Wednesday, September 17, 2014
LIBERTY RECORDS - BACKGROUND
A history of Liberty Records by Michael "Doc Rock" Kelly (Michael Bryan Kelly) was published by McFarland Publishers, Jefferson, North Carolina, in 1993. The single volume hardbound edition was reissued in 2014 as a two volume paperbound set. The following introduction in Volume 1 supplies a background on the company and its beginnings.
It is available from Amazon.
Liberty in the Beginning
Liberty Records was born in 1955, the same year generally if not necessarily accurately regarded as the year rock 'n' roll was born. Like Liberty rock 'n' roll was new and small at the time. No one had any idea of the eventual staying power and scope of either. As important as rock 'n' roll would be to Liberty in later years and, indeed, as important as Liberty would become to rock 'n' roll, Liberty was not originally a rock 'n' roll record label. Not by design!
California-based Liberty Records was the product of the productive personality of Simon Waronker. Waronker was born March 4,1915, and the story of his life pre-Liberty could fill a fascinating book and make an excellent Hollywood biopic*
Si came from a poor section of Los Angeles. When he was five his father bought him a tiny violin. His mother made him practice religiously. "All little Jewish boys had to play the violin." His instructor was Theodore Gordohn, who arranged for Si to skip from the third to the fifth grade because of his musical virtuosity.
Si's shrewd and opportunistic father took over his son's career and sold tickets to Si's recitals. Soon, again due to his musical skill, young Si was enrolled in junior high when he was only nine. "Hell! I was no 'boy wonder'—certainly not a 'genius' — only a talented kid who was being pushed by everyone who thought of their own gains." When Si was ten they skipped him another grade and gave him half of each day off to practice his instrument. At eleven, he was in high school. He graduated at thirteen.
He won several scholarships, one taking him to Philadelphia (thirty-five days by ship, the first two vomitous) to study. He got out of having to work on board by entertaining with his violin. "This was my first lesson that music is a great communicator." Unhappy living with greedy relatives, he earned another scholarship, and at the age of fifteen he left Philly for France to study.
Living on thirty dollars a month in 1930s Europe, he learned to dissect music, to be a man (French girls), and about Hitler as only a Jew could. Expelled from school with his fellow students for attending a nude orgy, Si accepted another scholarship in Mondsee, Austria. The local crown prince admired Si's playing, and Si lived well, but the conservatory he was attending closed in 1931, so off to Berlin with another scholarship.
Still living on thirty dollars a month, in 1932 Si "was afraid to go out at night. I saw swastikas painted on nearly every street corner. The words Verdammte juden on store windows.... Anyone who did not have blond hair took the chance of being beaten to death." One day he learned that for the past three years his "shrewd" father had been sending him thirty dollars a month, but that his actual scholarship had always been one hundred dollars a month! A minor concern, since "the madmen with swastikas were . . . beating people to death with clubs because they were Jews" or just suspected of being Jewish.
After a gang chased Si one night, he determined to leave for Paris, but his father saw to it that he eventually ended up on a boat for Los Angeles instead. His professor back in Berlin was killed just days after Si escaped, and he refused to play his violin for the Nazi crew of the ship.
Si's first job back in LA was playing violin in a strip theater on Main Street for one dollar a day. Seven months later his second job was playing at the Coconut Grove in San Francisco for fifty dollars a week. Next he worked in the musical Anything Goes for sixty-five dollars a week with Emil Newman at Fox Studio.
Si played for Chaplin's Modern Times and met well-known composer Alfred Newman. "Al was not only my mentor—but I regarded him as my personal god. He taught me more than all my previous teachers. Through him, I met many of the most important people in Hollywood—musicians, authors, composers.... I believe history will recognize him as one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century."
Si worked with Emil and Alfred Newman, playing in the Fox orchestra for three years and being in charge of all of the musicians at 20th Century-Fox from 1939 to 1955. He learned to budget, plan, and execute music. He was married, happily settled. Then. ...
One day in 1955, Si Waronker's phone rang. Of all people, it was his cousin Herb Newman. Herbie was perpetually broke, but Si didn't have to worry about a touch. Herbie's father—Si's Uncle Max—was always loaded. Herbie had an idea he said he wanted Si's help with. Out of the clear blue, Herbie said to Si, "Let's go into the record business."
