Ask “Mr. Music”
Jerry Osborne


DEAR JERRY: While we were watching a recent television biography about the Mamas and Papas, they referred to “California Dreamin'” as being on the charts with a bullet. What's a bullet? Did they have to shoot somebody to get charted? Did they enter into a contract with the mob?

Seriously, we have heard this phrase for years, but realized while watching this show that neither of us has any idea what it actually means. Please elucidate.
—Tom O'Kelley, Tacoma, Wash.

DEAR TOM: Those bullets used on the Billboard sales charts differ greatly from the ones sometimes found at a crime scene.

The Billboard magazine bullet came along when they changed their weekly survey from the “Top 100 Sides” to “The Billboard Hot 100” (August 4, 1958). For that inaugural week, the bullet is simply introduced and defined, but not actually used. The first ones appeared the following week.

Though commonly called a bullet throughout the entertainment industry, at its birth, Billboard appropriately named their new feature “The Star Performer.” The name suited the child, since, for its first 25 years (August 1958 — September 1983), the symbol was indeed a five-point star. Interestingly, it has never actually been a bullet. In September 1970, Billboard did adopt a bullet symbol to indicate a million-selling record, making it their first use of the “bullet” term.

Here is how Billboard, in 1958, explained their new Star Performer:

“The Star Performer designation shows the outstanding upward changes of position in the Hot 100 since last week's chart. Its purpose is merely to provide quick visual identification of the sides which moved up most dramatically, or to new entries which moved up most dramatically, or to new entries which first entered the chart at an usually high position.”

On that August 11, 1958 chart, the biggest Star Performer is “Are You Really Mine,” by Jimmy Rodgers. This tune leaped to No. 26 from No. 93 the previous week — a whopping gain of 67 spots. Rodgers' upward movement soon stalled, though, as “Are You Really Mine” peaked at No. 10, then faded.

Billboard retained the Star Performer designation until mid-October 1980, when they shortened it to just “Star.” From June 15, 1983 through September 24, 1983, they gave in to industry jargon and began referring to their printed star as a bullet. The following week, the star for “Prime Movers” gives way to varying rectangular-elliptical-circular figures.

As for the Mamas and the Papas' first hit, “California Dreamin,” it debuted January 8, 1966 at No. 99, without a bullet.

The following week, it jumped, with a bullet, to No. 74. For eight consecutive weeks, “California Dreamin'” earned a bullet, by which time it reached No. 5. It peaked the next week at No. 4.

The most powerful of all bullets is one attached to a tune making its chart debut at No. 1. Amazingly, this rare fete happened twice in 30 days, in the fall of 1997.

On September 13, Mariah Carey's “Honey” turned this trick. Just one month later, Elton John's Princess Diana tribute, “Candle in the Wind 1997,” backed with “Something About the Way You Look Tonight,” debuted at No. 1.

And it almost happened a third time — that very same month.

Sandwiched between Mariah and Elton's chart tour de force, “4 Seasons of Lonliness,” by Boyz II Men, debuted at No. 2.

That concludes this precinct's special chart ballistics investigation. Case closed.

IZ ZAT SO? One of the great novelty recordings of the 1970s is “Eighteen with a Bullet,” a clever composition inspired by the Billboard “bullet,” and loaded with commonly used record terminology (“we'll be raising a whole LP,” etc.).

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