Si Waronker

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Simon "Si" Waronker was the founder of Liberty Records, one of the most successful independent labels of the 1950s. Born in Los Angeles in 1915, he was a child prodigy who began playing violin…
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Simon "Si" Waronker was the founder of Liberty Records, one of the most successful independent labels of the 1950s. Born in Los Angeles in 1915, he was a child prodigy who began playing violin at age five and graduated high school at 13; he continued his violin studies in France and later Germany, managing to avoid the Nazis until he could arrange his return to the U.S. Upon resettling in Los Angeles, Waronker joined the studio orchestra at 20th Century Fox, where he worked from 1939 until 1955, when his cousin Herb Newman approached him with the idea of forming their own record company.

Because of his reluctance to leave the comforts of his Fox gig, Waronker spent considerable time deliberating the proposal before signing on -- Newman grew impatient in the interim, however, and instead formed his own label, Era. So Waronker founded Liberty on his own, setting up shop in Hollywood and debuting with the Lionel Newman single "The Girl Upstairs." Film composers like Newman and other Tinseltown musicians would form the bulk of Liberty's initial output, with its first pop hit coming in late 1955 via "Cry Me a River," the debut single by actress and ingénue Julie London, who would remain the company's best-selling artist for years to follow.

By 1956 Liberty fully embraced popular music, scoring a Top Five hit with "Tonight You Belong to Me," performed by teen sisters Patience and Prudence McIntyre. That same year the label also signed a then-unknown Henry Mancini, who notched a handful of minor soundtrack hits before enjoying enormous success at RCA, as well as fellow composer Ross Bagdasarian, who struggled until adopting the alias David Seville and turning to novelty records. Ultimately, he hit upon the idea of speeding up the playback speed of his studio recordings, rendering the human voice humorously high-pitched and chirpy -- he then based an entire single, 1958's "Witch Doctor," around the gimmick, scoring a number one pop hit in the process. For the follow-up "Chipmunk Song," Bagdasarian invented the Chipmunks, a trio of animated rodent siblings named Alvin, Simon, and Theodore -- so christened in honor of Liberty vice president Al Bennett, Waronker, and the label's chief engineer, Theodore Keep. Most significantly, in 1957 Liberty turned to rock & roll, signing the immortal if ill-fated Eddie Cochran to release classics like "Summertime Blues" and "C'mon Everybody." The label was also home to R&B veterans Billy Ward & His Dominoes.

With the 1959 release of bandleader Martin Denny's tropical fantasia "Quiet Village," Liberty essentially ignited the exotica craze. As the decade waned, Waronker also bolstered his company's country & western roster, signing Bob Wills, Tommy Duncan, Floyd Tillman, June Carter, and former Texas radio personality turned aspiring singer/songwriter Willie Nelson. But Liberty's most successful signing of the early '60s would prove to be teen idol Bobby Vee, who first scored with his reading of the Clovers' "Devil or Angel" and in the summer of 1961 topped the pop charts with the Gerry Goffin/Carole King composition "Take Good Care of My Baby."

Other Liberty hits from this period include Timi Yuro's breathtaking "Hurt," the Rivingtons' "Papa Oom Mow Mow," and Johnny Burnette's "You're Sixteen." And beginning in 1962, Liberty was home to Jan & Dean, who would hit with the surf-rock classics "Surf City," "Dead Man's Curve," and "The Little Old Lady from Pasadena." By this time Waronker was in poor health, however, and in 1963 he sold Liberty to electronics firm Avnet for $12 million. His son Lenny would later head Warner Bros. Records, while grandchildren Anna and Joey would enjoy success as pop musicians. Si Waronker died June 8, 2005, at the age of 90.