A list of the most popular music stars from 1890 to the present

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In the detective series Banacek, the lead character was once asked why he had so many old things in his apartment. The reply was that he liked having the very best of anything and since there was a lot more old stuff in the world than new it was reasonable that most of the best things in the world would also be old.

The same can be said of music. Statistics show that only one out of every 50 songs that reach the top 40 makes it to the number 1 spot. Since there are tens of thousands more charted songs in the previous 100 years of popular music than the current year, it stands to reason that there are therefore thousands more hits from earlier eras that are worth listening to. Yes, styles change and some of these may not fit what a particular generation has gotten used to hearing and may therefore sound strange or even boring. But, if you enjoy music you have to ask yourself if you are going to let the style forced on you while you were growing up dictate to you what you will and won't listen to. For example, I doubt many teenagers today could listen to Doris Day without cringing. Yet Ms. Day is acknowledged as one of the greatest popular female vocalists of her time. The only reason she isn't appreciated today is that people not of her era have been conditioned from early youth to like a different style of music. If they can overcome their programming, most of which they had no control over, then a wider universe of music opens up to them.

The following list highlights the greatest performers of all time so that anyone interested in widening their musical experience can start with stars that, in their time, were acknowledged as the best. The list also provides perspective in that by knowing how popular past performers were, we can judge more accurately how current day performers compare in popularity.

To create this list I paged through Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954 and Joel Whitburn's Top Pop 40 Hits, 1955-1996 and pulled from them the stars that had at least two pages of charted hits, usually 50 or more hit songs. These singers and groups are the superstars of their eras. As soon as I get a more current version of hit Top 40s book I will up date the list with the latest artists.

One final clarification: In the descriptions below I give the years over which an act was popular, by Popular I mean the period of time over which they were having new songs make it into the top 30.

Len Spencer - One of the first musical superstars, popular from 1891 to 1910, 65 hits in the top 30, 15 #1 hits, biggest hit was Arkansaw Traveler #1 for 11 weeks.)

Haydn Quartet - 1898 to 1914, 62 top 30 hits, 12 #1 hits, biggest hit was Put on Your Old Gray Bonnet, which was #1 for 11 weeks.

Arthur Collins Super-popular comedy-minstrel baritone singer from 1898 to 1920. Often sang with Byron Harlan and in the peerless Quartet. 136 hits in the top 30, 24 #1 hits. Most popular solo was The Preacher and the Bear (#1 for 11 weeks) and in a duo with Byron Harlan made the great and memorable Alexander's Ragtime Band, which was number 1 for 10 weeks.

Byron Harlan - Balladeer, popular from 1899 to 1919, 143 hits in the top 30, 24 #1 hits, biggest solo hit was School Days, which held the #1 spot for 11 weeks. He paired up with Arthur Collins to make the mega-hit, Alexander's Ragtime Band.

Harry MacDonough - Great tenor ballad singer, popular from 1899 to 1918, 99 top 30 songs, 14 #1 hits, greatest hit was Shine on Harvest Moon (#1 for 9 weeks.) Please see the update below, Mr. MacDonough should probably be credited with Take Me Out to the Ball Game, #1 for 9 weeks.

Billy Murray - Greatest record seller of the pre-1920 era, a clear tenor with a rapid-fire style, immensely popular from 1903 to 1927, 169 hits in the top 30, 18 #1 hits, greatest hits were The Grand Old Rag (#1 for 10 weeks), By The Light of the Silvery Moon (#1 for 9 weeks), and Take Me Out to the Ball Game (Yes, this is the one people still sing at baseball games - #1 for 9 weeks.) In addition to all this he had over 100 additional hits while singing with the popular Haydn Quartet, the American Quartet, the Heidelberg Quintet and with Ada Jones. Billy Murray was more popular and successful in his time than Elvis was in his.

UPDATE!!! According to an article on the site, Billy Murray never participated in Take Me Out to the Ball Game. Careful examination of historical records indicate that attributing his participation in the recording was an error that somehow never got corrected. Listening to the actual recording strongly indicates that he definitely did not sing the lead and is not noticeable as backup. In Fact, the lead singer is easily identified as Harry MacDonough.

Henry Burr - The number one ballad singer for 30 years, an incredible accomplishment. Popular from 1903 to 1938, 116 songs in the top 30, 15 #1 hits, his most popular song was Just a baby's Prayer at Twilight, which held the number one spot for 11 weeks. He also had 100 additional charted songs and a dozen more #1 hits singing with other groups. He is credited for having made over 12,000 recordings in his long career as a tenor, more than any other artist in history. Mr. Burr is a good example of the value of this list. Here's a man who was literally a giant in the music history, yet I never heard of him until putting this list together.