Si recalls that he "damned near fainted. Herbie had to be smoking hash to come up with this idiotic idea. I had a good job — made good money but spent it—a good home —a good life —and a lovely wife and two wonderful kids. Why would I want to join the rat race?"
So Si told Herbie no and hung up. It seems that Herbie was one of those guys who didn't take no for an answer. He called Si back again and begged to meet with him to discuss the notion of starting a record company. This was the mid-fifties. The 78 was just being replaced by the 45, and the LP was also coming into its own. Along with that, hi-fi was all the rage; rock 'n' roll was emerging, and with it top-forty radio; and even stereo was being talked about.
Si's curiosity got the best of him. He had never been one to be afraid to take a big, unexpected step. He had traveled the world on a shoestring while still a minor. And music, the stuff record companies exist for, had always been his life. Finally Si relented and agreed to meet that evening.
After dinner Herbie and Uncle Max came by. Si recalls their conversation to this day and quotes it as follows:
Herbie: I work for Decca Records. I want to quit and go on my own.
Herbie: I know sales and I know we can be a success.
Si: What do you want with me?
Herbie: With your musical background and my sales experience, we can't lose.
Si: How about money? I'm broke!
Uncle Max: Don't worry. How much will it take?
Si: At least twenty-five thousand dollars for startets.
Uncle Max: Do you think maybe a few dollars less?
Herbie: Dad, you promised to back me.
Si: Let's assume I do all the creative work and you worry about sales —who's gonna watch the store?
Herbie: I've got the perfect guy. He works for Decca too. Si: What does he do?
Herbie: He works in the accounting department and wants out. Si: I'll let you know. Bye. Say hello to your mother.
After they left, Si asked himself, "What am I thinking about? I've got to be an idiot to get involved." He had to admit, though, that his ego was being tickled.
Si was torn by indecision. He adored his work and thrived on his association with Al and Emil Newman. His position at 20th Century-Fox was important, prestigious, and relatively well paying. Just as important, unlike his relatives, who were evidently unhappy working at Decca, Si truly enjoyed his job and the fun of working wirh his colleagues.
That was the con argument. The pro argument for Cousin Herbie's scheme was, Suppose they started a record label and were successful? At forty years of age, how many chances would he get to better his lot?
Or maybe he was too old to learn new tricks? "Hell, no!"
At last Si set his reservations aside and told Herbie he would take a chance with it. With one wise proviso: that Si be the one who ran the show.
His relatives agreed. The split would be forty-forty, with 20 percent for the accountant. But what to call the company?
"After many meetings, I began to worry. The suggested names for the company were awful. In the middle of one night, I awakened with a start. I dreamt I was holding the torch on the Statue of Liberty. Liberty —Liberty Records, Inc. Beautiful. I called a meeting of the board and [told them of my idea. One snag was,] I remembered being in New York and seeing the Liberty Music Stores. I sent both of them out to find me a copy of any record with that name but could never find a Liberty record out of the music stores. I thought it was a great name if no one else had ever taken it. I called an attorney friend who called Sacramento and Washington, D.C. The attorney found that the store in New York was out of the recording business, and the name was free. We quickly tied up the name and Liberty Records was on its way.
"The store itself did try to squawk, saying they had used that name for a long time. At times they used to record for their own use. But they never had a commercial license to record nor a license with the union. We won.
"I then called Dale Hennessy, a superb artist who was working in rhe set-designing department at Fox, and asked him to make a logo that we could trademark. He had it within three hours. A Statue of Liberty of red, white, and blue. My attorney quickly had the logo trademarked, and the company set up as a corporation. I had committed two hundred dollars for legal fees, artwork, and phone calls."
Now that the company had a name and a logo, the next necessity seemed to be somebody to record. Si's "board of directors" was looking for a Liberty Records recording, with no luck. Here they were, in LA, with talent, talent, all around and not a note to record.
This was the first of many times to come when Si's extensive connections in the music business would come in handy. He went to see his old friend and mentor, Lionel Newman. Hearing about Liberty Records, he thought that Si was "nuts" to take this path and told him so. After that reaction Si was actually afraid to tell Alfred, but eventually he won Lionel over.
