As I was finalizing my recent Bill Doggett piece, I was trying to confirm the “four million” sales figure that is so often attributed (Wikipedia) to his 1956 smash hit, “Honky Tonk” – an extraordinary number for an instrumental, especially in the mid-50s. Ultimately, I was impelled to wield the search phrase “best-selling instrumental single” to confirm that number — and see what other truths I might unearth along the way.
EP – 1956
Second item in the search results: Wikipedia’s entry for “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” that claims this #1 Billboard hit by Meco (for two weeks – on the pop chart for a total of nine) is the “biggest-selling instrumental single in the history of recorded music.” Yes, yes, but how many copies sold? “Only” two million! Guinness World Records affirms this achievement. Sadly, this means that either (1) Guinness is somehow unaware of “Honky Tonk” selling four million copies, or (2) “Honky Tonk” sold fewer copies than is previously thought.
Million-seller “Honky Tonk”
Only question is how many?
Worth pointing out that even though “Honky Tonk” would ‘only’ peak at #2, the song would nevertheless spend over half the year (29 weeks vs. 9 for “Star Wars” theme) on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. Take that, George Lucas.
Rereading my copy of Little Labels, Big Sound by Rick Kennedy & Randy McNutt in 2022 and a light bulb suddenly lit up when I came to this relevant passage:
Knowing the industry’s volatile nature, [Syd Nathan] operated frugally. He saved money by recycling vinyl and refused to join the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) because he didn’t want to pay the annual fee (or reveal sales figures). As a result, many of [James} Brown’s hits on King were not RIAA-certified million sellers.
In an extensive interview with John W. Trumble, historian with the Country Music Association, Henry Glover — who produced the original “Honky Tonk” sessions in New York City — says that Nathan would threaten ASCAP and/or BMI of opting out altogether. According to Glover, he would tell them “Listen, I don’t need you people to collect my money for me. I can collect it myself. I’ll have my own performing society.”
A Ha Moment: By the way, I think I just now determined the source of the “4 million” figure, thanks to UK reissue label of note, Ace Records, in the liner notes to their compilation, Honky Tonk! The King & Federal R&B Instrumentals:
“Still, ‘Honky Tonk’ did enough to earn a gold disc for a million sales (a total of 4 million was mentioned by [King’s Detroit branch manager] Jim Wilson, but who knows).”
Did You Know?
“Honky Tonk (Pt. 2)” enjoyed a resurgence in the Billboard Hot 100 Chart in February and March of 1961, peaking at the #57 position for the week ending March 26, 1961.
Since Zero to 180 is more interested in profiling under-recognized artists and songs, I decided to shift my search efforts to see what might be of interest within the realm of “worst-selling” record-holders. Lo and behold, I would quickly discover an amusing news item from this past August that unmasks a music industry model that just might be a bit creaky and unsustainable: Worst-Selling #1 Album in Sales-Tracking History!
Disney Channel’s Descendents television series – as a result of Billboard altering their formula for identifying a #1 album to allow “on-demand streaming and digital track sales” – hit the top spot … with just 30,000 (!) “pure” album sales as reports Rolling Stone [the exact same link, by the way, as from Zero to 180’s recent Led Zep piece].
One of Decca’s worst sellers
45 Clunker of Note: Zero to 180 would like to thank 45Cat’s YankeeDisc for pointing out that Alan Leslie “Fluff” Freeman, MBE and 40-year British disc jockey/radio personality, enjoys the distinction of having recorded one of Decca’s Worst-Ever Sellers (“and is now, predictably, a rarity and collector’s item“):
Alan Freeman (1962)
Yet Another Musical Fight!