Photo courtesy of Emma Frances on Unsplash

Do you recall listening to the radio leading up to New Year’s Eve? Radio stations asked listeners to vote for their favorite song of all time. Some years back I was with a mixed group of people as the #1 listener pick was announced for that year.

When Unchained Melody by the Righteous Brothers was named, the men in the room, looking disoriented, collectively asked, “What?!”

But the women in the room nodded their heads and wistfully whispered, “Yes.”

It was because we recalled THAT scene in the 1990 movie Ghost where shirtless Patrick Swayze sits behind Demi Moore at the potter’s wheel as Unchained Melody plays in the background. I’m just going to say that things got interesting. If you’re too young to have seen the movie, find it on Netflix or whatever. It’s a love story mixed in with a comedy mixed in with a drama, basically covering all the bases.

Unchained Melody stayed on the Billboard Hot 100 list for 25 weeks. According to their site, “The Billboard Hot 100 chart ranks the top 100 songs of the week based on sales, radio airplay, and streaming activity.”

Well, sure, maybe now.

But have you ever wondered how the Hot 100 was calculated prior to computers being in place to track that sort of thing? I mean, the Hot 100 was “invented” in August 1958.

According to Derek Thompson’s book Hit Makers, those old Hot 100 lists were based on lies and made-up statistics. There really wasn’t any method in place to track what records were sold or what was being played on stations across the vastness of America.

Are you familiar with the adage that criminal investigators swear by?  “Follow the money.”

Mr. Thompson asserts that music label companies bribed or otherwise persuaded radio stations to play certain songs over other songs and play them a LOT. Well, the song just had to be #1, right, since we heard it all the time.

So as we the public rushed out to buy the latest #1 record, the stores sold out. There was no money to be made if there wasn’t stock to sell. Duh.

Churn, baby, churn. Another new #1 song would be announced the next week, and so on. We silly consumers just waited to see what new song we couldn’t live without.

Billboard’s Hot 100’s first announced #1 hit was August 4, 1958: Ricky Nelson’s Poor Little Fool. It stayed #1 for exactly two weeks. It was replaced by Volare which was #1 for one week, replaced by Little Star which lasted….yep, you guessed it—one week. But Volare made a comeback staying at the top the first four weeks of September.

Just in case you’re wondering, there have been 3149 weeks since August 4, 1958. Billboard’s information is that there have been 1077 different #1 hits.

Thompson’s research shows that the ten songs that spent the longest on the Hot 100 list were all released AFTER 1991 when the calculations could be ascertained by point of sale data as well as airplay monitoring by the Nielsen Company.

Gosh, I feel foolish.

This reminds me of a recent post on Facebook regarding the old cartoon feud between Wile E. Coyote and the roadrunner. As you may recall, the roadrunner won every time. As it turns out, a coyote can run approximately 43 mph, while a roadrunner tops out at 20 mph. The punchline read: “My entire childhood was based on lies.”

Well, if you’re a baby boomer, apparently your teenage years were based on lies as well. At least as it applies to pop music.


Ghost trailer

Billboard #1 songs since 1958