Tidbits: Defining "Number One"

Among the questions we're often asked here at PopularSong.org are "what was the number one song on my parents' wedding day" or "what was the number one song on the day I was born" and similar queries. The answer to these questions is usually surprising: Pick one.


Alright, we'll explain. Most Pop Music Charts are based on a variety of formulas, incomplete data, and in some cases, gut feelings. Even the best-known "Billboard" charts do not have complete data, although they are thorough enough that they are statistically accurate 99.9999999 percent of the time. But of course not every record outlet is reported, and not every return is accounted for. The newer, electronic charts such as "top downloads" are definitely more accurate, but again, not every single outlet is accounted for, and certainly there is no accounting for illegal file sharing.

In some cases, such as the Sunday morning syndicated "Top 40" broadcasts, the program comes right out and states that chart rankings are based on a variety of sources...and in some cases they've been known to roll a few chicken bones and check the tea leaves. But again, by and large they're a good indication of the pulse of pop music.

Back up a couple decades, and the picture is not quite so accurate. Back up a few more, and the picture is downright murky. And if you inquire about hits in the UK and Europe, forget it. The entire concept of chart hits didn't occur to those folks until 1952; they simply didn't view the music business as "competitive" the way we do here in the colonies. In fact, when American artists would compare their chart success to the Beatles in the 1960s, the comments sounded quite strange to the British. The British music press often questioned why American musicians were so competitive. (After the English musicians cashed a few American checks, they jumped on the bandwagon). So, since British charts differ wildly from American charts, any attempt to define them prior to 1952 has at best a 50-50 shot at being accurate.

In the USA, as stated above, "number one in the nation" can generally be researched with a good deal of accuracy...Wikipedia is certainly excellent for that. What it doesn't tell you -- and can't tell you -- is the impact of a song on any given local or regional market. In our companion article on "Forgotten Gems" this month we discuss a song from the 1940s called "That Old Black Magic." It is generally agreed that Glenn Miller's version was number one in the country, but there is some margin for error there. Certainly Margaret Whiting outsold Miller on the west coast, and it stands to reason that other even more regional artists outsold Miller in their given market. So was Miller number one, or was it the song itself that should be considered number one? More telling is the fact that history reports the Miller recording as number one for a week. Considering the popularity of other songs from that time, and the delay in reporting and assessing sales data, it is quite possible that the song was never really number one at all!

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Here's a vintage video of Herman's Hermits "There's A Kind of Hush." Please note that you have to click on the little "play" arrow twice to get it to work.

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Try to assess things regionally, and the music charts become nothing more than chaos. Let's take a more recent example using an obscure British import song from the 1960s. The tune was sung by pop veteran Marty Wilde, a sort of British Bobby Darin who sang across a variety of musical styles. In 1968 he wrote and released a quasi-bubblegum number called "Abergavenny," which included a "red dog running free" in the catchy chorus. After huge success in Europe, the song was released in a one-off record contract in the USA with the artist listed simply as Shannon (a pseudonym for Wilde). The record label sent out promo discs to radio stations around the country, and put a small stuffed doggie in the package. The dog, tying in to the song, was red of course.

Radio DJs either liked it or they didn't, and the tune was such that it quickly put a bug in your ear. So if they gave it a spin, they usually played it over and over. Listeners quickly gravitated to the simplistic melody, and local record stores sold out wherever radio stations played it. Unfortunately for the record label, this only happened in a few minor markets, so the song barely cracked the top 50 nationally. If you happened to be a listener in one of those markets, as far as you knew the song was a sensation; the record sold out at your local Woolworths. It had to be number one, or at least close to it. So when you saw the national record charts in the Sunday newspaper, there was a definite disconnect: How could Gary Puckett be number one, and "Abergavenny" wasn't even in the top 40? My favorite DJ says "Abergavenny" is the most requested song!

So in this scenario, in a few small radio markets here and there, the reality is that the number one song might've been virtually unplayed while a song that barely cracked the national top 50 was all over town. Consider again the question, "what was number one on the day I was born?" The editors at Popularsong.org generally agree that if you applied this question to one of those small towns at the time of the scenario described above, it would be inaccurate to say that "Lady Willpower" was your number one.

Now that we've discussed the concept, let's look at a much more common scenario, in which songs in the top five or six are duking it out across the country.

We'll pretend your birth date is September 20, 1972.

According to both Casey Kasem and Billboard, the number one song on your birthday was "Baby, Baby Don't Get Hooked on Me" by Mac Davis. And that would stand for most of the country. But if you asked somebody in the Boston area at that time, they would say no, "Black and White" by Three Dog Night was number one. On the other hand, if you are a person of color, or live in an urban market that is heavily skewed to R & B, your number one song was "Back Stabbers" by the O'Jays. And in parts of the New York metro area, where ballads do much better than the West Coast, a case could be made for "Alone Again, Naturally" by Gilbert O'Sullivan. On the other hand, if you lived in a college dominated town such as State College Pennsylvania, or South Bend Indiana, or Berkeley California, "Saturday In the Park" by Chicago surely dominated the airwaves.

This translated nationally as follows:
1. Baby, Baby Don't Get Hooked on Me
2. Black & White
3. Saturday In the Park
4. Back Stabbers
5. Alone Again, Naturally

...according to Casey Kasem's American Top 40. And although the data is lost to time, it is highly likely that the #6 song, "Ben" by Michael Jackson, was number one somewhere. The #9 song, "Go All the Way" by the Raspberries, was probably #1 in some part of Ohio somewhere. We could go on and on...

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To revisit "Tidbits" from last month, which delves into British invasion songs, please click here.