Welcome to the New PopularSong.org

Thanks for joining us!  To kick things off we’re going to post a series of our most popular “Tidbits” column, which is being replace by this new format.   Here goes…

We recently examined the topic of number one songs. That column focused mostly on regional hits and how a song that might’ve only reached #20 on the Billboard Hot 100 could’ve been an over-the-top #1 in Small Market, USA.

Recently a group of us were discussing the hits of one of America’s last great surviving “crooners,” the legendary Andy Williams. Discussion turned to “Can’t Get Used to Losing You,” a 1963 hit written by Doc Pomus. Some declared that it had reached number one, others said no, it was an “easy listening” number one.

Those who claimed that it went to the top of the pop charts sought quick proof, and were disappointed when an examination of the Billboard archives revealed that it stalled in the runner-up position. This naturally led to speculation that it had certainly reached #1 in some markets, and further digging ensued. That research revealed that it had indeed topped the charts — the national pop charts. How was this possible?

The answer, of course, is that it topped the Cashbox charts, active from 1942-1996. The Cashbox charts never really had the prestige of the Billboard rankings, probably because it originally lumped all versions of a hit single together when tallying the rankings. Remember that from the 1930s to the early 1950s, as many as a dozen versions of a hit song would be available. Each label tried to market the hit by an artist from their own stable, and these “competing” records sometimes went neck-and-neck for sales. In 1950, for example, Sammy Fain’s “Dear Hearts and Gentle People” was recorded by Dinah Shore (Columbia), Gordon MacRae (Capitol), Bing Crosby (Decca), and Dennis Day (RCA), and a half dozen other artists on “independent” labels. Shore hit the top ten on Billboard, and Bing went to number two. Cashbox, by lumping sales together, declared the song #1 and listed both artists at the top of the chart.

Meanwhile, Billboard continued to list “I Can Dream, Can’t I” by The Andrews Sisters as the number one record above “Dear Hearts.” Interestingly enough, there were really no cover versions that made any noise on the charts, so “I Can Dream, Can’t I” went to the top solely on the merits of the Andrews’ recording. There is no doubt that this was the biggest selling record with the most airplay during that particular week. But an equally strong case could be made that “Dear Hearts and Gentle People” was the most popular song in mid-January 1950. Bing and Dinah — combined — outsold the Andrews, at least according to Cashbox. Number one record versus number one song…which is more significant? To the recording artist, certainly the record. But to the composer (who is drawing royalties from all versions) the total tally for a given song was most important.

As far as which one the music fan should consider most significant, our response is: why not both? And in many respects, a case could be made that there was a time when the Cashbox chart was more indicative of what was “popular.”

The reason? Like Billboard, Cashbox relied on record sales and radio airplay to develop its charts, but it also tallied coin-operated play…jukebox popularity. And no matter how you try to reason it out, adding jukebox play will skew a song’s popularity. Considering that a jukebox play is a spur-of-the-moment purchase, it might be reasonable to say that it provides an excellent barometer of what is most popular at that moment. Or at least it did.

Jukebox play peaked in the 1950s; by the 1980s it mostly indicated the preferences of older listeners. Today it is virtually irrelevant to any sort of pop chart. But during the 1940s to 1960s and perhaps 1970s timeframe, Cashbox Magazine’s inclusion of jukebox play is certainly something to be reckoned with when vetting a particular song’s historic importance.

In a record shop, the buyer considered his or her purchase among hundreds of available choices. While some buyers had specific hits or artists in mind, they would still weigh that purchase against other offerings they’d see in the store. They might ask the shopkeeper to play a certain record; larger shops had listening booths the buyer could step into and sample some cuts. The ultimate purchase was based on what the buyer wanted to spend his or her hard-earned money on — influenced mostly by what they wanted to hear.

At a jukebox, however, a certain aspect of “performance” played into the song selection. It wasn’t just what the buyer wanted to listen to, they also considered that they would be seen listening to it. A selection spoke volumes about the listener to others who had no choice but to also listen in. Because a majority of female buyers follow “trends,” whether in music, clothing, cars…the songs perceived as “trendy” often received the most jukebox play. Male listeners, on the other hand, often dropped coins in a jukebox if they happen to see a new song that they simply can’t stop humming…”have you heard this crazy new song?”…and they want others to hear this great musical discovery. Thus the two sexes had different priorities, but they tended to select the same songs or types of songs: Trendy, easy to follow melodies, songs with very little complexity. Fast or slow was irrelevant; “catchy” was the key.

These impulsive, one-time, nickel purchases would often be a recording that the juke box patron wouldn’t otherwise buy. Thus it slanted the Cashbox chart in a way that favored novelty songs and simple, brief hits. Again, this wasn’t necessarily wrong, it was just a different way of calculating what songs were hot during a given week.

Perhaps the biggest way in which jukebox plays slanted the Cashbox charts had to do with the nature of the jukebox operator. Because they had to buy the records, the operators tried to maximize payback, and the average turnover to new records was only about a half dozen per month per jukebox. Some records simply never made it to the jukes.

Furthermore, by tallying jukebox plays, Cashbox was by definition exposed to accuracy questions. Jukebox operators generally had little to gain by reporting record plays, and a lot to lose.

Strange as it may sound, there was a time when jukebox operators paid no performance fees. They were required to purchase the records (usually), and that was it. The reason for this was that jukeboxes were originally viewed by the labels as a promotional tool…get the record played, it will sell in stores. The 45-RPM format was in fact developed at the behest of the jukebox industry, which required a smaller, less fragile format than the brittle 78. The larger center hole was a fool-proof way for jukeboxes to automatically carousel and play the records.

While operators paid performance royalties in other countries, in the USA they were free to pillage a song as long as the record lasted. To report hundreds of plays of a song, and thousands of plays of dozens of songs, was sort of like saying “look how much money we’re making off your songs.” So it was generally believed that the numbers reported to Cashbox were fudged, and in some cases not reported at all.

The royalty-free arrangement ran through the 1950s, at the height of jukebox popularity. Recording artists and songwriters organizations began to grumble more loudly, and by the early 1960s had Congress involved. The royalties wouldn’t be paid on individual sales like a record label did, it simply wasn’t feasible. The licensing organizations pushed for annual fees per jukebox, that each would then hash out to its members.

But it wasn’t until 1978 that a copyright law was enacted that required licensing of public performances by coin-operated machines. This ultimately gave rise to the Jukebox License Office, which serves as the liaison between operators and ASCAP, BMI and SESAC. As of this writing, it’ll cost you $434 per year to run a pay-to-play jukebox; additional jukeboxes cost about $100 each. The fee is reduced for members of the Amusement and Music Operators Association; it starts at the same $434 base fee but additional boxes go down dramatically. An AMOA member with 90 jukeboxes pays an average of $77 per box.

Back to the charts.

Billboard was generally accepted as having more precise accounting, and thus was the more accurate barometer, so it had the respect of the artists and the record industry. It was the chart quoted by the labels in press releases, and thus gained the respect of the public. As the popularity of Cashbox began to wane markedly after 1978 with the decline of jukeboxes (coinciding with the advent of royalties), it was more or less forgotten by the time the publication folded in the 1990s.

Today, the average American is unaware that Cashbox ever existed. But as far as history is concerned, “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” was a number-one hit for Mr. Williams…no further explanation necessary.