Born in March of 1915, in Los Angeles, CA; died on June 7, 2005, in Beverly Hills, CA; married Jeanetta (died, 1967); married Miriam; children: Lenny Waronker and Roslyn Rabow.
Si Waronker had already lived a full life in music when, at the age of 40, he founded Liberty Records. With a background in classical music, he traveled to Europe as a teenager before settling in Los Angeles during the 1930s, where he worked as an orchestral arranger in Hollywood. With the advent of rock 'n' roll and the 45-rpm record, however, new opportunities beckoned in the mid-1950s. Starting with a small loan and relying on his experience as a musician, Waronker built Liberty into a major recording label within a few years. "He had a key understanding of what it was to go against the grain," his son, Lenny Waronker, told Melinda Newman in Billboard. "He was obsessed with quality. He'd always have the best vinyl and artwork. It was always about being slightly different, not just to be different, but because it was great and a smart way to compete. He was very smart about taking chances."
Simon Waronker was born in a poor section of Los Angeles in March of 1915. His father bought him a violin at five because, as Waronker later told Michael Kelly, for Kelly's book Liberty Records: A History of the Recording Company and Its Stars, "All little Jewish boys had to play the violin." He advanced so quickly in his lessons that his teacher, Theodore Gordohn, arranged for him to skip from third to fifth grade. Waronker's father took advantage of his son's talent, selling tickets to his recitals. "Hell! I was no 'boy wonder'---certainly not a 'genius,'" he told Kelly, "only a talented kid who was being pushed by everyone who thought of their own gains." He entered junior high school at age nine, high school at 11, and graduated from high school at age 13.
Waronker won several scholarships, allowing him to travel broadly. First he moved to Philadelphia, but he felt that his relatives, like his father, were taking advantage of his talent. At 15, he moved to France to study, living on $30 a month (he later learned that one of his scholarships was actually $100 per month, though his father only sent him $30). He was expelled for attending a "nude orgy," but traveled to Mondsee, Austria, on another scholarship. He remained in Austria until the conservatory closed in 1931 and then traveled to Berlin. With the rise of the Nazis, however, Berlin quickly became a dangerous place for a Jew to live. "Anyone who did not have blond hair took the chance of being beaten to death," Waronker told Kelly. He planned to leave for Paris, but his father arranged for him to catch a boat to Los Angeles. Shortly after his departure, his teacher was killed in Germany for refusing to give a fiddle performance for the Nazis.
In Los Angeles Waronker earned a dollar a day for the next seven months, playing violin at a strip theater on Main Street. He then moved to San Francisco, where he earned $50 a week at the Coconut Grove. Next, he earned $65 a week playing violin in the musical Anything Goes, working for Emil Newman at Fox Studios. Waronker's real break, however, came when he met Alfred Newman while working on Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times. "Al was not only my mentor," he told Kelly, "but I regarded him as my personal god. He taught me more than all my previous teachers." After working three years with Emil and Alfred Newman at Fox Studios, Waronker was promoted to oversee all of Fox's musicians, a position he held until 1955.
In 1955 Waronker received a phone call from his cousin, Herb Newman, asking if he would be interested in starting a new record label. With a secure, high-paying position, he was reluctant to start a new venture, but nonetheless agreed to give it a try. By the time Waronker reached his decision, however, his partners had already started a second label, leaving him in an awkward position. He had already booked Liberty's first recording session with Lionel Newman, but he had no money to follow through. Waronker finally used his furniture for collateral and borrowed $2,000 from a banker named Jack Murray. Following the first sessions, one thousand 45-rpm records were pressed and sold, allowing Waronker to pay back his loan and still have $700 in the bank.
Liberty's first real break came later that year when Waronker recorded singer Julie London. He had originally wished to sign singer Bobby Troup, but that singer was still under contract to another label. Troupe suggested recording his girlfriend, London, so Waronker went to see her live act. "The lyrics poured out of her like a hurt bird," he later told Kelly. "The combination of Barney Kessel [guitar] and Ray Leatherwood [bass] with this girl was incredible." After recording London singing "Cry Me a River" and paying for the pressing of the single, Waronker was down to $100. The single was an instant success, and the album, Julie Is Her Name, became as famous for its sexy, provocative cover as for its music. "'Cry Me a River' was a smash hit," he told Kelly, "and I could taste success."
Over the next nine years, Waronker built on that success, recording everything from multiple London albums to rock 'n' roll artists like Eddie Cochran. He signed Ross Bagdasarian, better known as David Seville, who recorded the novelty hit "Witch Doctor" in 1958. Seville, however, became better known for his creation of the Chipmunks, whose first hit, "The Chipmunk Song," climbed the charts at the end of 1958. The Chipmunks, in fact, were named after Liberty staff members, including Waronker, whose first name was Simon. Cochran also scored with "Summertime Blues" on Liberty in 1958, while the Ventures hit big with "Walk, Don't Run" in 1960. In the early 1960s Liberty signed beach singers Jan & Dean, and in 1962 the label recorded an album by future country legend Willie Nelson. Despite this success, Liberty cut a deal with Avnet, an electronics firm, which eventually stripped Waronker of his control of the label. For the next two years he struggled with his new partners, the stress of which eventually lead to four strokes.
In 1964 Waronker sold his remaining interest in Liberty for four million dollars and, at the ripe age of 49, retired. In hopes of recovering his health, he bought a boat and began sailing. Following the sudden death from hepatitis of his first wife, Jeanette, he bought a 67-foot yacht and continued to sail extensively. In 1978 Waronker attempted to re-enter the recording business, but he quickly soured on the experience. "My comeback," he told Kelly, "was a dismal failure. I hated every minute of our London experience."
Although many Liberty artists later complained that the company had failed to pay out the proper royalties, no one spoke ill of Waronker. "Si is great; he's a bear," producer Snuff Garrett told Kelly. "He taught me everything. He taught me all the basics and more. He was great." Waronker died in his home in Beverly Hills of natural causes on June 7, 2005.
by Ronnie D. Lankford Jr
Simon Waronker's Career
Traveled to Europe on several scholarships, early 1930s; performed in Fox Studio orchestra and directed Fox Studio musicians, 1939-55; founded Liberty Records, 1955; sold his shares in Liberty, 1964.
- Kelly, Michael, "Doc Rock," Liberty Records: A History of the Recording Company and Its Stars. 1955-1971, McFarland & Company, 1993, pp. 7, 8, 14,15, and 546.
- Billboard, June 18, 2005.