The Liberty Records Story
By David Edwards and Mike Callahan Last update: January 20, 2001

Liberty Records was founded in 1955 by Simon Waronker in Hollywood, California. Si was born in 1915 in a poor section of Los Angeles. When he was five, his father started him playing the violin. He was a child prodigy, starting high school at eleven and graduating at thirteen. Si got a scholarship to study violin in Philadelphia and then France. He ended up in Germany during the rise of Hitler. After barely escaping from a Nazi youth gang that was pursuing him because he was Jewish, he returned to the United States. Back in Los Angeles, he worked for 20th Century Fox from 1939 until 1955, playing musical scores for movies.

In 1955, his cousin, Herb Newman, called and suggested they go into the record business. After much thought and discussions with Alfred and Lionel Newman at 20th Century Fox, Si Waronker gave up his highly paid job to start a record company. By this time Si made up his mind, however, Herb Newman had backed out of the deal and formed his own record company called Era, so Waronker was on his own. The first releases on the label were lush orchestral recordings by Lionel Newman. If you look at the first 100 or so album releases on Liberty, you can see that Si Waronker was recording the music he new best: big band music, movie music, orchestral music and some jazz. The numbering system for the singles started with the 55000 series, probably just the year the label was established followed by some zeros, but it ran sequentially for 16 years. The first single (Liberty 55001) was Lionel Newman's somewhat ironic pairing of "The Girl Upstairs" with "Conquest."

Waronker contacted jazz artist Bobby Troup in 1955 to try to sign him to the label, but Troup was still under contract to another record company. Troup, however, talked Si into signing his girlfriend, Julie London. Julie became the "Liberty Girl" as she immediately had a hit with "Cry Me a River" (Liberty 55006, 1955) and went on to make a string of successful albums for the label. Troup himself did sign with Liberty a short time later, and recorded a series of albums for Waronker.

Ross Bagdasarian had been a songwriter of some success (for example, he wrote Rosemary Clooney's 1951 hit "Come On-A My House") when Liberty signed him in 1956. He first recorded under the name "Alfi and Harry" ("The Trouble With Harry," Liberty 55008, 1956), an artist by-line obviously constructed for the record itself. His followup single was "The Bold and the Brave"/"See a Teardrop Fall" under his own name (Liberty 55013), but it disappeared without a trace. A quick reverting to Alfi and Harry ("Persian on Excursion"/"Word Game Song," Liberty 55016) didn't do much either. Seeking a simpler pseudonym (for obvious reasons), Bagdasarian then recorded the instrumental "Armen's Theme"under the name David Seville (Liberty 55041, 1956). He soon shifted to novelty records, with a few chart successes within the next few years such as "Gotta Get to Your House" (Liberty 55079, 1957), "The Bird On My Head" (Liberty 55140, 1958), "Little Brass Band" (Liberty 55153, 1958), and "Judy" (Liberty 55193, 1959). But these minor hits would have ensured Seville a brief but forgettable career if not for a bit of innovation that landed him on the top of the charts. In 1958 he got the idea of speeding up the tape of the human voice to create funny voices, and he had a number one record with the classic "Witch Doctor" (Liberty 55132). He followed that up with "The Chipmunk Song" in late 1958 (Liberty 55168), and then a long running series of albums and singles by Chipmunks "Alvin, Simon and Theodore." The Chipmunks were wryly named for Liberty executives Alvin Bennett, Simon Waronker, and Theodore Keep. Bagdasarian died in 1972, but his son, Ross, Jr., resurrected the Chipmunks act in the 1980s for a whole new generation of fans both on record and in cartoons.

By 1956, the acts on Liberty still had a decidedly "pop" sound. Sisters Patience and Prudence McIntyre, then aged 11 and 14, were the daughters of orchestra leader Mack McIntyre, who encouraged them to record. They had a #4 record with "Tonight You Belong To Me" (Liberty 55022) and followed up with the #11 "Gonna Get Along Without Ya Now" (Liberty 55040), but six additional singles failed to chart. Big band veteran Margie Rayburn was signed in 1956, but it wasn't until her fifth single that she dented the charts with "I'm Available" (Liberty 55102, #7, 1957), and then six more singles were unsuccessful.