Peerless Quartet - Popular from 1904 to 1926, 108 songs in the top 30, 7 #1 hits, greatest hit was Let me Call You Sweetheart, #1 for 7 weeks, also popular for the great WW1 theme Over There by George M. Cohan (#1 for 2 weeks) which is featured in several movies dealing with the era.

Ada Jones - The most popular female vocalist of the pre-1920 era. Contralto, popular from 1905 to 1922, 108 songs in the top 30, 13 #1 hits, most popular song was The Yama Yama Man, 5 weeks at #1.

American Quartet - 1910 to 1925, 66 songs in the top 30, 13 #1 hits, greatest hit was Casey Jones (#1 for 11 weeks)

Al Jolson - One of the great entertainers of the first half of the last century, popular from 1912 to 1948, 91 hits in the top 30, 23 number 1 hits, greatest hits were April Showers (11 weeks at #1) and Sonny Boy (12 weeks at #1.)

Ben Selvin and His Orchestra - No other band leader made more recordings (over 2,000) than Ben Selvin, a violinist, his band was popular from 1919 to 1934, 107 hits in the top 30, 8 #1 hits, most popular song was Dardanella, #1 for 13 weeks.

Ted Lewis and His Band - Popular from 1920 to 1938, 102 songs in the top 30, 6 #1 hits, greatest hit was In a Shanty in Old Shanty Town, #1 for 10 weeks.

Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra - Most popular pre-swing band, a violinist, a giant of his era, Gave many future greats like Bing Crosby their starts, popular from 1920 to 1954, 220 songs in the top 30, 32 #1 hits, most popular songs were Whispering (11 weeks at #1), Valencia (11 weeks at #1.)

Leo Reisman Orchestra Violinist/band leader who accompanied Fred Astaire on the blockbuster hits Night and Day and (Dancing) Cheek to Cheek. Popular from 1921 to 1941, 79 hits in the top 30, 5 #1 hits, biggest hit was Night and Day (#1 for 10 weeks.)

Gene Austin - 1925-1934, 55 hits in the top 30, 9 #1 hits, most popular song was My Blue Heaven, which held onto the number 1 spot for an incredible 13 weeks, one of the greatest hits of all time.

Louis Armstrong One of the most beloved trumpet players of all time. 1926-1954, 72 hits in the top 30. Although best remembered for Hello Dolly (#1 for one week,) his greatest hit was All of Me, #1 for two weeks.

Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians - Only dance band to sell more than 100,000,000 records, popular from 1927 to 1954, 218 songs in the top 30, 26 number one hits, although most remembered for the perennial new year's eve song Auld Lang Syne (Should old acquaintances be forgot...) , this band's greatest hit was The Third Man Theme (#1 for 11 weeks.)

Duke Ellington and His Orchestra - Claimed by many to be the single most creative talent in the history of American popular music, popular from 1927 to 1953, 70 songs in the top 30, 3 #1 hits, most popular was Cocktails For Two, which held the #1 spot for 5 weeks.

Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra - 1928 to 1957, played saxophone and clarinet, 102 charted songs, 12 number 1 hits, greatest hit Amapola, #1 for 10 weeks. Also had 26 charted songs and 2 more #1 hits with his brother in a previous band.

Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra - 1928-1958 Generally acknowledged as one of the greatest trombonists of the jazz era. 187 charted songs, 16 #1 hits plus 26 more charted songs and two addition #1 hits with his brother. Greatest hit was I'll Never Smile Again, #1 for 12 weeks.

Bing Crosby - The most successful singer of all time: 383 songs in the top 30, 41 of which were #1 hits. Bing's mellow baritone dominated the entire music world from 1931 to 1954. His greatest hit was White Christmas, the biggest selling record of all time, which held the number one spot for a total of 14 weeks. No other artist, not even Elvis Presley, comes close to Bing Crosby's level of popularity over the period of time during which he charted new songs or in terms of the total number of hit songs.

Benny Goodman and His Orchestra - One of the greatest clarinetists of all time. His band formed the cornerstone of the swing era. Popular from 1931 to 1953, 164 songs in the top 30, 16 #1 hits, greatest hit was Goody-Goody, #1 for 6 weeks.

