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Obituaries

Simon Waronker, 90; Founded Liberty Records Label in 1950s

June 09, 2005|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Simon Waronker, the founder of Los Angeles-based Liberty Records, a successful independent pop music label of the 1950s and '60s whose artists ranged from Eddie Cochran to Alvin and the Chipmunks, has died. He was 90.

Waronker died of natural causes Tuesday at his home in Beverly Hills, his family said.

Liberty Records, founded in 1955, featured a talent roster that included such artists as Julie London ("Cry Me a River"), Martin Denny ("Quiet Village"), Cochran ("Summertime Blues"), Johnny Burnette ("You're Sixteen"), Gene McDaniels ("Tower of Strength"), Buddy Knox ("Lovey Dovey") and Timi Yuro ("Hurt").

Among Liberty's other artists were Patience & Prudence, Billy Ward & the Dominoes, the Rivingtons, Dick & Dee Dee, and Jan and Dean.

The Liberty label scored major hits with the novelty recordings of Alvin and the Chipmunks, a fictional musical group created by Ross Bagdasarian under the stage name David Seville.

Bagdasarian supplied the voices for the chipmunk trio whose distinctive, high-pitched sound was created by speeding up the playback. The same technique had been used on part of Bagdasarian's 1958 hit novelty song for Liberty, "The Witch Doctor."

"The Chipmunk Song," released later in 1958, sold more than 4 million copies in seven weeks and became a No. 1 hit single in the U.S.

It also earned Waronker a footnote in pop culture history: the Chipmunks -- Alvin, Simon and Theodore -- were named after Liberty President Alvin Bennett, Waronker and chief engineer Theodore Keep.

Waronker was highly supportive of the unusual sound created by Bagdasarian and "understood the impact of something that novel," Waronker's son, Lenny, told The Times on Wednesday.

"My father was always one to look at things that were different than the norm. That was what he always said to me -- go left," said Lenny Waronker, a former record producer who was president of Warner Bros. Records and is also a former partner at DreamWorks Records.

Singer-songwriter Randy Newman, a longtime family friend, told The Times on Wednesday that Waronker had "enormous energy, and he had an enthusiasm and confidence that creative people sometimes don't have for their own product."

"He was able to recognize people who had a talent to please the public, no doubt about it," Newman said. "He loved the Chipmunks and so did the rest of the world, but he's the one who bet on them."

The Los Angeles-born Waronker trained as a classical violinist in Europe as a teenager in the early 1930s. After returning to Los Angeles, he played violin in a strip theater on Main Street for a dollar a day and, after working in a club in San Francisco, played in the orchestra for the 1936 movie musical "Anything Goes."

Waronker, who also played on Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times," was a member of the 20th Century Fox Orchestra for three years before serving as orchestra contractor at the studio from 1939 to 1955, when 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.

In the beginning, 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, featuring arrangements by Waronker's friends Billy May and Nelson Riddle, used four compositions by two other pals, Alfred and Lionel Newman -- Randy Newman's uncles.

As recounted in a 1994 Billboard magazine story, the A-side of one record was Alfred Newman's instrumental "Theme From 'Captain From Castile' " -- a popular fight song at USC football games at the time -- and the featured song on the other single was "As If I Didn't Have a Thing on My Mind," a ballad Lionel Newman cut under the pseudonym Bud Harvey.

Only 5,000 copies of the two records were pressed and shipped; they sold for 45 cents apiece.

"In the end, I paid all my bills and had money left over," Waronker told Billboard.

On the lookout for new talent to sign to his new label, Waronker discovered sultry singer Julie London at the 881 Club on La Cienega Boulevard, and within a year of Liberty Records' launch, London's "Cry Me a River" single had gone gold.

Michael "Doc Rock" Kelly, who interviewed Waronker for his 1993 book "Liberty Records: A History of the Recording Company and Its Stars, 1955-1971," said Wednesday that Waronker was a catalyst.

"He brought together people who worked well together and produced good records," Kelly said. Among them was producer Snuff Garrett and arranger Ernie Freeman.

Garrett, who produced a string of hits for Liberty, including Burnette's "Dreamin' "and Bobby Vee's "Take Good Care of My Baby," told The Times on Wednesday: "He came from nothing and built a hell of a label.... He was always just a wonderful, wonderful guy."

In 1963, because of health issues and a sense "that it was time to move on," as his son put it, Waronker sold Liberty Records to Avnet, an electronics corporation, for $12 million.

In addition to his son, Waronker is survived by his daughter, Roslyn Rabow; his sister, Eleanor Linden; eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

A private funeral service will be held.

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