Also in 1956, Liberty signed the little-known Henry Mancini to the label. Mancini was then a staff soundtrack music writer for Universal Studios. Although in the early 1950s, he was providing bits and pieces of incidental music to various motion pictures, by the mid 'fifties he was doing more and more. Liberty issued two singles by Mancini using his soundtrack songs, including "Main Theme"/"Cha Cha Cha for Gia" from Four Girls in Town (Liberty 55045), and "Hot Rod"/"Big Band Rock And Roll" (Liberty 55060) from Rock Pretty Baby. Mancini also recorded several albums for Liberty, but unfortunately for Waronker, Mancini soon became a hot property, and in 1959 moved to RCA, where he became a legend in the movie music field. Liberty, of course, shamelessly reissued his albums long after his departure.

The biggest early rock and roll artist for Liberty was Eddie Cochran. Cochran's first hit for the label was "Sittin' in the Balcony" (Liberty 55056) in 1957, a "cover" or competing copy of a record on a small North Carolina-based label by fledgling singer-songwriter John D. Loudermilk (recording as "Johnny Dee" on Colonial 430). The song copied Loudermilk's style, and was not representative of Cochran's usual sound or style. In fact, in 1957 it was difficult to say Cochran had a "style" at all as yet. He had made some recordings with (unrelated) Hank Cochran in the rockabilly vein, but it wasn't until a year or so later that he hit his stride with the rock and roll anthem "Summertime Blues" (Liberty 55144). He followed that up with the pounding rocker "C'mon Everybody" (Liberty 55144). Such are the material of rock and roll legends. Then came the dreaded "lull." By the time Cochran was tragically killed in an automobile accident in England in 1960, he had failed to reach the top 40 for more than a year, although he was still very popular as a stage act. Ironically, he has become much more popular and collectable since his death than he ever was in life. Only one album, Singin' To My Baby, was issued on Liberty prior to his death and it is very collectable. Two albums, Eddie Cochran: 12 of his Biggest Hits and Never to Be Forgotten, were released after his death.

Billy Ward and his Dominoes had long been an R&B fixture when they signed with Liberty in 1957. The landmark group had started in 1950 with lead singer Clyde McPhatter (Ward on piano), and in 1951 had achieved the unprecedented feat of having an R&B hit that was so huge that it crossed over into the pop charts. "Sixty Minute Man" (Federal 12022) spent 14 weeks on top of the R&B charts, and in late summer, 1951, pushed its way into the pop top 20. When McPhatter left to form his own group, the Drifters, in 1953, another lead singer of uncommon talent, Jackie Wilson, stepped in. By 1956, Ward's group were "drifters" themselves, drifting from the harder R&B sound towards the more lush pop sounds of orchestral music. When they signed in 1957, their previous hit had been "St. Therese of the Roses" (Decca 29933), which featured Jackie Wilson backed with Jack Pleis' orchestra. At this point, Wilson opted for rock and roll, and Ward's Dominoes continued toward orchestral pop. Ward hit with old pop standards "Star Dust" (Liberty 55071, #12 pop, 1957) and "Deep Purple" (Liberty 55099, #20 pop, 1957) right away, but it was the beginning of the end for the group. Their three Liberty albums, however, are collectable. Wilson's replacement, Eugene Mumford, also put out several later singles on Liberty.

Bandleader Martin Denny came to Liberty in 1957. When Liberty had an unexpected hit with Martin Denny's "Quiet Village" (Liberty 55162) in 1959, a recording that had all sorts of "jungle sound effects", it started Liberty on a seemingly endless number of exotic music albums by Denny and others. "Quiet Village" itself, a remake of the 1952 Les Baxter tune (Capitol 2225), had been recorded in 1957 for an earlier album (Exotica) in mono, and when the song became a huge hit, Liberty re-recorded it in stereo for their stereo albums and juke box stereo singles. One of the members of Denny's band, Julius Wechter, later started the Baja Marimba Band and had a number of hits for Herb Alpert's A&M label in the 1960s.

