely different records would reach the Bubbling Under section of the pop chart; among those that bubbled under was the 1966 record “Shake Your Hips,” covered six years later by the Rolling Stones on Exile on Main St. For now, we’ll stay with Harpo’s No. 1 R&B hit, “Baby Scratch My Back.”

The earliest chart information presented in The Billboard Book of Top Country Hits is interesting for, among other things, its source, which is made clear in the chart’s title: “Most Played Juke Box Folk Records.” And it seems the definition of “folk” was pretty elastic, as the first year’s No. 1 records included work by, among others, Bing Crosby, Louis Jordan and the King Cole Trio, not performers we’d consider folk or country.

Jordan is, interestingly, listed in all three books. Three of his records reached the country chart in 1944, with two going to No. 1. He had fifty-seven records reach the R&B Top 40 between 1942 and 1951, with an astounding eighteen of them reaching No. 1. And in 1963, “Hard Head” bubbled under the Billboard Hot 100 for one week at No. 128. Those eighteen No. 1 R&B hits, by the way, put Jordan third all-time behind Aretha Franklin’s twenty and Stevie Wonder’s nineteen; Jordan does hold, however, the record for the most weeks spent total at No. 1 on the R&B chart, with 113. Wonder is second at sixty-seven.

And one of those weeks at No. 1 for Jordan was the week that included February 25, 1944, as Jordan and His Tympany Five were on top of the country chart with the slightly salacious “Ration Blues.” The record was No. 1 for three weeks.

By the time we get to 1966, things are sounding decidedly more like what we think of as country. The artists who were at No. 1 for the first six months of that year were Red Sovine, Buck Owens, Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves and Sonny James. And forty-five years ago today, it was Buck Owens & His Buckaroos at No. 1 with “Waitin’ In Your Welfare Line,” one of seventy-five records Owens put onto the country chart between 1959 and 1989. Owens had twenty-one records reach No. 1 on the country chart, which ranked twelfth all-time in 2006; Conway Twitty and George Strait were tied at the top of that list with forty No. 1 country hits each. In terms of weeks at No. 1, Owens racked up a total of eighty-two in his career, good for third place in 2006 behind Eddy Arnold’s 145 and Webb Pierce’s 111. “Waitin’ In Your Welfare Line,” provided Owens with seven of those No. 1 weeks (and went to No. 57 on the pop chart). Here’s a television performance from 1966.

Taking up at last the volume Top Pop Singles, we find at the No. 1 spot for its earliest February 25 a prime example of the regrettable and very common practice of white groups and performers covering songs originated by groups and performers with darker skins. The No. 1 record during the week of February 25, 1955, was “Sincerely” by the McGuire Sisters. Originally recorded by the Moonglows, a Cleveland group that included Harvey Fuqua, the tune is one of the great songs of the 1950s, and the Moonglow’s performance is stellar. Their version, in direct competition with the McGuire Sisters’ cover, went to No. 20 and reached No. 2 on the R&B chart.

(Another egregious practice, of which “Sincerely” is also a prime example, was the claiming of part authorship of a song by those involved only with its recording, promotion or radio play. In the case of “Sincerely,” authorship credit is split to this day between Fuqua and Cleveland disk jockey Alan Freed, though how much Freed actually contributed is uncertain. In a piece about the Moonglows at the website BlackCat Rockabilly Europe, Fuqua is quoted as saying: “Alan would sit there and throw a word in every now and then so, ya know, we’d give him credit for that, sometimes all the credit.”)

Whatever the ethical and social considerations, however, it was the McGuire Sisters’ version of “Sincerely” that was atop the pop chart on February 25, 1955. It was the third week of a ten-week run at No. 1 for the record.

As we look at the pop chart from this week in 1966 and the year’s No. 1 hits, we find – unsurprisingly – familiar names. Up to this week forty-five years ago, the year’s top pop singles had been records by Simon & Garfunkel, the Beatles, Petula Clark and Lou Christie. And the fifth No. 1 song of the year belonged to Nancy Sinatra with “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’.” It was one of two No. 1 hits she’d claim, with the other being “Somethin’ Stupid,” her 1967 duet with her famous father. Altogether, Nancy Sinatra placed twenty-three records in the Hot 100 or its Bubbling Under section from1965 into 1972. “Boots” was at No. 1 for just one week.