Eddy Duchin and His Orchestra - Pianist, popular from 1932-1942, 76 hits in the top 30, 10 #1 hits, biggest hit was Let's Fall In Love, #1 for 5 weeks.

Freddy Martin Orchestra - Tenor saxophone, "sweet" dance band popular from 1933 to 1954, 85 top 30 hits, 6 #1 hits, biggest hit was Piano Concerto in B Flat, #1 for 8 weeks.

Glen Miller and His Orchestra - Trombone player, formed the most universally beloved of all swing bands, popular from 1935 to 1948, 129 songs in the top 30, 23 #1 hits, greatest hits were In The Mood (#1 for 12 weeks), Moonlight Cocktail (#1 for 10 weeks), and Chattanooga Choo Choo (#1 for 9 weeks.)

Kay Kyser Orchestra - "Sweet" swing band popular from 1935 to 1948, 78 songs in the top 30, 11 #1 hits, biggest hit was Jingle, Jangle, Jingle, which was #1 for 8 weeks.

Sammy Kaye Orchestra - "Sweet" dance band popular from 1937 to 1953, 103 songs in the top 30, 8 #1 hits, biggest hit was Daddy (#1 for 8 weeks.)

The Andrews Sisters - Patty, Maxine and LaVerne charmed listeners from 1938 to 1951 with a peppy style that once heard is remembered forever. 89 songs in the top 30, 6 #1 hits. Although most remembered for Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy because it was featured in an Abbott and Costello movie, they're biggest hit was Rum and Coca Cola, which held the number one spot for ten weeks.

Harry James and His Orchestra - popular from 1938 to 1953, played the trumpet, 73 hits in the top 30, 9 #1 songs, greatest hit was I've Heard That Song Before, #1 for an incredible 13 weeks.

Dinah Shore - Beloved female vocalist with a famous southern accent who also hosted two popular television shows. Popular from 1940 to 1957, 85 songs in the top 30, 4 #1 hits, biggest hit was Buttons and Bows (#1 for 10 weeks.)

Frank Sinatra - One of the giants of the recording industry, the only pre-1955 star to retain his popularity long after the rock and roll revolution, popular from 1942 to 1980, 137 charted hits, 7 #1 hits, (2 after the 1955 rock and roll revolution), biggest hits were I'll Never Smile Again (#1 for 12 weeks) and Oh, What It Seemed to Be (#1 for 8 weeks.)

Nat "King" Cole - 1943 to 1954, 60 songs in the top 30, 4 #1 hits, greatest hit Mona Lisa, #1 for 8 weeks.

Perry Como - 1943-1973, 127 songs in the top 30, 13 #1 hits, most popular song Till The End of Time, which was #1 for 10 weeks.

Jo Stafford - Popular from 1944 to 1950, 85 hits in the top 30, 3 #1 hits, biggest hit was You Belong to Me (#1 for 12 weeks.)

Doris Day - Popular form 1947 to 1958, 54 songs in the top 30, 5 #1 hits, usually remembered for the lesser hit 1956 What Will Be, Will Be (Que, Sera, Sera), her biggest hit was Sentimental Journey, which held the number one spot for 9 weeks.

(Anyone interested in obtaining recordings of older, less-well-known artists may be able to find them on the site. They have recordings that go all the way back to 1904. But beware, many of these recordings, although they have been computer enhanced and transferred to CDs, are based on original Edison wax drum recordings, which are not noted for their acoustic range. Many sound tinny because they are weak in capturing bass notes. An even easier, and free, resource is the Library of Congress: Simply enter the name of the singer, a comma and then the name of the song in the search box.)




Elvis Presley - The most popular singer of the second half of the 20th century. Many credit him for almost single-handedly driving the rock and roll revolution that completely changed the nature of popular music. Immensely popular from 1956 to 1981, 85 songs in the top 30, 18 number one hits, his most popular song was All Shook Up, #1 for 9 weeks.


That's all.

"What?" you say. What about the Beatles, Phil Collins, Madonna, Olivia Newton-John, Stevie Wonder, The Beach Boys and all the other great rock and roll-era groups and singers? Were there no other bands or singers in the rock and roll era that had the staying power to match the performers of the pre-rock and roll era?

I'm sorry to say "no." With a few exceptions none come close to the 2-page (or 50 charted song) cut off. The few that almost make it have to have their solo accomplishments added to other group's accomplishments in which much their contribution is watered down to the point where it is hard to justify doing. A lot of people aren't going to like this so please let me explain.