Another interesting, but unsuccessful, artist on Liberty was Texas deejay Willie Nelson. Starting in 1961 with "The Part Where I Cry"/"Mr. Record Man" (Liberty 55386), Nelson wrote songs and occasionally recorded albums for Liberty until 1964. His songs from this period have become country standards, including "Hello Walls," "Crazy," and "Funny How Time Slips Away." Listening to the Liberty recordings from the present, however, is somewhat of a shock, as Nelson's voice was fairly clear and lacked the gravel heard in later years. Whether that made a difference is unknowable, but his singles didn't do much until 1962, when "Willingly" (Liberty 55403), a duet with Shirley Collie, cracked the Country top-10. A few more country hits later, he left Liberty for RCA. Although he had a number of hits with RCA in the late 1960s, it wasn't until the 1970s that Nelson became a superstar in the country field. (A 1958 Liberty single, Liberty 55155, "Susie"/"No Dough" by Willy Nelson, was actually a recording by the cousin of teen idol Ricky Nelson, not the later country superstar.)

During the 1959-61 period, Liberty also acquired bandleaders Si Zentner, Felix Slatkin, and the inimitable Spike Jones. Liberty entered the fledgling folk music scene by signing Bud & Travis and later Jackie DeShannon. In addition to Willie Nelson, their country roster included Floyd Tillman, June Carter, Ralph Emery, Bob Wills and Tommy Duncan. They also made some deals with smaller labels to distribute hits that became too big for their original labels to handle. Examples of this are the 1959 #1 "Come Softly to Me" by the Fleetwoods (Liberty 55188 nee Dolphin 1), distributed for the Seattle-based Dolton label, and the 1961 Troy Shondell hit "This Time" (Liberty 55353), originally on the Goldcreast (later pressings, Goldcrest) label out of Indiana. The now-collectable 1959 novelty "Chaos, Parts 1 & 2" by Arbogat & Ross (Liberty 55197) was a one-shot deal. The marching band tune "National City" by the Joiner, Arkansas Junior High School Band (Liberty 55244) was a fluke hit in 1960, and resulted in Liberty trying several more singles by the band.

The most consistent hit maker for Liberty in the early 1960s was Bobby Vee (Robert Velline). Vee was from Fargo North Dakota, and in 1959 was a member of a local group called the Shadows (which included Bob's brother and two of their friends). On February 3, 1959 when Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens were killed in a plane crash on their way to Fargo, the Shadows were asked to fill in at the scheduled show. Contrary to persistent rumors, Bobby and his band did not sing any Buddy Holly songs that evening out of respect for the late singer, but the audience loved him. Bobby Vee and the Shadows had been recording for the Minneapolis-based Soma label, and a few months later had a #1 regional hit with "Suzy Baby" (Soma 1110). Joe Sadd, a Liberty promotion man for the area, sent the record to Snuff Garrett, who was then a hungry new producer for Liberty looking for talent. Garrett arranged to buy the master and reissue it on Liberty (Liberty 55208), and to sign Vee to Liberty, sans the Shadows. In the summer of 1960 he had his first top-10 national hit with "Devil or Angel" (Liberty 55270), a remake of the 1956 Clovers R&B hit (Atlantic 1083). In July, 1961, he recorded the Carole King and Gerry Goffin tune "Take Good Care of My Baby" (Liberty 55354), which made #1. Bobby Vee had a long list of hits into the late 1960s and had over 20 albums issued on Liberty.

