Argo Records (UK)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Argo Records
Argo Records (logo).png
Parent company Universal Music Group
Founded 1951
Founder(s) Harley Usill, Cyril Clarke
Distributing label Decca Records
Genre(s) Classical music
Folk music
World music
Country UK
For the American label, see Argo Records

Argo Records was a record label founded in 1951 by Harley Usill and musicologist Cyril Clarke with £500 capital, initially as a company specialising in "British music played by British artists",[1] but it quickly became a company primarily specialising in spoken-word recordings and other esoteric (or commercially marginal) material.

Independent label, 1951[edit]

Argo's first issue was Music from Bali, dedicated to the Indonesian Gamelan, recorded at the Winter Garden Theatre, London. The catalogue eventually ran to 1,000 items.

In 1953, Usill was introduced to the Indian music specialist Deben Bhattacharya, who was responsible for field recordings of traditional music in India. Bhattacharya had been frustrated by the absence of recordings he could use for his BBC Radio broadcasts. Around the same time Walter Harris recorded an amateur Brazilian choir in Rio de Janeiro. Such recordings as these appeared in the labels "Living Traditions" series.

Taking advantage of the capacity of the longer playing time of LP records Argo embarked on recording the complete works of William Shakespeare. Cambridge University's Marlowe Players participated in the series, which was the responsibility of George "Dadie" Rylands, a fellow at King's College. Recording began in 1957 and was completed by 1964. Initially professional actors had been reluctant to work for the project, but in time Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi and Prunella Scales participated.

"The Poet Speaks" series was the work of contemporary poets read by the poets themselves, and among those featured were Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and Anthony Thwaite. In 1954, the company recorded the Festival of Lessons and Carols (Christmas) service at King's College, Cambridge, whose acoustics had previously defeated the abilities of engineers at other companies. A series of the masses of Joseph Haydn, initially recorded at the same venue, commenced in 1960, although after the first release with the London Symphony Orchestra later recordings were made using the Choir of St John's College, Cambridge and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under George Guest.

Subsidiary of Decca (1957–88)[edit]

Cash flow problems in 1957 meant that the company only survived by being taken over by British Decca, although Usill remained in charge and the company was able to maintain autonomy from the parent company.

The company at this time recorded dramatised versions of Alice in Wonderland (1958) and Through the Looking-Glass, both directed by Douglas Cleverdon and both starring Jane Asher in the title role with actors Tony Church, Norman Shelley and Carleton Hobbs, with Margaretta Scott as the narrator;[2] and Wind in the Willows (1960), adapted and produced by Toby Robertson, with Richard Goolden as Mole, Frank Duncan as Rat, Tony Church as Badger and Norman Shelley as Toad, with Patrick Wymark as the narrator. Another significant recording from this era is the premiere recording of Benjamin Britten's miracle play for children, Noye's Fludde (1961).

A series of actuality recordings of steam locomotives (then in the early stages of being phased out in the UK) was masterminded by the film sound recordist/mixer Peter Handford, selling up to 30-40,000 copies per year under the name Transacord.

Later, the repertoire soon diversified into modern British jazz, through the poetry and jazz movement of the early 1960s. This meant that recordings by pianist Michael Garrick, were particularly well represented. The Radio Ballads of Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger originally produced by BBC Radio (1958–64), were leased and issued by Argo from 1965. MacColl and Seeger also issued a 12-volume series of LPs called The Long Harvest, which featured variant British and US versions of traditional ballads from the collection of Francis James Child. A small cluster of folk artists joined the label around this time including Tom Paley (with his New Deal String Band), the Druids, the Clutha, the Songwainers and the Garret Singers.

In the 1970s, Decca extended their children's audiobook series the Railway Stories on the Argo label, with six further books (3 LPs) narrated by William Rushton. In 1974, they produced an abridged, dramatic version of The Hobbit, read by Nicol Williamson,[3] and released the soundtrack to the film Tarka the Otter (1979), which featured Peter Ustinov's narration and David Fanshawe's music score.

The label passed to PolyGram, when the conglomerate acquired British Decca in 1980. Harley Usill left the company and co-founded ASV. Argo as an independent entity was finally wound up in 1988.

Argo relaunch, 1990[edit]

The label was relaunched in 1990 as an imprint of Decca, with a remit to focus on four specific areas: choral, organ, and British and American classical music. Releases continued throughout the 1990s, modern American music growing ever more dominant. The last release in this incarnation was in 1998.

The audio books (in cassette and CD form) continue in the Argo name but under a different logo.

The Argo catalogue is now controlled by Universal.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Timothy Day A Century of Recorded Music: Listening to Musical History, Yale University Press, 2000, p.93 ISBN 0-300-08442-0
  2. ^ "Alice in Wonderland: Wired for Sound". Retrieved 2009-11-15. 
  3. ^ The Hobbit, read by Nicol Williamson. 4-record boxed set, Argo Records, 1974, ZPL 1196/9


  • "His Master's Voice" - The Archive Hour, BBC Radio 4, 19 February 2005