Simon Waronker

Founder of Liberty Records
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The Independent Online

In 1955 Simon Waronker founded Liberty Records in Hollywood, and it quickly established itself as a significant force in the music industry. His enviable catalogue of artists included Julie London, Eddie Cochran and Bobby Vee.

Simon Waronker, record company executive: born Los Angeles 1915; married (one son, one daughter), died Los Angeles 7 June 2005.

In 1955 Simon Waronker founded Liberty Records in Hollywood, and it quickly established itself as a significant force in the music industry. His enviable catalogue of artists included Julie London, Eddie Cochran and Bobby Vee.

Waronker, who was born in a poor section of Los Angeles in 1915, was encouraged to play the violin by his father. When he was only 13 he won a scholarship to study in Germany. After graduation, he began his professional career there but, being Jewish, he encountered problems from Hitler Youth and returned home to America. Waronker worked in clubs around Los Angeles and San Francisco and was in the orchestra for the film musical Anything Goes, starring Bing Crosby and Ethel Merman, and Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, both in 1936. He joined the orchestra at 20th Century-Fox and, in 1939, he became a contractor, organising musicians for recording sessions for the film's producers.

By 1955 there was a proliferation of small labels enjoying success with the growing interest in popular music. Using his own furniture as collateral, Waronker borrowed $2,000 from a bank and formed Liberty Records. In the beginning, he maintained his job at 20th Century-Fox during the day and ran Liberty in the evenings. His friend Al Bennett became vice-president and head of A&R.

At first Waronker made records with orchestra leaders he knew and respected such as Billy May, Nelson Riddle and the brothers Alfred and Lionel Newman. The first single, numbered Liberty 55001 to show the year the label started, was Lionel Newman's "The Girl Upstairs". A jazz artist, Bobby Troup, recommended his girlfriend, the sultry Julie London, and the label's first million-seller was her torch song "Cry Me a River". This was followed by Patience and Prudence with "Gonna Get Along Without Ya Now". Liberty entered the black R&B market with Billy Ward and the Dominoes' versions of two standards, "Stardust" and "Deep Purple".

In 1958 David Seville had a US No l with "Witch Doctor", a novelty record which used a speeded-up voice for the witch doctor's spell. Seville developed this idea to create the Chipmunks and "The Chipmunk Song". The three mischievous Chipmunks were named Alvin, Simon and Theodore after Alvin Bennett, Simon Waronker and chief engineer Theodore Keep. The record sold four million and led to several other hits, albums and a television cartoon series.

Liberty Records entered the new rock'n'roll market with Eddie Cochran, who had hits with "Summertime Blues" (1958) and "C'mon Everybody" (1959), with Waronker himself producing some of his sessions. Cochran was on the way to becoming a major artist when he was killed in a road accident on a UK tour in 1960.

Waronker recruited Tommy "Snuff" Garrett to produce some of the new artists and he had a run of hits with Bobby Vee, notably with "Take Good Care of My Baby" (1961) and "The Night has a Thousand Eyes" (1963). The rockabilly artist Johnny Burnette became a pop idol with "Dreamin' " and "You're Sixteen", both 1960. Another discovery, P.J. Proby, found stardom once he had moved to the UK and his Liberty hits included "Somewhere" (1964) and "Maria" (1965). Willie Nelson would not become a country star until some years later, although what he was doing was little different from his time with the label.

Liberty's catalogue was too broad to have an identity for itself but nearly all its releases had quality in their specific fields. The artists included Martin Denny with his exotica "Quiet Village", Timi Yuro with the big ballad "Hurt", Jan and Dean with hits like "Surf City" and "The Little Old Lady From Pasadena", and Gene McDaniels, who recorded the original versions of "Tower of Strength" and "A Hundred Pounds of Clay".

In 1963 Waronker, in poor health, sold his label for $12m to an electronics corporation, Avnet, who also bought another Los Angeles label, Imperial. After two years of losses, they sold the labels to Al Bennett for $8m. Liberty continued its success with the hippie blues band Canned Heat. In 1968 Liberty was bought by the conglomerate Transamerica Corporation and, as a result, the label merged with United Artists. Bennett was sacked but the roster and the back catalogue was very impressive. In 1978 two businessmen bought United Artists but, when they could not meet the payments on the loans, EMI secured the rights and has held the Liberty catalogue since.

Waronker's son, Lenny, joined the industry first as a record producer and then as an executive at Warner Brothers and DreamWorks. His father encouraged him to have faith in unique talents and Larry developed the careers of James Taylor, Randy Newman and Ry Cooder.

Spencer Leigh



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