When Bing Crosby sang with an orchestra or another act in a song that was popular enough to be counted in his total, it was obvious, when listening to the song, that it was Bing Crosby singing and the reason the song was a hit was because he was obviously there. On the other hand, many modern performers vanish into the group sound when they perform with another band. In doing so it's impossible to tell if the song was a hit because of their individual and unique contribution and as such should be attributed to them or only to the group. This makes it hard to justify adding all of the Beatle hits to each of the solo careers of John, Paul, Ringo and George. For example, Paul McCartney was the main singer in the hit Yesterday. Is it right to add that hit to George Harrison's solo career total? Perhaps a better example, again using George Harrison, is that in his later years he regularly worked as a hired gun... a background guitar player. He did so In Belinda Carlisle's #30 song Deep, Deep Ocean. Should that be added to his solo career? There is no way anyone listening to that song could tell he was in it.

Below are the super performers of the rock and roll era. I've entered both their solo and group hits, when appropriate, so that you can compare them in any way you prefer to the performers in the pre-rock and roll era:

Rod Stewart - Popular from 1971 to 1994, 30 top 30 hits, 4 #1 hits

Pat Boone - Popular from 1955 to 1962, 35 top 30 hits, 6 #1 hits

Bee Gees - Popular from 1967 to 1989, 27 top 30 hits, 9 #1 hits

Chicago - Popular from 1970 to 1991, 31 top 30 hits, 3 #1 hits

Phil Collins - Popular from 1975 to 1995, 34 top 30 hits, 8 #1 hits (I included the Genesis hits in this total because all of them featured him as the solo singer.)

The Beatles - Popular from 1964 to 1970, 46 top 30 hits, 20 #1 hits. This one surprised me. I thought for sure they would have made the 50-song top-30 cutoff . If I lowered the cutoff to allow them in, then I would have had to go back to the pre-rock and roll era and do the same with the result that that era would have had many more entries.

Because of their influence in the music industry and an astounding 20 #1 hits, they are certainly one of the great music acts. But, they simply don't make the cutoff selected at the beginning of this study. Adding them in would be like changing the rules of the game ten seconds before the whistle blows to end it.

Diana Ross - Popular from 1970 to 1985, 24 top 30 hits, 6 #1 hits. If her participation in the Supremes is counted she had an additional 30 top 30 hits and 12 more number one hits, which total to 54 top 30 hits and 18 #1 hits. This would push her up above the cutoff line if you want to make the claim that the main reason the Supreme songs made it on the chart was because she was there. In other words, if the other singers and performers were little more than back up.

The Beach Boys - Popular from 1962 to 1988, 36 top 30 hits, 4 #1 hits

The Rolling Stones - Popular from 1964 to 1989, 40 top 30 hits, 8 #1 hits

Elton John - Popular from 1970 to 1995, 47 top 30 hits, 8 #1 hits

Olivia Newton-John - Popular from 1971 to 1985, 24 top 30 hits, 5 #1 songs including the megahit Physical, which held the #1 spot for 10 weeks.

Aretha Franklin - Popular from 1962 to 1994, 38 top 30 hits, 2 #1 hits

Michael Jackson - Popular from 1971 to 1995, 33 top 30 hits, 13 #1 hits

Stevie Wonder - Popular from 1967 to 1987, 39 top 30 hits, 10 #1 hits

Madonna - Popular from 1983 to 1995, 32 top 30 hits, 11 #1 hits

Paul McCartney - Performing with other groups he amassed 32 top 30 hits and 9 #1 hits in addition to his success with the Beatles.


So, why isn't there a proportional number of superstars in the rock and roll era as there were in the pre-rock and roll era? I can only hazard a guess.

Over the 40 years following the rock and roll revolution, even if we change the rules and include performers on the close-call list above who had only 40 hits in the top 30, there are only 4 performers who make the cut. Over the 40 years prior to this there were 25 who had 50 or more hits and this number would most likely double if the criterion for that period was also lowered to 40 top 30 hits. Why so great a disparity?

My guess is that there was a fundamental change in the age of the dominant listeners in the mid-1950s. Prior to that most of the people listening to and purchasing popular music were well into their 20s or older. Younger people didn't have the financial resources to be a major influence. After the mid-1950s, the age of the dominant buyer and listener dropped into the teens. Teenagers, and this is meant as on observation. not a criticism, are more likely to bore quicker than older people. As such, they are more likely to lose interest with a song or performer quicker and be willing to move on to something new, even if it isn't better than an older song. Younger people also have a greater need to prove their own, unique identity and an easy way to do this is reject the previous generation's music for something new. (In this case a "generation" in musical terms is probably only the length of the typical high school sojourn: 4 years.) Under these conditions it is easy to see that it is almost impossible for artists to establish the long careers necessary to get 50 or more hits into the top 30.

