Spectropop remembers

(1915 - 2005)

Founder of Liberty, recording home of Eddie Cochran, Jan & Dean, Bobby Vee, Jackie DeShannon, Gene McDaniels, Timi Yuro . . . and the Chipmunks.

By 1955 Simon Waronker, who has died aged 90, had spent 16 years as Twentieth Century Fox's orchestral contractor, organising the studio's music. It was then that his cousin, Decca Records' Herb Newman, proposed that they launch a record label. Waronker finally decided that he would do so - even if, by then, Herb had set up his own label. The result from Waronker, after a banking neighbour had accepted his furniture as collateral, was Liberty Records.

The company's first releases included works by two Fox colleagues (both uncles of Randy Newman): an instrumental by Alfred Newman, and a song from Lionel Newman, under the pseudonym Bud Harvey. Waronker was soon down to his last $100. Then, having failed to sign Bobby Troup, the jazz musician suggested to Waronker that he instead record his girlfriend, one Julie London. Waronker saw her perform at the 881 Club and the result, later in 1955, was one of the decade's defining torch songs, 'Cry Me A River', which was also to feature in the spectacular movie of the early rock era, The Girl Can't Help It. London's accompaniment came from the jazz musicians Barney Kessel and Ray Leatherwood. Waronker had told the singer that if 'Cry Me A River' flopped, the other tracks she had recorded would be overdubbed. But orders poured in. A string of sultry London albums followed.

In the wake of that success, the label took off. Patience & Prudence, very young teenagers, had an international hit with 'Gonna Get Along Without You Now' in 1956. They contrasted with 40-year-old band singer Margie Rayburn, who scored in 1957 with 'I'm Available'. That year, too, a receptionist let through a chance visitor she deemed "cute", Eddie Cochran, and the following year came 'Summertime Blues' and 'C'mon Everybody'. Staff guffaws greeted the Fleetwoods' working title 'Come Softly', but, altered to 'Come Softly To Me', it made a fortune in 1959 when the label took over its release. In 1960 Johnny Burnette ('You're Sixteen') and Bobby Vee ('Take Good Care Of My Baby') signed up and went on to have a string of pre-Beatles era hits on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1961 Gene McDaniels had a huge hit with 'A Hundred Pounds Of Clay' and a year later, with the signing of Jan & Dean, Liberty caught the surfing moment. Some artists got away, Waronker signed Henry Mancini in 1956, but his major success came at RCA. In 1961 Willie Nelson began working - albeit with little success - with Liberty.

And then there were the Chipmunks, created by songwriter Ross Bagdasarian. In 1958, as David Seville, he had a novelty hit, 'Witch Doctor'. Then came 'The Chipmunk Song' improvised by Bagdasarian/Seville and Waronker until five in the morning for Christmas 1958. Promptly selling 3.5m, it averted another financial crisis for Liberty. In their cartoon promotion the bespectacled Chipmunk is Simon, while Alvin and Theodore were named after Liberty's marketing man and engineer. A string of Chipmunk records followed. An Alvin For President badge made 1960 presidential contender John F Kennedy assert that he recognised the real challenger. Such discs also bankrolled some of the label's other interests. There was west coast jazz, Jackie DeShannon, a young Cher, Phil Spector, who remixed a Timi Yuro LP, Rod McKuen, Walter Brennan and Spike Jones.

Waronker was born in downtown Los Angeles. He had already displayed his violin prowess aged five. In his teens, scholarships took him to Philadelphia and then to France. He moved to Germany, but it was the beginning of the Hitler era and after being attacked by a Nazi youth gang he returned to the US. He then played in a Los Angeles strip club for $1 a day and got work playing on the orchestral soundtrack for the Paramount musical Anything Goes (1936). Ever pragmatic, humorous, unfazed, and open to all manner of music, Waronker impressed Emil Newman at Twentieth-Century Fox, where he joined the studio orchestra. There his work included Charles Chaplin's Modern Times (1936). By 1939, he was orchestral contractor. Sixteen years later came Liberty.

The pressure of work at the label led Waronker to suffer a stroke in 1961 and another one in 1963. So he sold the company to the Avnet Corporation for $12m. The label survived until 1971. Waronker's health was much restored by buying a 76ft yacht on which he travelled the world - and met his second wife, Miriam, a few years after his first, Jeanetta, died in 1967.

He is survived by his daughter and son, eight grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

Christopher Hawtree - The Guardian

Simon Waronker, musician and entrepreneur: born March 4th 1915 - died June 7th 2005.