January 2, 2005

Breaking Records: 100 Years of Hits.  By William Ruhlmann.  New York: Routledge, 2004.  233pp.  Index.   ISBN 0-415-94305-1. $27.95

Reviewed by Tim Brooks

Being assigned to review books like this is apparently the penance a reviewer must pay for the opportunity to review other more meaningful volumes, the ones that make a real contribution to knowledge (see my other reviews in this issue).  This one is so light it practically floats out of your hands.  It might be called Reading the Charts, because the premise is essentially to follow the rise and fall of hit records up and down the charts, from 1900 to 1999.  Look, there’s Bert Williams racing up the charts with his 1902 Victor hit “The Fortune Telling Man,” only to be knocked aside by J.W. Myers’ smash “In the Good Old Summertime” on Columbia!  There’s Billy Murray in 1905, “placing four songs at number one for a combined total of twenty-four out of the fifty-two weeks in the year.”

But wait, you say, you didn’t think there were any popularity charts in the early 1900s?  That doesn’t stop the author, who uses as his source Joel Whitburn”s infamous book of phony charts, Pop Memories.  Oddly enough Ruhlmann seems to realize that his basic source is flawed, spending two full pages in the first chapter describing its shortcomings (with quotes from researcher Tim Gracyk to that effect) and asserting that its statistics “must be taken with a grain of salt.”  Even later charts compiled by Billboard are suspect, he says, at least until 1990 when the publication began using scanner data to accurately track sales.  Then he copiously uses Whitburn”s chart positions anyway, saying they are “generally, but not specifically, correct.”

That might be true if Whitburn had at least consulted the sales and production data that does exist from the early 1900s (he didn’t).  Instead he filled his charts with records favored by today’s collectors, and showed them shooting up and down the charts rock-era style.  Do you really think the ultra-rare Williams and Walker Victors topped any chart?  (To my knowledge no copy of “The Fortune Telling Man” has ever been found.)

Besides its flawed premise, the book contains some howlers about early phonograph history (no, Thomas Edison did not found the North American Phonograph Company), and repeats many old falsehoods about alleged million selling records.  There is apparently not a scrap of original research here, only bits and pieces of other books stitched together, along with some generally accurate but pedestrian analysis.

Breaking Records is based on a series of articles Ruhlmann wrote for Goldmine magazine between 2000 and 2003, tracing the “chart history” of the past century.  Perhaps it should be buried with those dear, departed days.  Skip this one.


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