When people think about the top-selling bands of all time, they often pick the Beatles. Indeed, they are at the top of many lists with 290 million records sold worldwide. In terms of solo artists, many people would guess Elvis Presley. That is right. Elvis, long gone now, has sold nearly 1.5 billion records. Oddly, that means that the top-selling music artists had careers that ended decades ago. Amazing or not, it is true.
There is more than one way to measure the artists with the most number one hits, another popular way to rank music artists. The benchmark of this is Billboard, which has measured record sales for years. Usually, the Billboard list used is its Hot 100. Believe it or not, Bruce Springsteen, James Brown, Backstreet Boys, Don Henley, Sheryl Crow and Bob Dylan are among those who have never had the honor.
To determine the artist with the most number one hits, 24/7 Tempo reviewed data on the Billboard Hot 100 going back to August 1958, when the chart debuted. In cases where artists had the same number of top hits, the one who spent more overall weeks in the number one position was given the higher rank. (Note that some of Elvis Presley’s career predates the first Hot 100 chart, meaning that such hits as “Hound Dog.” “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Jailhouse Rock” are not included in Presley’s tally.)
The top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 is more than just a listing of who’s selling the most records at any given time. It’s a reflection of the era, a glimpse into where popular culture stood and a time capsule of sorts into the history of popular music. To have five or more songs hit number one means that an artist has truly staked his, her or their claim in music and pop culture history.
The artist with the most number one hits is the Beatles. Here are the details:
- Number one hits: 20
- Total weeks at number one: 59
- First chart-topper: “I Want To Hold Your Hand” (Feb. 1, 1964)
- Last chart-topper: “The Long And Winding Road/For You Blue” (June 20, 1970)
Did you expect anyone else? The four lads from Liverpool known as the Beatles had an astonishing 20 number one hit singles during their six-year tenure, and it’s fair to say that they flat-out changed the world during that time.
Tracking their chart-toppers reveals an almost supernatural transformation from bubble gum pop (“I Want to Hold Your Hand”) to flower-power psychedelia (“All You Need is Love”) to world-weary maturity (“Let It Be”). Along the way, they did more than anyone else to shape the pop culture of the 1960s with timeless classics like “Help!” “Yesterday” and “Hey Jude.”
John, Paul, George and Ringo all went on to have successful solo careers after the band’s tumultuous 1970 breakup, but for those six magical years there was nothing else quite like the Beatles, and there most likely never will be again.