Time Won't Let Me

Tom King and the Starfires formed at East Cleveland High around 1958. Over the years there have been several acts called the Starfires (one group from Florida hit the national charts when they backed Chicago-born Ral Donner on his 1961 hit "The Girl of My Best Friend"), but King's band of teenagers can reasonably lay claim to being the first, assuming anyone even cares. The hitmaking quintet Tom later led, with a name not originally theirs, is a whole different matter...though they were unquestionably the most successful of three simultaneous Outsiders groups, all of which peaked at various levels in 1966.

Several musicians joined Tom at different times over the years; Denmark-born bassist Gunnar Printz "Mert" Madsen, who joined the group in the fall of '58, was with him the longest. Guitarist Walter Nims and saxophonist Dennis Slifko were regulars in the early lineup. Drummer Howie Blank was there during high school, but Ronnie Harkai soon replaced him and remained through a half dozen years of the band's ups and downs. They made records right off the bat thanks to Tom's uncle, Patrick Connelly, who co-owned a Cleveland label, Pama Records, with Arnie Rosenberg. Whistling tune "Ring of Love," which can be considered a teen-pop effort, was recorded in New York City with Tom singing lead and backing by pop vocal group The Ray Charles Singers (moonlighting from their regular job on NBC-TV's Perry Como Show). A second single, "I Know," was by Tom King with the Ardells and the Starfires; there were also a few Ardells groups over the surprise there!

Moving away from teen mode, the band did a faithful remake of Billy Stewart's instrumental debut from '56, "Billy's Blues," as The Starfires. In 1961, another instrumental Tom King and the Starfires disc appeared on jazz label Riverside's non-jazz imprint Pop-Side; with "Night Walk" and its flip, "Take Off," they dabbled in the early-'60s surf movement. As members came and went (drummer Jim Fox, later of Cleveland band The James Gang, was with them for awhile), Tom, Mert and Ronnie anchored the lineup that ranked among the region's top performing rock groups. In '63, "Please Don't Leave Me" was a vocal single on Rescue, a label based in Baltimore; many of the Starfires' songs were written by Tom and his brother, Don King. An instrumental from 1964, "(I Can't Sit Still) Stronger Than Dirt," was based on the mostly-four-note jingle from the notorious "White Knight" commercials for Ajax laundry detergent. When later asked about the half dozen Starfires records he and the band had done, Tom said they were "All bombs!"

With the arrival of the British Invasion in '64 and the folk rock/garage band response from emerging U.S. acts, it became clear the Starfires needed to take a new approach or continue bombing. Sonny Geraci, who at 17 was several years younger than the other band members, came on board in 1965 as lead singer. Tom began writing songs with his brother-in-law, Chet Kelley, and "Time Won't Let Me" felt like a winner. Tom, Mert, Ronnie and their new singer were joined in the Cleveland Recording Company studio by Al Austin on lead guitar and Sonny's brother, Mike Geraci, on sax. A prominent horn section was later overdubbed, setting them apart from other rockers of the Great Lakes region. All Tom had to do was play the tape for a rep from Capitol Records and the major label signed them to a contract...then suggested they change the name. In Connelly's opinion, the big label signing made them "outsiders" to the Ohio rock scene. Unconcerned about or perhaps unaware of an Outsiders group from Chicago with a faddish one-shot, "Go Go Ferrari," from two years earlier...or of another Outsiders group from Tampa, Florida that had formed around the same time they had, the Starfires adopted The Outsiders as their new name.

Capitol released "Time Won't Let Me" as the band's debut single in January 1966. Ronnie Harkai had joined the Air Force shortly after recording the song and with a little repositioning the band locked in with Tom, Sonny, Mert, guitarist Bill Bruno and drummer Ricky Baker. WKYC-AM in Cleveland led the way and added the song to its playlist in early January. WERE and WHK jumped on it by the end of the month. The single was number one locally in mid-February; it spread nationally and hit the top ten in April. Another King-Kelley tune, "Girl in Love," revealed Geraci's knack for wringing emotion out of an ultra-soft rock ballad; its top 40 success in '66's second quarter hinted at the approach that would eventually give Sonny an even bigger hit than "Time Won't Let Me."

"Respectable," a 1960 original by fellow Ohioans The Isley Brothers was produced using the "Time" blueprint and returned the band to the top 20 that summer. The soul-music-influenced brass sound on some Outsiders records, usually shunned by garage and psychedelic acts of the era, eventually gained favor (one example: L.A. rockers The Standells used a horn arrangement on "Can't Help But Love You" the following year). For the fourth quarter of '66, Tom and Sonny chose a Scott English-Laurence Weiss song, "Help Me Girl." A competing version by Eric Burdon and the Animals appeared a month later; the Outsiders hit the top 40 in December, but Burdon overtook it at the end of the year. One consolation: the Animals version was not a hit in Cleveland...or practically anywhere else in the Buckeye State, for that matter.

While Ohio's Outsiders were enjoying their nationwide 1966 run, the Florida Outsiders scored a minor their home town of Tampa...with a remake of Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues," then became The Soul Trippers for one single before splitting up. Yet another Outsiders group had formed at nearly the same time as the Cleveland band; hailing from Amsterdam, Holland, they were popular in parts of Europe and had a hit in late '66 on their home turf, "Touch." As for King's band, they fell out of favor quickly after Burdon's "Help Me Girl" upset. "I'll Give You Time (To Think it Over)," penned by King, Kelley and occasional contributor Bob Turek, was billed as The Outsiders featuring Sonny Geraci, though Sonny's vocal contribution was oddly subdued. Back to being the Outsiders, tracks like "I'm Not Tryin' to Hurt You" and "A Little Bit of Lovin'" made separate bids at reaching rock or pop fans; all 1967 singles stalled below Billboard's Hot 100.

"Loving You," a breezy pop ditty by Sonny, was issued in early 1969, shortly before the Outsiders left Capitol. In '70, Geraci recorded "Changes" (penned by former Starfires guitarist Walter Nims) as an Outsiders disc for the Bell label. Problem was, Tom King believed he had more of a claim to the name and signed with Kapp with a new lineup of The Outsiders; "Tinker Tailor" appeared within weeks of Geraci's 45. A court case ensued, King won, and Geraci made his next record, ultra-ballad "Precious and Few," under the name Climax. It was a top ten hit in early 1972 (number one on the Cash Box Top 100) and kept Sonny Geraci going under this revised group name for the next few years.

- Michael Jack Kirby


Time Won't Let Me Girl in Love Help Me Girl