Left to right: Tom King, Sonny Geraci, Mert Madsen, Bill Bruno
BY STEVEN CASTO
In the spring of 1966, The Outsiders’ debut single “Time Won’t Let Me” was in the midst of a fifteen week run on the Billboard Hot 100 where it would eventually climb to No. 5. At the end of 1966, Billboard placed the song at No. 32 for the year where it out-performed The Beatles’ “Paperback Writer” and “Yellow Submarine,” The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black,” and The Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann,” among others. The Outsiders were not one-hit wonders. They recorded three more Top 40 singles, several others that landed on the “Bubbling Under” charts, and four albums (three charted) before splitting into two separate bands, both claiming The Outsiders’ name. This resulted in a lawsuit between former band members, and by 1970 one band had dissolved and the other became Climax, which scored a hit with the song “Precious and Few.”
“Time Won’t Let Me” was recorded at Ken Hamann’s Cleveland Recording Company on Euclid Avenue in the fall of 1965 by Tom King and the Starfires, who would soon change their name to The Outsiders. King and his brother-in-law Chet Kelley wrote the song which, when recorded, featured King on rhythm guitar, Al Austin on lead guitar, drummer Ron Harkai, lead vocalist Sonny Geraci, bassist Merdin “Mert” Madsen, and several studio musicians on horns and keyboards.
Over the spring and summer of 2020, Goldmine conducted a series of interviews with Mert Madsen, who played with The Outsiders until October 1966, and Rick Biagiola who drummed for the band from the spring of 1966 until the fall of 1967. While not an original member, Rick was the longest running drummer in a band that went through, at least, seven, and he played on more Outsiders’ recordings than any other drummer. Additionally, with some local Cleveland musician friends, Rick re-formed The Outsiders in 2017.
Given the various forms of media, particularly the Internet, there is no lack of information about The Outsiders. However, some of that information is often repetitive, short on details and, at times, incorrect. While quotes from various members are abundant, we could find no lengthy interviews of band members and certainly none with Mert or Rick. It’s time we heard from them. While the following interviews do not tell the whole story, they do fill in some of the gaps, correct some of the wrongs, confirm some information that has already been written, and provide new, insightful details about the band’s history and current status.
There are times in which the following interviews read as if Mert and Rick were together in the same room. They were not. Their responses to similar questions are placed together for consistency. Interviews with Mert, who lives in Denmark, were conducted through emails, and Rick, who lives in Cleveland, was interviewed through emails and two phone conversations.
GOLDMINE: Mert, you’re originally from Denmark. How did you end up in Cleveland, Ohio?
MERT MADSEN: I was born on a small island called Samso in the middle of Denmark. There were 7,556 people living there at one time and now there are less than 4,000 and it’s like that with all the small islands in our country. I emigrated to the U.S. in 1957 with my parents and I had just turned seventeen before we arrived in America. I never went to school in America and what English I know, I learned from TV and asking my American friends to correct me when I didn’t say the right words and sentences correctly.
GM: You must have learned English quickly because I’ve read that before joining Tom King and the Starfires, a year after your arrival in Cleveland, you sang in a barbershop harmony group.
MM: Yes, in 1958 I joined the Cleveland Heights Barbershop Chorus and Quartet. I was singing the baritone part but was used to taking any part on what was called “robbers’ night.” A quartet would be singing a song together and then I would tap one of the guys on the shoulder and he would step out of the quartet and I would jump in and sing his part.
GM: What else can you tell me about your musical background and training?
MM: I’m an autodidact player with a good ear for music and harmonies. I started as a four-year-old on a small harmonica and on a two-row button accordion. Later, when I was ten, I learned to play a piano accordion that my brother Carl brought with him from Germany. He was in the American Airforce stationed in Germany and he came home on leave to our farm on Samso, in Denmark, and he left the accordion behind when he went back. I played it every day after our noon meal while the others in my family napped for about an hour. After a while I got quite good at it.
GM: How did you come to join Tom King and The Starfires?
MM: I went on a date with Tom’s girlfriend. She, a neighbor boy, his girlfriend, and I double-dated and went to a drive-in theater. She talked a lot about Tom and the day after the date, she introduced me to him.
GM: What was the origin of The Starfires?
MM: We started out in East Cleveland on Shaw Avenue where Tom lived with his parents. I have been told that it’s all torn down now. We did a lot of record hops, as they were called, for the DJs Carl Reese and Bill Randle. Bill Randle was the first DJ in America to play a rock tune on WERE, the local AM radio station, and that’s one of the reasons that they built the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the waterfront in downtown Cleveland.
GM: You were The Starfires’ and, later, The Outsiders’ bassist. How did your become a bass player?
