A year ago, I was at an annual book sale at the Timrod Library and some guy I was chatting with told me I really need to interview this older piano player, Tony Argo, because he has quite a story, he said.
Finally, after all of these months, I am interviewing him.
When we first spoke over the phone, Tony was quite the character. I told him both of my parents were quite musical and my dad took 12 years of piano lessons and I play by ear but never really learned my notes, but if I could play the piano the way I type, I’d be great. He cracked jokes and it was fun talking with him.
Regan: Where did you hail from?
Argo: I was born in 1930 in Lodi, New Jersey. I lived there for nearly 60 years. After that, I moved to North Hutchinson Island, Florida near Vero Beach for almost four years and then moved to Summerville where we’ve been for 14 years now and my brother-in-law lives here.
R: What brought you to Summerville?
A: I ran out of gas. I was with Jonathan Winters and a lot of the famous comedians so you’ll have to excuse me. I even played with Les Paul.
R: Always in jazz (how did he transition from classical to jazz)? More about your background.
A: No, I started off with classical. My resume is quite large. My first musical study was as a classical accordion player which my father also played.
When I was 15 years old, a country band lost their accordion player so I did the RKO State Shows (a whole chain of theater shows in the Greater New York City area).
I also did some solos without the band, playing classical music. It was exciting for me as it was new for me back in 1947.
I was in USO shows/the Bob Hope shows. I played at The Latin Quarter in New York City for 10 years during the 1950s.
I then attended the Manhattan School of Music for a couple of years for advanced composing courses after already being a professional musician.
I taught music for several years starting in the 1950s, running three different music conservatories in the Greater Bergen County, New Jersey area and personally taught over 100 students per week. I performed in places like The Azores, Germany, Puerto Rico, Panama, Iceland, Greenland and the Aleutian Islands.
I played both piano and accordion with The Lester Lannon Group at The Grand Hotel in Macinaw Island, Michigan (where the popular movie, “Somewhere In Time,” was filmed).
I opened up The Fountain Blue in Miami and was featured with The Art Mooney Orchestra in the 1960s. I also play a lot of jazz music. Jazz covers the blues so I wound up recording progressive jazz on Savoy Records.
R: Favorite song, musicians, composers, conductors, bands?
A: I have so many favorite songs. I know a million songs from World War I, World War II. George Gershwin was very modern as a musician. Cole Porter was a tremendous innovator. There are many composers who had a lot of influence on me.
I always liked Count Basie but I liked him for his jazz. I also liked Paul Whiteman, another orchestra conductor. Jazz singer Billy Exstein was one of my early favorites.
R: A Google search of you says “Tony Argo is one of jazz’s rare accordionists.” And, you made an album?
A: Yes, even though I’m decomposing now! I made a jazz album in 1960 by Savoy Records called “Jazz Argosy” (a mixture of originals and covers) — this was one of the oldest jazz record labels in the country. Prior to that, in 1952, the London Symphony actually recorded eight of my compositions.
R: Where do you perform? Teach?
A: I perform at The Estates senior living place here as well as private parties. I started teaching music at age 16; I teach piano, accordion, voice, and composing.
I enjoy both writing and performing — one is instantaneous, the jazz performing part — so you’re really on the spot.
With composing, you use the pencil to make corrections. I’d like to perfect more of what I do already.
I idolized Oscar Peterson, a Canadian black jazz pianist, for over 50 years, as had a great swing concept and was a phenomenal technician—truly outstanding. Bill Evans was also incredible, as was George Shearing.