I HAD TO ANSWER THIS QUESTION: “Who was the first rock band to sell a million albums?” It was on Quora and immediately seized my attention. Why? Because not only had I never thought about it, but I had never heard a record-collecting friend or a professional music writer address it. It was a find!
My first thought went to any Black instrumental combos from the ’50s that enjoyed some success on the Top 40 and were lumped in with other Black artists as part of the new-fangled “rock and roll.” Such a group might have sold a lot of LPs over a course of several years. But I couldn’t think of one.
The first rock & roll band to sell a million albums was probably the Ventures.
Then I started working my way “up” through the ’50s to see which bands that might have sold a lot of albums began their career at what time. The answer that I posted on Quora can be found between the covers of THE VENTURES PLAY TELSTAR and the Beach Boys’ SURFER GIRL albums below.
I initially intended my answer to be a bit more finicky, but I decided to give the questioner a break and make a few assumptions.
To read my answer on Quora and any comments that may follow it, click here.
Despite having sold tens of millions of albums worldwide, The Ventures Play Telstar, The Lonely Bull And Others was the band’s first of only three LPs to be certified by the RIAA for a Gold Record Award. The Beach Boys’ third album easily sold 600,000 + copies upon release but has never been officially certified as being a million-selling album.
Selling a million albums (1)
This is an interesting question—thanks for posing it. First, I am making two assumptions: first, by “band” you mean a group of musicians with or without singers (that is, instrumental combos and vocal groups that play their own instruments). In the ’50s, most rock & roll bands were obviously secondary to a lead singer. Think of Bill Haley & the Comets, Buddy Holly & the Crickets, Gene Vincent & the Blue Caps, etc. There were some successful rhythm & blues instrumental groups but I doubt any of them managed to sell a million albums.
Frank Daniels pointed out that the Platters’ greatest hits compilation ENCORE OF GOLDEN HITS, released in 1960, was certified by the RIAA for a Gold Record Award in December 1961. As the award was for $1,000,000 in wholesale sales at the time, that would have translated to approximately 700,000 copies sold. Along with their previous eight long-players, they easily surpassed a million albums sold prior to the Ventures, but, as they were a vocal group who did not play instruments, I did not qualify them as a “band.”
My second assumption is that by “albums” you mean 10- and 12-inch long-playing albums (LPs) exclusively and not 7-inch, extended-play albums (EPs).
So, the first rock & roll band that I could find that probably sold a million albums was the Ventures. Their first eight albums were released from late 1960 through 1962. Most of them were good sellers but none of them were great sellers. If we assume that each LP sold an average between 100,000 and 200,000 copies—which is not unreasonable for the time—then we can safely assume that the band sold at least a million albums before the end of ’62.
In January 1963, THE VENTURES PLAY TELSTAR, THE LONELY BULL AND OTHERS was released and quickly became their biggest-selling album; it was certified by the RIAA for a Gold Record Award in 1970. So, if somehow the first eight albums didn’t get the group past the million mark in sales by the end of ’62, this one did the trick in early ’63.
The Beach Boys
These dates are important because, in 1963, the combined sales of the Beach Boys’ three albums that were released that year—SURFIN’ USA, SURFER GIRL, and LITTLE DEUCE COUPE—easily surpassed a million sales in the US in that year. Add the ongoing sales of their first album, SURFIN’ SAFARI, released in late ’62, then combined sales for the four albums in 1963 probably approach 2,000,000!
This was an astounding figure for a “pop” group at the time but no one, including Capitol Records, made a big deal about it at the time.
Because by the time anyone at Capitol put the numbers together in 1964 and realized the Beach Boys were the biggest selling group in the world, there was the Beatles. In its first year of release, MEET THE BEATLES probably sold as many copies as the combined sales of those four Beach Boys albums plus the four albums they released in 1964: SHUT DOWN VOLUME 2, ALL SUMMER LONG, BEACH BOYS CONCERT, and THE BEACH BOYS’ CHRISTMAS ALBUM sold through 1964.
The combined sales of the Beatles’ first two albums—PLEASE PLEASE ME, released in early ’63, and WITH THE BEATLES, released later in the year—may also have surpassed a million in sales in the UK in that one year.
With The Beatles had sold more than 500,000 copies in the UK in 1963 before Meet The Beatles was released in the US in 1964. But by the end of the year, the latter had sold several million more copies than the former!
Selling a million albums (2)
As the text above makes evident, I read “Who was the first rock band to sell a million albums?” literally and answered it that way. I told the questioner which rock group I believed was the first to reach one million albums sold. But the questioner might have wanted to know the first album by a rock band that sold a million copies. That, too, is a good question!
Very few albums of any kind sold more than a million copies prior to the sales explosion that accompanied Beatlemania in 1964. The few rock or rock-related albums that did pass the million mark prior to them were mostly by Elvis Presley. (Nine Elvis albums released between 1956 and 1963 have passed the million mark but exactly when those sales were realized is unknown.) But we are focusing on “rock bands” here.
I thought that Parlophone’s WITH THE BEATLES might have sold a million in the UK prior to the release of its Capitol counterpart, MEET THE BEATLES. In his book Million Selling Records From The 1900s To The 1980s, Joseph Murrells wrote that the Parlophone album sold more than 500,000 within a week of its release on November 22, 1963. Despite these extraordinary sales, according to Murrells, the album did not reach the million mark until 1965.
Unless one of the aforementioned Beach Boys’ albums from ’63 sold a million copies but Capitol Records has kept it a secret all these years, then the first album by a rock band/group to sell a million copies was probably MEET THE BEATLES. Again referring to Murrells, this album sold more than a million copies during its second week of release. It sold more than 4,000,000 copies in the US by the end of the year, several times that of the combined sales of WITH THE BEATLES in the entire world!
MEET THE BEATLES surpassed Elvis’ BLUE HAWAII album (estimated worldwide sales of 3,000,000 by 1964), making it the biggest-selling rock album of all time—up to that time!
Of course, the world of popular music has changed many times since then and it’s possible that MEET THE BEATLES may not even be among the hundred best-selling albums of all time at this time . . .
FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page was cropped from this photo of the Tacoma-based rock group posed with their shiny new Fender guitars taken on April 26, 1960. From the left, the members are Nole F. “Nokie” Edwards, Bob Bogle, Howie Johnson, and Don Wilson. (Photo: Richards Studio Collection, Tacoma Public Library.)
Finally, thanks to Frank Daniels and Neal Skok for their input.