In 1960, Liberty also signed Johnny Burnette. Previously, Burnette had been a member of the "Rock and Roll Trio" with his brother Dorsey and Paul Burlison. The Rock and Roll Trio made a legendary and incredibly rare rockabilly album for Coral in 1957, but by the time Johnny Burnette signed with Liberty, he was a pop singer who had written several hits for Ricky Nelson. Burnette had a handful of hits for Liberty, including "Dreamin'" (Liberty 55258), "You're Sixteen" (Liberty 55285), "Little Boy Sad" (Liberty 55298), "Big, Big World" (Liberty 55318), and "God, Country and My Baby" (Liberty 55379). Burnette also had six albums issued on Liberty. He drowned in a boating accident in 1964.

Other artists recording for Liberty in the early 1960s included television star Walter Brennan, Gene McDaniels, Gary Miles, Buddy Knox, Timi Yuro, Vikki Carr, Ernie Freeman, Ed Townsend, Nick Noble, Gary Paxton (of Skip and Flip and the Hollywood Argyles), Dick and Dee Dee, the Johnny Mann Singers, Van McCoy, Matt Monro, Billy Strange, the post-Buddy Holly Crickets, Eddie Heywood, the Mar-Kets, and P.J. Proby. The Rivingtons were a high energy rock and roll/rhythm and blues group whose hits "Papa Oom Mow Mow" (Liberty 55427, 1962) and "The Bird Is the Word" (Liberty 55553, 1963) became the basis for the classic by the Trashmen, "Surfin' Bird" (Garrett 4002, 1963), which was essentially a medley of the two Rivingtons songs with a long and loud drawing of breath in between. Roosevelt Grier, the ex-footballer who was later a friend of Bobby Kennedy and present when he was shot in 1968, also made several singles for Liberty.

In 1962, Liberty signed Jan and Dean to their first contract with a major record label. They had some hits dating back to 1958 for Arwin, a label owned by Marty Melcher (Doris Day's husband and Terry Melcher's father), Herb Newman's Dore label, and Challenge Records. These included "Jennie Lee" (Arwin 108, by Jan & Arnie, 1958, #8), "Baby Talk" (Dore 522, 1959, #10) and "Heart and Soul" (Challenge 9111, 1961, #25). Jan and Dean came to Liberty just as surf and hot rod music were gaining popularity, most successfully by their friends the Beach Boys. Jan and Dean jumped on the craze. In the summer of 1963, they had a Number 1 hit with "Surf City" (Liberty 55580), written for them by Beach Boy leader Brian Wilson. They followed up with several car song hits, including "Drag City" (Liberty 55641, #10), "Dead Man's Curve" (Liberty 55672, #8) and "The Little Old Lady From Pasadena" (Liberty 55704, #3). The hits spawned successful albums for the label well into 1966. But on April 19, 1966, Jan Berry was involved in a very serious automobile accident and suffered critical injuries which pretty much ended the duo's career.

By 1963, the Vice President of Liberty, Al Bennett, was responsible for the business side of things, and also much of the success of the company. In the 1962-63 time period, Bennett was approached by Avnet (an electronics company) about buying Liberty. Si Waronker was in poor health, so he and Bennett agreed to sell the company to Avnet for 12 million dollars. At this point, Si Waronker cashed out of the company, leaving Bennett in control of day-to-day operations. Surprisingly, Liberty started losing money after the Avnet sale. After two years in the red, Avnet wanted out. During this period, Avnet bought out another Los Angeles label, Imperial, which also gave Liberty control of the catalogs of Aladdin and Minit. Avnet then sold the whole company, including Imperial, Dolton, Aladdin, and Minit, back to Al Bennett for eight million dollars!

The discographies of Imperial, Dolton, Aladdin, and Minit are covered on separate pages.

By 1965, Liberty began to augment their roster with some of the talent that would be the mainstay of the label for the next few years. They signed comedian Jerry Lewis' son Gary Lewis and his group the Playboys, who proved to be a lot more talented than the dismissal that being a star's son usually warranted. Other acts like the T-Bones, Gants, Del Shannon, and Ken Dodd (from the UK) all had chart hits, but most of the chart action for the post-Avnel Liberty was going on at Imperial, which had been turned into a kind of rock and roll hit machine.

