who was the first rock band to sell a million albums?

Es­ti­mated reading time is 6 min­utes.

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.

 

Million Albums: cover of THE VENTURES PLAY TELSTAR album from 1963.

Million Albums: cover of the Beach Boys' SURFER GIRL album from 1963.

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).

The Ventures

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 yearSURFIN’ 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.

Why?

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 Beatles

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.

 

Million Albums: cover of the WITH THE BEATLES album from 1963.

Million Albums: cover of Tthe MEET THE BEATLES album from 1964.

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 . . .

 

Million Albums: photo of the rock & roll instrumental group the Ventures from 1960.

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.

 


 

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