RKO/Unique Records began in 1955 as Unique Records, a New York City pop music record label founded by band leader Joe Leahy. After several small pop hits, such as "Man in the Raincoat" by fourteen-year-old Priscilla Wright, the label was acquired by General Tire subsidiary RKO Teleradio (initially General Teleradio; acquired a majority stake in the Mutual Broadcasting System in 1952, then merged with the RKO Pictures film studio in 1955, resulting in a name change to RKO Teleradio Pictures) in 1957 and placed its owner, Stanley Borden, in charge of its music entertainment division. From 1957 on, the label was billed as RKO/Unique.
In an effort to create entertainment synergy, General Tire initially acquired majority control of Mutual in 1952 through its acquisition of the Yankee Network & the stations that carried it from Shepard Stores, Inc. in 1943 & the Don Lee Broadcasting Network in 1950. Then, in 1952, it added WOR (AM, FM & TV), then consolidated its broadcasting interests into General Teleradio (purchased from R. H. Macy & Company alongside WOR & Bamberger Broadcasting; named as a result of The General Tire & Rubber Company's increased investment in WOR). Then, it acquired the RKO film studio from Howard Hughes in 1955. After selling the studio's backlot to Desilu Productions in 1956, RKO's remaining assets were merged with General Teleradio, forming RKO Teleradio Pictures.
After General Tire's acquisition of Unique Records in 1957, the record label was re-branded as RKO/Unique. Then, General Tire used Mutual in an attempt to enhance RKO/Unique by creating a national audience for the product. Unfortunately, the concept behind the arrangement was that rock and roll music was a passing fad, and that the pop music of the 1920s through the early 1950s would endure. With that in mind, RKO/Unique signed former recording acts like Rudy Vallee, the Harmonicats and Ted Lewis in hopes of recapturing their glorious pasts. To this mix, they added popular movie stars like Herb Jeffries, Edie Adams and Frances Langford, former vaudeville stars (and RKO movie regulars) like the Vagabonds, plus current popular TV stars such as George DeWitt, then the host of the top rated Name That Tune. RKO-Unique also issued the album Music To Suffer By by Leona Anderson.
To cement this relationship, General Tire, through RKO Teleradio Pictures, created the radio program Studio X to carry the RKO/Unique product on Mutual. The result was a disaster. Within a few years (by 1957), both the radio network and the record company were suffering huge financial losses and General Tire divested both of them: Mutual was sold to 3M, while RKO/Unique was sold to an unknown buyer, in 1960. It was also at that time that General Tire ceased both production & distribution by RKO, while also dropping "Pictures" from its subsidiary's name, shortening it to RKO Teleradio. By the spring of 1959, several unreleased RKO films were put out by other studios and distribution exchanges. That same year, RKO Teleradio became RKO General.
Years later, in 1965, RKO/Unique was acquired by Reach Entertainment, at which point it was renamed to RKO Records.
In 1990, Tom Ficara, former RKO Records CEO, acquired RKO Records and signed a distributorship deal with Varèse Sarabande Records. Varèse Sarabande releases both classic RKO albums and new audio and video works. In 1997, RKO Records produced the Whisky A Go Go 30th Anniversary live webcast with Rolling Stone Magazine. RKO Records also produced and distributed the Rock and Roll Legends Live television series.
In 2007, Ficara, who was still operating RKO Records, merged it with Margate Entertainment. Through the deal with Varèse Sarabande, Ficara had the RKO Records masters digitally remastered and the major titles on the label reissued and distributed by MCA.
In April 2010, it was announced that they would be releasing classics from the RKO/Unique back catalogue, by artists like Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and Bing Crosby.
RKO Records started producing new recordings in 2011 with an album by Las Vegas jazz artist Laura Shaffer called 'The Julie London Songbook'. RKO announced 48 new albums for 2011. Artists lined up for 'new' albums included the Bay City Rollers, Chubby Checker, Lesley Gore, Len Barry, Donnie Brooks, Jewel Akens, Chris Montez, Spencer Davis, Fabian, and Brian Hyland.
Currently, RKO Records produces Boomin' Reunion, Stardust Ballroom, and Senior Prom musical audio/video series for distribution by Varèse Sarabande.