The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

11 June 2005

The stature of Liberty

Si Waronker has died, and this matters to me because Si (Simon, his mother called him) Waronker was the founder of Liberty Records, one of the great West Coast independent labels, which would have celebrated its 50th anniversary this year had it remained an independent label.

Si's tastes ran to jazz, orchestral and movie music — his first release (#55001) was a Lionel Hampton single ("The Girl Upstairs" b/w "Conquest") — and his first big hit was #55006, Julie London's "Cry Me a River." But he was also looking for new and distinctive stuff, which is how he came to sign Alfi and Harry, despite the name actually one person, a fellow named Ross Bagdasarian, who subsequently produced a number of interesting novelties for the label under the name "David Seville."

Seville's biggest hit was a weird little number called "Witch Doctor" (Liberty 55132, 1958), with two voice tracks, both by Seville, but one of which was speeded up past all understanding, until it sounded like the chattering of a chipmunk. "Witch Doctor" actually made Number One, and Seville reasoned that if one funny voice was good, three must be better. The Chipmunks debuted that fall with a sappy-but-sweet Christmas song ("The Chipmunk Song" aka "Christmas Don't Be Late", Liberty 55168) in which Seville rode herd, albeit in a kindly manner, over his three rodent charges, one of whom he had named "Simon" after Si Waronker. (Before you ask: Theodore Keep was Liberty's chief engineer; Alvin G. Bennett was Waronker's second-in-command.) It was the fastest-selling record ever up to that point, and charted every fall as late as 1962.

Waronker also moved into that weird rock-and-roll stuff, signing Eddie Cochran, Bobby Vee, and Jan and Dean. Al Bennett was essentially running the company when Waronker decided to sell out in 1963; Bennett remained in charge until the Transamerica takeover five years later. (EMI owns the catalog today.)

Lenny Waronker, Simon's son, had worked at Liberty's Metric Music publishing outfit before moving to Warner Bros. in 1966; he eventually became president of the label, departing in 1995 after a corporate shakeup.

All this, of course, is ancient history, and today there are tiny indie labels, monstrous corporate collections of labels, and nothing in between. Probably why there's nothing on the radio right now.

Posted at 9:09 AM to Tongue and Groove


Si's granddaughter, Anna, was a member of the short-lived but hook-heavy "alternative" band that dog, and has since gone onto a relatively unheard and unseen solo career. She's easy on the eyes, too: http://www.annawaronker.com/

It's a shame there aren't guys like this in the business anymore, who can really make an independent label last and prosper, and have major chart hits. Matador, Merge and Kill Rock Stars are pretty close, but even they have had to make serious compromises with the majors and rely on the WEA monster for distribution.

Posted by: Phil at 7:49 PM on 11 June 2005

I've noticed that almost everything I buy these days is either compilations of old stuff or relatively new self-released indies; surely there's a reason for this. Kill Rock Stars must be — what, 15 years old by now?

Posted by: CGHill at 8:55 PM on 11 June 2005