"I finally convinced Lionel to be the artist for the first session. We decided to record four tunes—two vocals and two instrumentals. Lionel was to sing on two sides, using the name Bud Harvey. The titles were 'Again' and 'As If I Didn't Have Enough on My Mind,' written by Lionel. The instrumentals would be 'Captain from Castille,' and 'Street Scene,' written by Alfred. We talked Billy May and Nelson Riddle into doing the arrangements and finally told Alfred—who told me —'If you want to be a schmuck I can be one too. I'll conduct as a gift.'" Lionel Newman had written a tune called "Again," but there were so many successful versions of that song out already that he and Si decided to record some original Newman material at this, the first session Liberty had.
With all this arranged, Si called his Uncle Max, and asked, "Where's the money?"
Uncle Max: Don't worry. You'll have it.
Si: We are recording in a week.
Uncle Max: Sooooo, you'll have it.
"From that point on, I couldn't find Herbie or Uncle Max. All I remember is getting Herbie's copy of our agreement in the mail with no explanation. My mother, who knew nothing about this at the time, called to tell me that Herbie and his other cousin Louis went into the record business together and were recording that night."
What was Si to do? He had no money, but he had made commitments to the orchestra, the arrangers, the copyists, even to Capitol Records for studio rental and the pressing of 1,000 45s at ten cents each.
"I guess somebody up there felt sorry because on the day of the recording I went to see my neighbor, who was an assistant vice president of the California Bank, and told him my tale of woe. His name was Jack Murray. He was a wonderful man who told me that he could only loan on collateral and his limit was two thousand dollars. Strangely enough, that is what I needed. He finally came up with the idea of putting up my furniture as collateral. The bank would have frowned, but I guess they never found out. We recorded as planned." When the records were finally released, Liberty did not even have an office! Si used a call service for messages. Although his relatives had run out on him, the accountant stuck, so now it was an eighty-twenty proposition. However, the 20 percent partner still went to work at Decca every day.
Unexpectedly Liberty's first two releases were reviewed by both Cashbox and Billboard, and given rave reviews, of all things, for the quality of the sound! But why shouldn't they, when Newman wrote the songs, Billy May and Nelson Riddle arranged them, Lionel Newman conducted, and Alfred Newman was in the sound booth. With that combination behind the music, how could the sound be anything less than terrific?
Now Si was really in the record business. The one thousand 45s that Capitol pressed for ten cents each were soon sold out to distributors at forty-three cents per, and another nine thousand copies were soon pressed and sold as well. The bank loan was paid off long before Si's furniture was in any real jeopardy, and Liberty was nearly seven hundred dollars in the black. Liberty still had no office and no employees—in fact, not having them was what made the seven hundred dollars come out as profit: no overhead.
Being a record mogul turned out to be pretty nice. Si found himself being wined and dined by music publishers who wanted to get their tunes recorded and released on Liberty.
Composer-singer-musician Bobby Troup, who was at Liberty from nearly the first day, recalls the birth of Liberty:
"Liberty started when Si Waronker was a contractor at 20th Century-Fox. At this time, this was when all the big studios, MGM, 20th Century-Fox, Paramount, Warner Bros, all had staff orchestras. It was a heyday for musicians because they could get a contract for a whole year. Alfred Newman was head of music at 20th. Si thought that it was a great shame that Newman's great scores were not being perpetuated. Si formed Liberty not so much to have a big commercial success as to record the great movie soundtracks of the day."
It is understandable that this point of view developed. Several sources reported that it was Si's movie background that caused him to found Liberty, and that it was orchestral music that he wanted to record.
Simon himself cleared up the misunderstanding. "I couldn't get the soundtracks from movies. In those days, Decca Records was very big at the time, and they were the ones who had a deal with Fox and did soundtracks. Or if a music director at a studio had a contract with a company, then that is where a soundtrack went. I did about three soundtracks in the whole history of the company, one from Universal. Soundtracks were so expensive to make, and they made a small return. So I did not start the company with soundtracks at all in mind. Gosh, I'd have been in real trouble [if I'd done that]. I realized that the only way to make the company work was with singles. Albums were only made after a single had proven itself to be salable."