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10 Responses to “Music Geek Heaven: New Reference Books!”

  1. Yah Shure Says:

    Fascinating post! Was there a difference between ‘Compton’s Illustrated Encyclopedia’ and the ‘Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia’ Don Pardo always cited as the source authority for questions and answers used on ‘Jeopardy!’?

    Lucky Millinder had three earlier one-week charters from 1942 per Joel Whitburn’s ‘Pop Memories’ chart book: “Big Fat Mama” (#23) from the last week of January, “Shout, Sister, Shout!” (#21) from July 18th and its flipside, “I Want A Tall, Skinny Papa” (#13) from August 22nd.

    That YouTuber’s so-called “analog radio version” of “These Boots Are Made For Walkin'” had me on the floor. How was it mastered? The same way the promo and commercial 45 was, minus the part about recording it straight off an AM radio. But that was simply child’s play; everybody knows that the real holy grail is the iPod-ready “paper towel roll cardboard tube version.”

  2. Yah Shure Says:

    I forgot to mention that many years after the fact, when I finally heard “Baby Scratch My Back” for the first time, I recognized the tune, but neither the title nor artist. KDWB had used it in 1966 as the background music for a locally-produced commercial, but they never did add it to their playlist. They’d done the same thing about the same time with Dino, Desi & Billy’s “Please Don’t Fight It.”

  3. whiteray Says:

    @ Yah Shure: I have a sense that my memory supplied the wrong adjective and that I was in fact reading “Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia” some forty-seven years ago. I recall there was an adjective in the title, and some thirty years after seeing the collection for the last time, I cannot say for sure that “Illustrated” is the correct adjective. I have a hunch it is not.

  4. Paco Malo Says:

    Great post, my man. I’m gonna just pick one of the many thoughts that came to mind as I read about Slim Harpo’s “Hip Shake”. There’s a story I heard many years ago that may be an urban legend about the Stones cover, so shoot it down if it sounds like a myth. The way I heard it, Keith’s guitar on “Hip Shake” was borrowed by ZZ Top, add a bit of distortion, and you have the basic riff of the Texas trio’s “LaGrange”, their 1973 break-out single. Slim to Keith to Billy.

    Lou Ann Barton also does a magnificent cover of “Hip Shake”.

    Congratulations on your new books. The Texas Gal sure knows how to buy her man a gift.

  5. mikelj3 Says:

    Whiteray-I noticed yer mention of the Harvey Fuqua & The Moonglows.
    Have you ever heard the song “I Want Somebody” by Harvey? It was a Checker/Chess release in the late 50s or very early 60s. Difficult as hell to find.

  6. Barely Awake In Frog Pajamas Says:

    I always had my eye on some of Billboard’s various books, but they were a bit pricey. I felt the same excitement you’re experiencing when I snagged several of them for 75% off at a bookstore closing.

  7. Chris S. Says:

    As a fellow chart geek, I have several of those books on my reference shelf. I have books on Top 40 hits, pop albums, country, Adult Contemporary and one that shows all the Hot 100 surveys from the 1970s.

    I’m still looking for a book that covers the full R&B chart that costs less than $60-80. I may eventually bite the bullet and get the Top 40 edition instead, just to have the info while I’m waiting.

  8. porky Says:

    I believe we’ve all been kicked by the same horse regarding our love of chart reference books. That’s why we visit this site!

    I’ve been lucky to find two Whitburn books (C&W and R&B) for under a buck at our public library sale. All of my chart books end around 1989 (except for my Pop Top 40 which is through 2000) but that’s about five years past my interest chronologically anyway, so that’s fine.

    Speaking of DD & B, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard their version of “Baby Scratch My Back” on one of their LP’s. And I looked long and hard for “Please Don’t Fight It” by them (with a great James Burton guitar solo) and whatta tune! The Knickerbocker’s did it on their “Lies” LP but DD&B get the nod.

  9. Saturday Single No. 248 « Echoes In The Wind Says:

    […] realized this week, though, that the additions to my reference library I featured in a post last winter might pull some of those records from the utterly obscure portion of my files to the portion […]

  10. Saturday Single No. 280 « Echoes In The Wind Says:

    […] a fact junkie. As I mentioned here at least  once, I spent many of my childhood hours reading our old edition of Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia. […]

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