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Chances are that, despite their having come from Cleveland, OH — and, thus, having a certain home field advantage — the Outsiders will never be considered for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Bands with just two big hits ("Time Won't Let Me," "Respectable") and a history mostly confined to AM radio in the '60s don't seem to rate that kind of recognition. But if any two-hit, dance-oriented band from the '60s ever deserved a crack at being voted in, the Outsiders do, simply based on the quality of their work over three years and four albums. The Outsiders started life as the Starfires, a hard-working popular local band in Cleveland founded by guitarist/singer Tom King in 1958. By 1965, the group had decided to add more vocals to its repertory, adding lead singer Sonny Geraci. Tom King and his brother-in-law, Chet Kelley, co-authored a song called "Time Won't Let Me," and King turned the new number into a rock & roll tour de force. Recording it on their own, the band (under King's direction) melded the group's core sound — augmented by the presence of Al Austin on lead guitar — to brass and horn sections, in what was a fairly complex dual-layer arrangement. The group was signed by Capitol Records on the strength of the recording, but the label insisted that the band get a new name. King had been forced to abandon Pama Records, the label for which the Starfires had cut a dozen sides and was owned by his uncle, who accused his nephew of being an "outsider" to the family.
The name, the Outsiders, fit the new band and the times perfectly, and "Time Won't Let Me" was issued in January of 1966, rising to number five on the national charts soon after. The B-side "Was It Really Real" showed off the unadorned group sound, a lean two-guitar, bass, and drums arrangement with some tasteful, shimmering guitar arpeggios and a gentle, folk-rock style of harmonizing. The group's lineup was a bit fluid at this point, with King, Geraci, and longtime Starfires bassist Mert Madsen comprising the core; with Bill Bruno playing lead guitar and drummer Ronnie Harkai aboard. Harkai left to join the Air Force soon after the debut single was recorded, however, and he was succeeded by Bennie Benson and later by Ricky Baker. The Outsiders enjoyed a second hit with "Girl in Love," which reached number 21 — a reflective ballad with a lush (yet not overwhelming) string accompaniment over some restrained electric guitars; it showed off another side of the group's sound. By the time of "Girl in Love"'s release, Capitol was ready for the group to record their debut album and Tom King called up Jimmy Fox, who had been the drummer for a slightly earlier lineup of the Starfires, to play on those sessions. Fox had left the group to attend college, but he came back to play on the album; in the wake of his brief reunion with his bandmates, decided to forego college in favor of forming a band of his own, which he named the James Gang.
The Time Won't Let Me LP, containing the title song, a brace of covers of recent soul and rock & roll hits, and a handful of King/Kelley originals, reached number 37 on the charts in the spring of 1966. By that time, the sessions for some of the songs that would be on the group's second album (Outsiders #2) had already taken place and one of them, a version of the Isley Brothers number "Respectable," was pegged as their third single, released in July of that year. The song went back to King and Madsen's days with the Starfires, but in the Outsiders' hands it rose to number 15 nationally in the summer of 1966. Three weeks later came the release of Outsiders #2, arguably the best of their four albums (despite the fact that it only got to number 90), containing superb covers of songs such as "Since I Lost My Baby" and a handful of brilliantly executed King/Kelley originals. At their best, which was often, the group emulated all of the best elements of the Motown sound of the era, the King/Kelley authored "Lonely Man" and "Oh! How It Hurts" being among the most heartfelt embracings of the soul sounds of 1966 to come from any white band.
Part of the secret behind the Outsiders' musical success lay in the group's embellishments, which slotted in perfectly with their basic three- or four-piece instrumental sound (the group existed primarily as a quintet, though it also functioned as quartet at some points in its history). King, who also played tenor sax, did the saxophone arrangements (often using Sonny Geraci's brother Mike and Evan Vanguard for their reed work) and Tommy Baker arranged the strings and horns, but however bold and ambitious they got, one never lost the sense of a hard, solid band sound at the core. With Geraci's magnificent singing out front, it was impossible for anyone with an ear for soul not to love how this group sounded, on their album tracks as well as their singles. In a different reality with, say, a weekly television gig behind them instead of intermittent appearances on programs like Hullabaloo, the Outsiders could have been as big as Paul Revere & the Raiders, and should have rivaled the Rascals.
The Outsiders had been riding the crest of a wave, driven by talent and luck up to that point, but in the second half of 1966, their luck changed somewhat. The group recorded "Help Me Girl" and released it as a single, but soon found themselves battling for radio play and sales against a rival version by Eric Burdon and his current version of the Animals. Additionally, they had access to "Bend Me, Shape Me" ahead of anyone else, but turned it down as a single release, thus allowing the American Breed and the Amen Corner to rack up hundreds of thousands of singles sales with the song in America and England, respectively, in 1968. In, the group's third album, released in April of 1967, never charted and none of the group's singles subsequent to "Help Me Girl" (which peaked at number 37) reached the Top 100, though "Gotta Leave Us Alone" rose to number 121, which apparently was sufficient to get the band a tentative go-ahead for a fourth album. By that time, King and Kelley had begun working with a Cleveland-based songwriter named Bob Turek, and the group's lineup had shifted somewhat — Mert Madsen had decided to get married and get off the road, and was succeeded on bass by an ex-member of the Starfires, Richard D'Amato.
The new Outsiders' lineup soldiered on through 1967, occasionally with outside help, most notably from Shadows of Knight guitarist Joe Kelley, who guested on lead guitar for "Gotta Leave Us Alone." The intended fourth album was scrapped partway through and, instead, a very strange faux "concert" album, entitled Happening Live, appeared in its place. In contrast to many "live" albums of the era that were the product of mixing studio recordings with crowd-machines, however, Happening Live actually enjoys a decent reputation among some serious '60s music enthusiasts because of the way it was produced. Rather than simply adding crowd noise to the existing finished recordings, the producers went back to the multi-tracks of the originals and removed the overdubbed strings, brass, and horns, which allowed listeners to appreciate even better the playing of the group members — coupled with some new sides by the current band, featuring Geraci, King, D'Amato, Richie D'Angelo on drums, and ex-Starfire Walter Nims on lead guitar, the album represented a last hurrah for the group on LP.
By that time, popular music and the public taste had both altered radically from what they had been in late 1965 and clean-shaven white bands doing soul music, however credibly, just weren't in demand much. In the studio, the Outsiders were pretty much reduced to Tom King and Sonny Geraci and whatever session musicians they engaged at the time, and King's departure in early 1968 spelled the end of the group. Geraci piggy-backed a single release under his own name through Capitol, and kept the group alive in tandem with Walter Nims in an attempt to record, but by 1970 he and King were facing off in a lawsuit over ownership of the name the Outsiders, which King won. A Geraci group that had been intended to be called the Outsiders was rechristened Climax and had a number three hit in 1971 with a Nims' ballad called "Precious and Few," which became a quintessential example of early '70s AM pop/rock. Walter Nims has since worked with both Geraci and King, including joining the latter in a re-formed Outsiders in the '80s and '90s — Geraci has done a lot of performing and some recording since the early '70s, while King has also produced and managed various performers, in addition to leading his latter-day Outsiders (who have issued a live album). In 1985, Rhino Records acknowledged the group's legacy with a decent best-of LP, and in 1991, Capitol Records finally gave the group their long overdue recognition by adding them to its Capitol Collectors Series with a very good 25-song compilation.