Si went into business with a distributor named Jack Ames. Si would supply the music, Jack would supply the distribution on a very small scale. The first 45 on Liberty was by Lionel Newman. Liberty 50001 was "Conquest," backed with (b/w) "The Girl Upstairs." The latter was a slow, jazzy, horn- and sax-laden fifties version of big-band music, very evocative of the era and eminently listenable. The former started like an up-tempo TV detective-show theme, then slowed a bit to a rolling rhythm that periodically picked up the original faster tempo as the song developed. The tune was very creatively arranged and conducted and is still interesting to hear today.
The second was "In Time" and "Hands Off" by Bud Harvey, who was actually Lionel Newman again, using a pseudonym to fool the public, or somebody.
The first Liberty LP was LRP 3001, Mucho Cha Cha Cha by Don Swan and His Orchestra. Bobby Troup recalls that "later they decided to add some jazz. Jimmy Rowles, the pianist, did an LP called Rare —But Well Done as the Jimmy Rowles Trio." After that failed to set the world on fire came John Duffy at the Mighty Columbia Square Wurlitzer and Nightfall by Harry Sukman at the Steinway concert grand.
The rest is history. Liberty Records signed one top artist after another, making many discoveries and establishing a musical dynasty that has survived to this day. Rock 'n' roll writers seldom mention the subject of money, but, except for a very few artists, everyone in the music business is in it for one thing —the money. Si started Liberty to make money as much as to make music. Popular music is not art, it is not called the "music art." It is called the "music business." And now Si was in business.
And Cousin Herbie? A day before the Liberty deal was to be consummated, Herbie had started his own company with Lou Biddle —Era Records. Era had some early success, notably "Suddenly There's a Valley" in 1955 (#9) and "Wayward Wind" (#1) by Gogie Grant, who had three other Era records that did not make the top forty. The other Era artist of note was Dorsey Burnette, who in I960 had "Tall Oak Tree" (#23), rock 'n' roll's first ecology record, and "Hey Little One" (#45). Dorsey's brother Johnny would later come to Liberty.
Soon Lou Biddle split from Cousin Herbie's Era Records and started yet another company, Dore (pronounced Dorrie) Records. The main records that company produced were: (1) "To Know Him Is to Love Him" (#1 in 1958) by the Teddybears, who were spearheaded by Phil Spector, later a producer at Si's Liberty; (2) "Baby Talk" (#10, 1959) by Jan & Dean, who were to become huge stars at Si's Liberty in the sixties; (3) "Come Softly to Me" (#45, 1959) by Ronnie Height, a poor cover version of a Liberty #1 record that same year by the Fleetwoods!
In spite —or perhaps because —of all this cross-pollination between rival labels, Si and Herbie never associated again.
Later on in volume one Kelly discusses Liberty's jazz series:
In 1956 Si started the Liberty Jazz series. Numbered as a 6000 series with the prefix LJH, this brief series ran for only thirteen titles, or perhaps fewer. The numbering began with LJH 6001, Jazz in Hollywood, and ended with LJH 6013, Buddy Childers Quartet. However, since Si liked to skip numbers to keep people from knowing for sure how prolific the company was, one cannot be sure that a full thirteen LPs were actually issued.
Si Waronker was always a jazz enthusiast. "Yeah, we had a lot of jazz. The jazz series was when Howard Rumsey and the Lighthouse All Stars played in a place on Redondo Beach. The Lighthouse All Stars were people like Bud Shank. They would come there and jam. Meanwhile we would record as much as we could. He really ran that part as a Howard Rumsey series.
"There were an awful lot of jazz things that I wanted. I wanted desperately to have a jazz label, or at least jazz as a part of the label. But the only real jazz we could get was the saxophone quartet, which was not really jazz but more like a string quartet but with great saxophone players. I can't say that we were too successful with our jazz label."
As noted by Bobby Troup above, Liberty issued some jazz in their LRP series recalling the Jimmy Rowles album. The series produced by Howard Rumsey was shortlived, and not part of the Jazz In Hollywood series that Harry Babasin brought to the label. Sadly, Babasin is not mentioned in the history or listed in the index.