The Sunset label was formed as a budget subsidiary in 1966, and used to issue albums of previously released Liberty and Imperial material. It continued until the early 1970s.

In 1968, Transamerica Corporation, an insurance conglomerate, purchased Liberty for 38 million dollars and combined it with another of their record companies, United Artists. In a story that is repeated over and over in the record business (compare Avnet), Transamerica did not have a clue about running a record company. Al Bennett was fired after six months, and the company rapidly declined until by early 1972 the Liberty name had disappeared. Artists such as Bobby Vee, Gary Lewis, and Jan and Dean, who had been the hot product of the mid '60s, were in decline in the charts, and Transamerica didn't come up with replacements that they could promote effectively. They shut down Dolton and transferred Dolton's artists (Ventures, Vic Dana, etc.) to Liberty, then they shut down Imperial and Minit and transferred their artists (Classics IV, Jimmy McCracklin, etc.) to Liberty, but they still couldn't maintain the chart presence to make it work. Although Transamerica called it "consolidating," the company was in effect imploding. New artists from the 1968-71 period for Liberty included Canned Heat, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Ike and Tina Turner, Bobby Womack, and Sugarloaf. Although these artists had modest success on Liberty, they all had bigger hits later with other labels. Finally, with the 1971 single "Tongue In Cheek" by Sugarloaf (Liberty 56218), Transamerica shifted all new singles and albums to the United Artists label, along with the Liberty artists. For all intents and purposes, it was over for Liberty, although the Liberty catalog continued to be used for reissues well into the 1970s.

In 1978, the United Artists labels, including the Liberty masters, were sold to Artie Mogull and Jerry Rubinstein. They borrowed the money for the purchase from EMI, the parent company of the Capitol label. Mogull and Rubinstein were not successful, and in February 1979, EMI foreclosed on them. EMI/Capitol has owned the labels (UA, Liberty, Imperial, Minit, Sunset, etc.) since that time.

EMI/Capitol has since reactivated the Liberty name several times. In the late 1970s, it was used to reissue the Liberty and Imperial catalogs. In 1980, Capitol reestablished the imprint as a country label, primarily featuring Kenny Rogers. When Rogers left EMI for RCA in 1983, Liberty wasn't long for the world, and EMI discontinued it in 1984. In 1992, EMI announced that they were renaming their Capitol-Nashville division. The new label was... Liberty Records! The biggest artist for the 1990s incarnation of Liberty was Garth Brooks.

This discography was compiled using our record collections, Schwann catalogs from 1953 to 1974, a Phonolog from 1963, and other sources. This discography covers the Liberty label up through the period when United Artists discontinued using the name Liberty in 1971. We would be interested in hearing from anyone who has a relatively complete list of the 1980s Liberty reissues.

We would appreciate any additions or corrections to this discography. Just send them to us via e-mail. Both Sides Now Publications is an information web page, and we have no association with Liberty Records. Liberty Records is currently owned by the EMI Records Group. Should you want to contact EMI, or should you be interested in acquiring albums listed in this discography (which are all out of print), we suggest you see our "Frequently Asked Questions" page and follow the instructions found there. This story and discography are copyright 1999 by Mike Callahan.

Thanks to Jim Day (perhaps the world's biggest Liberty Records fan), Bobby Vee, John Kalinsky, and Brigitte Pelner.

On to the Liberty Album Discography, Part 1
Regular LPs in the 3000/7000, 11000, 27000, and 35000 series (1955-1971)

On to the Liberty Album Discography, Part 2
13000/14000 Premier Series (1960-1970)

On to the Liberty Album Discography, Part 3
Miscellaneous additional series

On to the Liberty Album Discography, Part 4
Related Records

On to the Liberty Album Discography, Part 5
Early Stereo Release Stereo/Mono Cross-Reference

On to the Liberty Album Discography, Part 6
1970s/80s Reissues

On to the Sunset Label Discography
Liberty subsidiary label (1966-1970)

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