Cleveland, NY

Inside the Outsiders’ ‘Time Won’t Let Me’

Frank Mastropolo

The Horn Band Hit Was 'Like Merseybeat Meets Motown’
Photo byCapitol / EMI

In 1965, the ground was shifting under the feet of the Starfires, a Cleveland bar band formed in 1958 by 15-year-old guitarist Tom King. The Starfires largely played R&B instrumentals; sometimes King provided vocals. The band occasionally added a horn section to its guitar lineup.

The Starfires scored a regional hit with “(I Can’t Sit Still) Stronger Than Dirt,” an instrumental based on four chords of an Ajax laundry detergent TV commercial. (The Doors would later mimic the riff in the coda of 1968’s “Touch Me.”)

"(I Can't Sit Still) Stronger Than Dirt" by Tom King & the Starfires

The dual popularity of Motown and British Invasion bands convinced King that the Starfires needed a change. Enter Sonny Geraci, a local singer enthralled by the new sounds on Cleveland radio. Geraci told that his brother Mike, who played baritone sax, introduced him to the Starfires.

“My brother knew all the groups in Cleveland. There was one called the Starfires who were looking for a singer, because their singer got drafted into the Army. My brother recommended me, and I auditioned. I think I sang a Zombies song on my audition. I got the job, and I was singing in bars while I was still going to high school.

“We were going to cut a Beatles song. Then we decided, ‘If we’re going to do that, why not just record an original?’”

The group recorded a few unsuccessful tracks on the Pama label, owned by King’s uncle, Patrick Connelly. As the Starfire’s sound evolved, King hoped to land a deal with a bigger record company. King recalled in the book Rock 'n' Roll and the Cleveland Connection that his ambition created a problem—and a new name for his group.

“It was a family situation, and I got into an argument with my uncle about it. I was soon deemed an outsider. So I decided to use it.” The band’s new name: the Outsiders.

King and his brother-in-law, Chet Kelley, set to work writing “Time Won’t Let Me,” which the Outsiders recorded in the fall of 1965. “‘Time Won’t Let Me’ was like Merseybeat meets Motown,” said Geraci. The Outsiders recorded “Time Won’t Let Me” in Cleveland as a stripped-down garage rock track. A driving four piece horn section—with Geraci’s brother Mike on baritone sax—was later added.

"Time Won't Let Me" by the Outsiders

The Outsiders were signed by Capitol Records on the strength of “Time Won’t Let Me.” A&R man Roger Karshner became the group’s manager. Geraci credits Karshner as key to the band’s breakout success.

“Capitol Records was owned by EMI; EMI’s all over the world,” Geraci said in the book Cleveland Rock & Roll Memories. "Wherever EMI had offices, Roger would have letters sent from there to all the program directors in America, the top stations. The first thing they’re going to open is something from France or Germany, all it would have was a sheet saying the Outsiders are coming. This went on for a couple of months, so by the time our record came out, they were pretty interested. When it finally came out, it started to take off in Cleveland and Pittsburgh, and when it broke in Baltimore, Capitol knew they had a hit.”

By April 1966, “Time Won’t Let Me” reached number five on the Billboard Hot 100. The tune was a prelude to the horn rock era to follow. Bands like Blood, Sweat & Tears, Chicago, Chase, Lighthouse, Tower of Power, the Ides of March, Electric Flag and Ten Wheel Drive were popular in the late 1960s.

“We were ahead of everybody with that song,” Geraci explained. “Over the years, a lot of successful people have sat eyeball-to-eyeball with me and said ‘Time Won’t Let Me’ was a major influence for them. People in groups like Chicago, Tower of Power and James Guercio, who produced hits for the Buckinghams, Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago, all told me that song was their favorite track of all time.”

The Outsiders recorded three more Top 40 singles but never had another monster hit like “Time Won’t Let Me.” The band broke up after their fourth album, Happening Live!, was released in 1967. Happening Live! was actually a studio recording with crowd noise and song introductions by Geraci added. The tunes were a mix of previously recorded originals and cover songs with the overdubbed string and brass sections removed.

King and Geraci toured with their own Outsiders bands until King won a lawsuit granting him ownership of the name. King, 68, died in 2011.

"Precious and Few" by Climax

Geraci’s group changed its name to Climax and scored a number three hit, 1972’s “Precious and Few.” Written by Climax guitarist Walter D. Nims, it put Geraci back on top . . . for awhile.

“We came out with our second song that we thought gonna be bigger than ‘Precious And Few,’” Geraci said in Classic Bands. “We did a song called ‘Life And Breath.’ It came out really, really good. It was a great song. At the time we were on Rocky Road, a subsidiary of Bell Records, and Bell was sold to Arista Records in New York. We were a West Coast group. We kind of got lost in that shuffle.” Geraci, 70, died in 2017.

"Life and Breath" by Climax

Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever and New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make New York Rock, selected by Best Classic Bands as two of the Best Music Books of 2021 and 2022

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Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever and New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make New York Rock, selected by Best Classic Bands as two of the Best Music Books of 2021 and 2022. He is also the author of the What's Your Rock IQ? Trivia Quiz Book series; Ghost Signs: Clues to Downtown New York's Past, winner of the 2021 Independent Publishers Book Award; and Ghost Signs 2: Clues to Uptown New York's Past. Mastropolo is a photographer, and former ABC News 20/20 writer and producer, winner of the Alfred I. DuPont–Columbia University silver baton. His photography is featured in the Bill Graham Rock & Roll Revolution exhibition.

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