But that's not the only story. Taking a closer look at the lists I noticed that while the number of top 30 hits the average artist decreased after the rock and roll revolution, the ratio of number 1 hits to top 30 hits increased. For example, Bing Crosby had 383 top 30 hits and 41 #1 hits for a ratio of 9 top 30 hits for each #1 hit. Many of the performers in the pre-rock and roll era had track records that were similar. Madonna, on the other hand, had a #1 hit for every 3 top 30 hits or a 33 percent #1 hit ratio. Her success ratio was much higher. Likewise, Elvis Presley had a #1 hit ratio of 20 percent, the Bee Gees 33 percent, Phil Collins 25 percent, and the Beatles almost 50 percent. I believe this change is also attributable to the age of the dominant listener. Again, making an objective observation and not intending to insult, it appears to me from both personal experience and observation that younger people feel their emotions stronger than older people. When they form an attachment it's more intense, even though more short-lived. In the case of music, when someone becomes popular the younger people of the current era are more likely to fixate on one particular "in" performer and buy everything they can get their hands on, with the result that these performers have higher ratios of #1 hits. The older purchasers of the past era were more judicious.

Another factor could be that modern record companies don't produce as many songs as they used to. A pre-rock artist active for ten years might have many more songs released than an equally popular performer in the post-rock era. Producing more songs might stretch the fixed purchasing power of the dominant buying demographic over a larger number of songs so that it was rarer for one to make it to the number 1 spot.

With these considerations in mind, it might seem fairer to the post-rock performers to compare them to the pre-rock era performers by virtue of the number of artists that got a very high number of #1 hits.

Pre-rock era:

Number of performers who got 11 or more #1 hits (1915-1955): 16

Post-rock era:

Number of performers who got 11 or more #1 hits (1955-1995): 6

While the numbers are closer, it would still seem that there was something radically different between the performers and listeners of the pre-rock era and those of the post-rock era: the pre-rock performers were simply more popular with their audiences than post-rock performers. This might be explained by the fact that the earlier performers didn't have to compete with as many entertainment options. Back then there were live performances, radio, and movies. Today's performers also have to compete against the Internet and computer games.

As I said before, these are only guesses. I have no training in psychology or the history of music so please take my thoughts with a large pinch of salt.

Elvis versus the World:

Many people reading my Bing Crosby/Elvis Presley comparison page send me emails complaining about my failure to acknowledge that in his era Elvis was more popular than any singer in their era. I regret to say that I'm about to make things worse: not only did Mr. Crosby beat him in comparative popularity, so did 8 other acts. Comparing Elvis with the other great performers of the 1900s shows that in terms of comparing them based on the number of songs in the top 30 and the number of #1 hits, Elvis only ranks in tenth place for the era in which he was charting new songs. Here are the statistics that prove it:

1. Bing Crosby: 383 top 30 charted hits - 41 #1 hits

2. Paul Whiteman Orchestra: 220 top 30 charted hits - 32 #1 hits

3. Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians: 218 top 30 charted hits - 32 #1 hits

4. Byron Harlan: 143 top 30 charted hits - 24 #1 hits

5. Arthur Collins: 136 top 30 charted hits - 24 #1 hits

6. Glen Miller: 129 top 30 charted hits - 23 #1 hits

7. Al Jolson: 91 top 30 charted hits - 23 #1 hits

8. Tommy Dorsey: 208 top 30 charted hits - 18 #1 hits

9. Billy Murray: 169 top 30 charted hits - 18 #1 hits

10. Elvis Presley: 85 top 30 charted hits - 18 #1 hits


Elvis was great, but he wasn't the greatest... or even the second, third or forth greatest. Thinking he was steals credit from the unique accomplishments of many other acts.

(Please don't interpret my comments as being critical of Elvis. They are not intended to be. I own and listen to Elvis CDs. I like him more than all of the performers whose accomplishments rank them higher than him. All I'm trying to do is provide some quantitative perspective to compare performers.)

I put the above two lists together strictly for entertainment and without any intention to slight anyone's favorite performer or music era. I hope you enjoyed it.


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