MM: Well, my hands are quite big, so Tom King said that with those “meat hooks” I should play the bass. When I first joined The Starfires all I could play was the accordion and that was not popular in a rock band. It wasn’t hip in 1959. So later that year, I went out and bought a bass fiddle, an upright bass, with catgut strings. Boy did my fingers get sore and I got blisters from playing, so I went to the pharmacy and got a roll of bandage tape, and played with that on my blistered fingers. About six months later I bought a Fender Precision bass and what a difference that made. It was much easier to play, and the smooth steel strings were better for my fingers. I got used to playing with a pick and the bass became my main instrument.
GM: Did you sing any lead vocals with The Starfires?
MM: No. I only sang background harmonies and that goes for The Outsiders, later on, as well.
GM: The Starfires recorded several songs for the Pama Records label which was owned by Tom King’s uncle. Did you write any songs for The Starfires?
MM: Not really. I co-wrote a tune we called “Night Walk” and I played the Hammond B3 organ on it.
GM: Do you have any favorite memories from your days in The Starfires?
MM: There is one from the fall of 1959 when Tom King, Howard Blank, our drummer at the time, and I took a trip to New York City to record a song called “Ring of Love” at the A&R studio with the Perry Como Singers. Tom wrote the song and sang the lead. All I did was whistle on it. The song turned out very well and we were so proud when Perry Como sang our song on his nation-wide show the following week. “What an honor!” we said to each other. While in New York we went sight-seeing and went up in the Empire State building. Later, we sailed out to the Statue of Liberty where we went all the way up in the crown and looked out over the harbor through some rather dirty small windows. Those small windows were supposed to be the crown jewels, I guess.
GM: The whistling in “Ring of Love” is a key part of the song. It serves as what would be the instrumental break for the song and as the outro. Did Tom or someone else tell you what to whistle?
MM: No. As with most other things in The Starfires and The Outsiders, I made up my own parts. The whistling was an adlib thing that I made up while we rehearsed the song. Apparently, it was good enough, so Tom decided to keep it.
GM: In the fall of 1965, The Starfires recorded “Time Won’t Let Me.” What did the band think of it when they first heard it?
MM: Well, I can only speak for Tom and myself and we were rather sure that this was it. This song had “hit potential” written all over it and we were right. “Time Won’t Let Me” became our biggest hit.
GM: Prior to recording “Time Won’t Let Me,” Al Austin replaced Walt Nims, who later joined The Outsiders, as the lead guitarist for The Starfires and he played the lead guitar on “Time Won’t Let Me,” correct?
MM. Yes. Al was a member of The Starfires about a year before we changed the name to The Outsiders. But after the “Time Won’t Let Me” session he had other plans and left the band.
GM: Did Al play on any songs that would appear on the first Outsiders’ album Time Won’t Let Me and do you recall why he left?
MM: No. He only played on the single as far as I recall. I’m not sure why he left. Al was more into a Jimi Hendrix’s style of playing so, maybe, that’s why he left.
GM: Sonny Geraci sings the lead vocal on “Time Won’t Let Me” and most of the other songs The Outsiders recorded. How did he become the band’s lead vocalist?
MM: Well, as usual, it was Tom King, as the band leader, who did the hiring, but it would have to be a guess on my part. I only recall that Sonny had not been in The Starfires very long before Tom and I decided to make the jump to The Outsiders.
GM: You play these incredible driving bass lines in “Time Won’t Let Me.” How did you compose what you played on that song?
MM: I just tried to play what fit the tune best. It was created while we were rehearsing the song. I’ve gotten a lot of comments on my bass lines through the years from all over the world, even The Philippines. Also, from Danish musicians even though the song was not released in Europe and we never did a European tour.
GM: You also play some great bass lines on Starfires’ songs like “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Stronger Than Dirt” and on Outsiders’ songs “Chase Away the Tears,” “Lonely Man,” and Outsiders’ cover songs “Respectable” and “Keep on Runnin’” for example.
MM: Thank you for the nice comments. In the year I was with The Outsiders, I played bass on 26 songs on the first three albums. All the songs on the first and second albums and four songs for the third. We made those recordings in a span of twelve months when we were also doing a lot of tours and single shows, so there wasn’t much idle time as you can guess. Notice the bass part on “What Makes You So Bad (You Weren’t Brought Up That Way)”. It was the only bass line where I was influenced by another melody. That one was a bit like “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’” by Nancy Sinatra. But I didn’t just play the bass for The Outsiders. On “What Makes You So Bad (You Weren’t Brought Up That Way)” I played the harmonica and on “Time Won’t Let Me” I played a clapper to make the rhythm more solid. I also arranged the background singers’ harmonies because of my experience singing in the church choir and the barbershop chorus and quartet.
A side: Time Won’t Let Me
Top 100 debut: February 19,1966
Peak position: 5
“Time Won’t Let Me” was the debut and highest charting single for The Outsiders. Bassist Mert Madsen told Goldmine, “We were rather sure that this was it. This song had ‘hit potential’ written all over it and we were right.” His incredible driving bass lines were augmented by powerful brass and the solid vocals of the late Sonny Geraci.