By: Doug Gelbert
What is a gold record? Emblematic of recording success, began as a publicity stunt by a record company to honor Glenn Miller in 1941.
Late in the year 1941, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, fronted by feature vocalist and saxophonist Gordon 'Tex' Beneke, performed the song 'Chattanooga Choo Choo' in the movie Sun Valley Serenade. The movie faded away but the song exploded. In less than three months more than one million copies of the record were sold.
In an effort to reward Glenn Miller - and call attention to its own success as well - RCA Victor took one of the master copies of 'Chattanooga Choo Choo', and sprayed it with gold lacquer. On February 10, 1942 the music company surprised Miller during a live radio broadcast with the 'gold record.' It was the first gold record ever awarded to a recording artist.
The actual award recognized today as a Gold Record was not initiated for another decade or so when the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) borrowed the publicity stunt and trademarked the Gold Record. The first Gold Record single was awarded to Perry Como in 1958 for his recording of 'Catch A Falling Star.' The first Gold Record album was earned by Gordon McRae and the cast of Oklahoma for its soundtrack release.
The RIAA has established the benchmark for a Gold Record as the sale of 500,000 units. Units are defined as sales through retail outlets, record clubs, rack jobbers, and all ancillary markets that legally distribute music. Sales of a million units is recognized by a Platinum Record and, if appropriate, a Multi-Platinum Record. In 1998 the RIAA initiated the Diamond Record awards which honor sales of 10 million copies of an album or single.
To be certified with a Gold Record the record label must request an independent sales audit for each title. An accounting firm employed by the RIAA then calculates the number of records or albums shipped for sale versus those distributed free for promotional purposes and then begins tracking sales and store returns for the life of the release. When a title's sales reach the requisite number of 500,000 sales, a Gold Record is awarded.
The actual Gold Record was originally an off-white linen plaque displayed in a wood frame. A mini-cover of the album or replica of the record was mounted next to the certification of dedication. In 1985 a hologram was added to prevent unauthorized duplication of the coveted Gold Record.
After the hologram was introduced the traditional style of the awards was altered to allow record companies to customize its awards. For the Diamond Record, designer Wayne Yenawine crafted a 12" high lead crystal award.
To date, 58 artists and 78 titles representing nearly one billion sales of albums have been awarded a Diamond Record. The top selling album of all time is The Eagles' Greatest Hits 1971-1975 with 26 million copies sold to date. The only other albums to surpass 20 million in sales are Thriller by Michael Jackson, The Wall by Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin IV by Led Zeppelin and Billy Joel's collection of Greatest Hits.
The RIAA also tracks career sales which enabled them to declare the top selling artists of the 20th century. The Beatles rank as the most successful recording act of all time with sales of 106 million albums (in the United States only, other countries have their own measuring standards).