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Alvin Silas (Al) Bennett was a recording industry executive best known for his tenure as president and director of Liberty Records from 1958 to 1968. Known as a “music business wizard,” Bennett is largely credited with the transformation of Liberty Records from a struggling start-up operation to a dominant force in the recording trade. “Alvin” of Alvin and the Chipmunks was named after Bennett.
Al Bennett was born in Joiner (Mississippi County) on September 21, 1926, to the farming family of Silas S. Bennett and Jessie Starling Bennett. The oldest of four children, he spent his early years working on the farm while attending Shawnee School, graduating in 1943. Bennett enlisted in the U.S. Army on November 5, 1945, for a one-year stint. After serving his commitment, he returned to Arkansas to farm. On February 15, 1946, he married Cathleen Whitlock of Sheridan (Grant County). The couple had three children: Wayne, Keith, and Adalah; Adalah later became a music industry executive in her own right.
By 1948, a series of farming and financial setbacks convinced Bennett to pursue a new career. Although he had little knowledge of phonograph records, he ultimately secured a job working as a salesman for Decca Records in Memphis, Tennessee. As his career progressed, he moved to Gallatin, Tennessee, to become national sales manager for Dot Records. In 1956, he relocated to Los Angeles, California, for Dot Records, later joining Hart Distribution before moving to Liberty Records, also in Los Angeles, in 1958 as vice president.
Liberty Records, founded by Simon Waronker in 1955, was struggling under massive debt and lacked the capital to exploit its catalogue of recordings. Under Bennett’s leadership, Liberty Records soon became one of the fastest-growing companies in America. From its backlog of unreleased discs, Bennett selected “The Witch Doctor,” and within twelve months, the company’s debts were paid. His acquisition of artists such as Julie London, Spike Jones, Bobby Vee, and the Fleetwoods served to stabilize the company and expand its success. One of its most notable hits came with a series of novelty records begun in 1958 by Ross Bagdasarian under the pseudonym “David Seville.” The three chipmunks in “The Chipmunk Song”—Alvin, Simon, and Theodore—were named after company executives Alvin Bennett, Simon Waronker, and Ted Keep.
In 1962, Liberty Records was sold to Avnet for $12 million. However, after two years of losses, Avnet sold Liberty back to Bennett for $8 million. In 1968, Liberty Records was sold again to TransAmerica Corp. for $38 million. Six months later, Bennett left Liberty and founded Cream Records. In 1977, Cream Records purchased Hi and Stax Records, two Memphis-based rhythm and blues powerhouses. In 1979, Bennett sold the Hi and Stax publishing companies and the Stax master recordings, but he retained the Hi masters.
Throughout his career, Bennett maintained a residence in Sherman Oaks, California, as well as in Joiner, owning and operating Benshaw Farms. He was also actively involved in numerous recording industry groups, including service as vice president of the American Record Manufacturing and Distribution Association, chairman of the Hollywood Museum, and chairman of the Entertainment Industry for Radio Free Europe. His accomplishments were honored by his home state in 1964 with his selection as Arkansas’s “Man of the Year.”
Bennett died on March 15, 1989, in Sherman Oaks. He is buried at Bassett Cemetery in Mississippi County.
For additional information:Gray, Jerry. “Al Bennett: An Arkansas Native Gives Boost to ‘Memphis Sound.’” Arkansas Gazette, August 21, 1977, p. 2E.
Kelly, Michael Bryan. Liberty Records: A History of the Recording Company and Its Stars, 1955–1971. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 1993.
Toney Butler SchlesingerGranite Bay, California
Last Updated 8/5/2013
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