This month, Retro Countdown returns to WBTX. This was an original program that I launched in August of 2018, when I had been at the station just over three months. The concept was simple – create a countdown show using Singing News Charts from previous years. For example, the first show this April will feature the April 1996 chart.
There’s a term that’s often heard in the music industry: charts. You may be familiar with them, what they are and how they work, or perhaps not. Let’s take a quick look at what they are, how they’re compiled, and what they mean – specifically for southern gospel music.
For many, when one thinks of a music chart, perhaps Billboard Magazine comes to mind – the source for all types of charts: country, pop, rock, etc. For southern gospel music, there’s primarily one publication – Singing News Magazine. First issued in May 1969 as a monthly newspaper, it adopted a magazine format in May of 1983. In the January 1970 issue, the first “Gospel Hit Parade” Top 20 chart appeared, inspired by Billboard Magazine.
A music chart is simply a listing of songs based on their popularity and/or amount of airplay within a certain period of time (week or month). For nearly fifty years, DJs across the country would send their own charts into Singing News, which would then compile the data into the national chart. These local charts were to be representative of which songs were popular in a given area, not necessarily based exclusively on airplay. Recent changes to Singing News, though, has introduced an airplay-based system, in which the number of times any given song is played automatically determines chart position.
The original Top 20 chart grew to Top 40 as early as 1972, and by 1988, it had expanded to its present Top 80 format. Singing News is not the only publication to feature a southern gospel chart, for many years one could be found in the Gospel Voice Magazine (now defunct), and SGN Scoops (a free online magazine) also produces a chart.
It is interesting to note that, at one point, Singing News published as many as five different charts. This was around 1979 – 1981 when the publication was trying to balance all forms of Christian music – ‘traditional gospel’ (the term ‘southern gospel’ not commonplace at the time), contemporary, inspirational, and soul. By the mid-1980s, though, Singing News shifted to solely a southern gospel focus – just one chart, although a Top 10 Bluegrass Chart was introduced in recent years.
You may be wondering why I chose to discuss charts. If you’ve listened to me on-air before, you may have picked up how I love to deviate from the charts. Take, for instance, the Cathedrals. One day I might feature one of their ‘hits’, and another day I might showcase a song that did not chart. I love to explore and share all that southern gospel has to offer, moving ‘beyond the charts’, as I like to say. And this does bring up an important fact: charts need to be taken with a grain of salt. Take, for instance, this disclaimer that currently appears with each chart in Singing News…
“This report…is not intended to be interpreted as a determination of the ministries’ merit or caliber”.
So how should they be used? I like to use them as a ‘road map’. In fact, it was through producing Retro Countdown and looking at these older charts that I learned so much about southern gospel history. Going back to the example of the Cathedrals, I learned what songs were ‘hits’ from the group, then what albums they are found on, and then the sequence of those albums. With that foundation, I could then explore at will. For example, I know the song “Turn Your Back” is found on their 1982 album Something Special, which produced the number-one song “Step Into The Water”.
Chart research is so fascinating. This is simply compiling all the data into an easy-to-read format. Noted author Joel Whitburn pioneered this with many of the Billboard charts. His ‘Record Research’ books present tables of data. Organized by artist, it lists all their singles (songs they sent out to radio), where they landed on the charts, and how long they were on the charts.
To my knowledge, nothing like this has been attempted for southern gospel, using the Singing News charts…until now. I’ve spent the last two years on a massive ‘chart research’ project. Similar to Whitburn’s books, it’s organized by artist; the songs are listed, arranged by album, and I look at when it debuted on the chart, when and where it peaked, and how many months it was on the chart. Once it’s all laid out, it makes it easy for one to have this ‘road map’ in front of them.
We’re fortunate at WBTX to have many of these charts on-file, and therefore can present them through programs such as Retro Countdown, which will air Saturday afternoons at 1pm.
Next month will be a special article, as May 18, 2022, will mark 50 years of broadcasting for WBTX! Our 50th Anniversary Celebration is about to begin!
Harrisonburg High School – April 9, 1978 (2:30pm)
Singers Glen “Park” – August 11, 1978 (7:30pm)
Hopper Brothers & Connie
Turner Ashby High School – October 5, 1978 (7:30pm)