Born 1915, Los Angeles, California
The founder of Liberty Records, Si Waronker, died in his sleep last week, at the age of 90. Born in a poor section of Los Angeles, Waronker was a gifted child. He entered high school at eleven and graduated at thirteen. At age five, he had started to play the violin, which he went on to study in Philadelphia and then France (with a scholarship). During the rise of Nazism, he found himself in Germany. Being Jewish, he wisely decided to return to Los Angeles, where he played violin in a strip theater on Main Street for a dollar a day. After working in a club in San Francisco, he played in the orchestra for the 1936 movie musical "Anything Goes". Waronker was a member of the 20th Century Fox Orchestra for three years before serving as orchestra contractor at the studio from 1939 to 1955.
In 1955 he launched Liberty Records. Using the furniture in his Pacific Palisades house as collateral, Waronker borrowed $2,000 from a Los Angeles bank and used half of the loan to arrange to have Capitol Records' pressing plant manufacture his initial releases. At first, Waronker worked at 20th Century Fox from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and then ran Liberty from a rented desk in a Beverly Hills office until 5.30 a.m.
Liberty's first two singles contained four compositions by Si's friends Alfred and Lionel Newman, Randy Newman's uncles. Waronker was initially recording the music he knew best : big band music, movie music, orchestral music and some jazz. The sixth single release on Liberty, Julie London's "Cry Me A River" (Liberty 55006, 1955), gave the label its first hit (# 9 pop), followed by "The Trouble With Harry" by Alfi and Harry (David Seville) on Liberty 55008, which went to # 44. Julie London was also successful in the album market (Liberty issued no less than 55 LP's during 1955-57).
Eddie Cochran was signed to Liberty in 1956. Though he became one of the most influential of all rock 'n' roll artists, his chart success at the time was not great, with only one US Top 10 hit ("Summertime Blues"). And that was only after Alvin Bennett had become the new president of Liberty. By late 1957, the company was virtually bankrupt. Corrupt sales managers and bad bookkeeping left Liberty Records with debts that totalled almost $800,000. Si Waronker hired Al Bennett after hearing that this astute businessman had left Dot Records. Bennett was instrumental in turning around Liberty's fortunes by going to all the distributors and persuading them to stick with the label, and then he set about the task of selling records. The record that saved Liberty was the novelty tune "Witch Doctor" by David Seville, released in March 1958. It sold 2,800,000 copies in two months, wiping out the company debts and giving Liberty its first # 1 single. Seville developed the "Witch Doctor" method of creating funny voices by speeding them up even further in the shape of a trio called The Chipmunks, whose names - Simon, Alvin and Theodore - were taken from those of Liberty's chiefs, Simon Waronker, Alvin Bennett and Theodore Keep (the chief engineer). Waronker didn't mind at all ; in fact he was highly supportive of the unusual sound that his friend Ross Bagdasarian (Seville's real name) had created. With "The Chipmunk Song" (late 1958), Seville scored another million-selling smash and for the next couple of years, the Chipmunks just wouldn't go away.
In the early 1960s, Liberty's Tommy "Snuff" Garrett was one of the hottest producers in the USA, making hits with Johnny Burnette, Bobby Vee, Gene McDaniels, Buddy Knox and (a little later) Gary Lewis and the Playboys. Even more successful were Jan and Dean (who produced their own records), with 16 Liberty hits between 1962 and 1966. The instrumental group The Ventures had 14 US chart entries in the 1960s, first on Liberty's subsidiary Dolton, later on the parent label.
Liberty had a deal with UK Decca, who released product in the UK on London, but starting January 1962, Liberty switched to EMI and their own logo. In 1963 Liberty bought the Imperial catalogue from Lew Chudd. This was Al Bennett's decision ; Waronker had cashed out of the company. In 1969 Liberty itself was taken over by United Artists, but Liberty-UA fell into debt to its distributor, Capitol, and was absorbed into the UK-based international EMI early 1979 and merged into EMI America, which had been launched in 1978 as an additional outlet for UK product. EMI/Capitol has owned the Liberty masters since then and has reactivated the Liberty name several times.
Si's son, Lenny Waronker (1941), became a successful producer and record label executive (at Warner Bros / Reprise). In Joel Whitburn's survey of Top 50 record labels, Liberty ranks 23rd, with 216 entries in the Billboard Top 100 during 1955-99.
Further reading: - Michael "Doc Rock" Kelly, Liberty Records : A History of the Recording Company and Its Stars, 1955-1971. With a foreword by Si Waronker. 782 pages (!). Jefferson, NC : McFarland, 1992.
The Liberty Records Story: http://www.bsnpubs.com/liberty/liberty.html
Much useful information was also found in the Eddie Cochran biography "Don't Forget Me" by Julie Mundy and Darrel Higham (Edinburgh / London : Mainstream Publishing, 2000).
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