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Cool and Collected: WLS playlists chart the history of pop



Jack Levin was 16 when he picked up his first WLS Silver Dollar Survey of Top 40 singles. It was July 29, 1966, and the number one song on the yellow card was the Lovin' Spoonful's "Summer in the City." There was also a blurb promoting overnight DJ Don Phillips and an ad on the back for Canfield's short-lived Cherry-Ola Cola. Levin, who collects and sells music magazines and works for a paintball-gear distributor, still has the card--and most of the ones that came before and after it.

Aimed at the teen market, the surveys were compiled by radio stations based on local sales, requests, jukebox hits, and airplay. They were distributed to local record stores from the mid-1950s--when they were put out by WJJD and WIND--to about 1990, when CDs had flooded the market.

WLS started giving away free surveys a few months after adopting a Top 40 format in 1960. Their surveys continued through the late 80s (with a brief hiatus in the early 70s) after the AM station went all-talk and the music moved to their FM outlet. WBBM FM also put out a survey, and WXRT produced a monthly "featured artist" card for many years. But the colorful WLS surveys, with their ads for the U.S. 30 Dragstrip and $19.99 home stereos, are the ones people remember picking up at the record store.

"I remember buying records that way," says Richard Potts, who grew up in Chicago Lawn and met Levin at a record convention 20 years ago. "You'd have this thing and look it over at the beach and have a pencil and mark the ones that you liked. A lot of people would go on payday and say, 'Give me number 7, number 13, and number 36--and my girlfriend likes 11, so give me that one too.' And you could get a stack of 45s for under $5."

Levin used to pick up a card every week at Flip Side Records near Foster and Kimball. "I thought they were really cool," he says. "Usually the new surveys came out on Fridays, and you would try to anticipate what the new number one song was going to be." As a kid he collected comic books and baseball cards; as a teenager the charts--and records--became his new obsession. But it wasn't until he was in his 20s that he started tracking down the old surveys.

Except for a chunk of the late 50s, early 1961, and "a missing week here and there," Levin has collected just about every card released in Chicago between 1956 and 1990 through classified ads and at record conventions. Potts, who's an audiovisual specialist at the Conrad Sulzer Regional Library, says it's the most extensive collection of Chicago radio surveys he's seen, and about ten years ago he started pestering Levin to let him make copies for Sulzer's Chicago History Collection.

This year they finally got around to it. Levin spent four hours with Potts xeroxing the earliest, most valuable ones; Potts estimates he spent 100 hours over the next five months making copies of the rest, which are mostly WLS surveys. The approximately 850 copies have been collected into two binders that are in the care of Sulzer archivist Gloria Price until they get assigned a Library of Congress number.

"They're a different set of hits than the New York charts," Potts says, noting that local groups such as the Buckinghams and the Cryan' Shames showed up on the Chicago surveys before their hits went national. "I always knew the Variety and Billboard charts, but that wasn't Chicago. This is the midwest and since this is the Chicago collection here, I said this is the perfect thing to have."

Last month about 25 people came to a talk at the Sulzer that Levin gave with former Oldies 104 music director Ron Smith, who runs the Web site Smith has compiled three books of Chicago Top 40 charts, but Potts says his collection is "mostly copies."

Levin's still working on completing his own collection, which he stores in little plastic bags. "It's more or less the same principle as rare albums and 45s--whoever has them isn't parting with them," he says. "This is why people go to record shows--in the hopes that maybe something unusual will show up."

Levin and Potts (Smith is out of town) will host a free event called "Summer Gold: A History of Chicago's Top 40 Radio Charts" on Thursday, August 15, at 7 PM at the Conrad Sulzer Regional Library, 4455 N. Lincoln (312-744-7616).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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