Simon “Si” Waronker, the patriarch of the famous musical Waronker clan — son Lenny (producer, pres of Warner and DreamWorks Records), granddaughter Anna (that dog, co-founder Five Foot Two Records), grandson Steve Berman (head of sales & marketing at Interscope/Geffen/A&M) — died in his sleep Tuesday in Los Angeles at the age of 90.
Si Waronker was born in Los Angeles in 1915 and was a child prodigy on the violin. He wasn’t stupid, either, graduating from high school at thirteen. He studied violin in Philadelphia, France, and Germany, the latter coinciding with the rise of Hitler. After being chased by a Nazi youth gang, he returned to Los Angeles and was orchestra contractor for 20th Century Fox from 1939 until 1955.
In ’55 Waronker started Liberty Records, specializing at first in the film music he knew so well. Liberty’s first release was an orchestral single, “The Girl Upstairs” backed with “Conquest,” by film composer Lionel Newman. Early on he 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.
When Waronker tried to persuade jazz singer/songwriter Bobby Troupe (“Route 66”) to join Liberty, Troupe was still on another label and talked Waronker into signing his girlfriend singer/actress Julie London (who had previously been married to Jack Webb) instead. The sultry London immediately became the “Liberty Girl” when she had a smash hit with the torchy “Cry Me a River” (Barney Kessel on guitar) and a string of successful albums thereafter.
Songwriter Ross Bagdasarian (Rosemary Clooney’s “Come On-A My House”) joined the label and after some unsuccessful tries as a straight singer became “David Seville” – he came up with the idea of altering tape speed to create a variety of voices, and in 1958 wildly successful recording artists and cartoon stars, the Chipmunks, were born. Chipmunks “Alvin, Simon and Theodore” were named after Liberty executives Alvin Bennett, Waronker, and Theodore Keep.
Other notables and greats on Liberty before Waronker sold the label to Avnet in 1963 for $12 million were a young Henry Mancini (pre-RCA), Billy Ward’s classic doo-wop unit the Dominoes in their later poppier years, exotica legend Martin Denny (Exotica was a #1 album in ’59, Quiet Village and A Taste of Honey were top ten), early rock ‘n’ roll great Eddie Cochran , teen dream Bobby Vee (“Take Good Care of My Baby”), Rock and Roll Trio hellion-turned-pop singer/songwriter Johnny Burnette (“You’re Sixteen”), and surf-hot rod duo Jan and Dean (“Surf City,” “Dead Man’s Curve,” “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena”). Liberty was also the home between ’61 and ’64 of young singer/songwriter named Willie Nelson.
Lenny Waronker spoke with the LA Times about his father. “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.”
Producer Snuff Garret played a very important role at Liberty. Already a succes in broadcasting in Texas by the age of 20, Garrett wanted to be in the music business, not broadcasting, and through various connections he landed a job as local promotion man (with a drastic pay cut) for Liberty Records in Los Angeles.
Garrett worked hard (“I didn’t go to bed until I was 25 years old,” he says) and held his tongue for about six months until he asked to produce. Garrett’s first production was a single for Johnny Burnette in ‘59, and he had his first hit in ‘60 with Burnette’s “Dreamin’” (No. 11).
He next signed a young singer out of North Dakota whose tape reminded Garrett of Buddy Holly: Bobby Vee. Between Burnette, Vee and Gene McDaniels, Garrett had accumulated 16 Top 20 hits by early-’63, most arranged by Ernie Freeman. Several are pop classics: especially Burnette’s teen anthem “You’re Sixteen,” Vee’s “Take Good Care of My Baby” (Garrett’s first No. 1), and McDaniels’ “A Hundred Pounds of Clay.”
Though not a musician and a studio novice, Garrett had ears gilded by thousands of 78’s and he learned quickly. Garrett stayed at Liberty until the mid-’60s, becoming head of A&R and learning to run a tight ship. “I ran a totalitarian dictatorship. It was my way or no way,” he admits. “Our motto at Liberty was ‘If you’re not on the charts or headed up the charts, what the hell are you doing here?’ I learned early on that there are 100 records on the charts every week, and if you’re not one of them, it’s nobody’s fault but yours.”
With Waronker, another pillar of that era is gone.