Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Ricky Biagiola Of The Outsiders Interview

The Outsiders: Time Again
Interview with Ricky Biagiola by Daniel Coston

The Outsiders are a band that everyone has heard, even if they’ve only heard just one of their songs. Formed in Cleveland, Ohio  in 1965 by members of another local group, the Starfires, the band was signed to Capitol Records that same year on the strength of the first single, “Time Won’t Let Me”. The song would eventually sell a million copies, and the band then toured throughout the rest of the decade.

Drummer Ricky Biagiola left high school in 1966 to join the band a few days before the start of a nationwide tour. Credited as Ricky Baker, he toured and recorded with the band until 1969. In 2017, Biagiola brought a new version of the Outsiders back on the road, joined by new members Rik Williger (keyboards and guitar), Michael Abraham (guitar), Greg DePaulo (bass) and Jimmy Aschenberger (guitar). The band has played selected dates throughout the United States, and recently returned to the studio for new recordings. While times and band members may have changed, Biagiola hopes that fans will enjoy the return of one of the Outsiders, and welcome them back into their hearts. 

Daniel Coston: How is it to have new Outsiders recordings?

Ricky Biagiola: It’s great. I’m so lucky to have people in my band that are so enthusiastic about this. They’re talented and capable performers as well as composers. As demand calls for it, and hopefully, it will, we will get back in the studio and do a couple more. 

We’ve got one new song, along with re-recordings of the hits and album cuts from the ‘60s. We really only had time for one new song to assemble, but I guess we’ll figure out how to promote it. 

Coston: How did this new lineup come together?

Biagiola: Tom King, the organizer of everything, passed away in 2011. Sonny had avery successful solo career as a nostalgia act, for a long time, until his health put an end to that, as well. I had people approaching me after [Sonny] passed in 2017. The other original members live in San Diego and Denmark, and don’t perform. That got me to thinking if there was any value to a reformed Outsiders. 

I got a lot of pushback, because they said, “You don’t have Sonny Geraci anymore, you don’t have a lead singer anymore,” and that made me more determined to do this. Yes, he deserves all the respect for being the voice, and Tom King wrote eighty percent of the Outsiders songs. But I played on them, and I don’t feel like I should take a backseat because a couple of the members are gone.

Out of respect to Sonny, I put together a band without a lead singer. We are a five-piece band, and everyone is from the Cleveland area. Everybody takes turns singing. I know that some will say, it’s not the Outsiders without Sonny. My feeling is that I don’t want an imposter fronting the band. Sonny can’t be replaced. His legacy is there, and I’d like to keep it that way.

Coston: The band was known for having this diverse rock, soul, R&B, high energy mix. Did you want that in this version of the Outsiders?

Biagiola: Yes. I’m hoping that there’s still room for that. Even towards the end of the Outsiders, it went from that, to more flower power, California kind of sound. We tried to change gears with that, and in my opinion, it was kind of our undoing, because it wasn’t where we came from. We were from Cleveland, where there’s rusty cars and blue collar workers. The act is staying true to the band’s original R&B style, and hopefully it will be accepted. 

Coston: How did you come to join the Outsiders?

Biagiola: The drummer [Ronnie Harkai] and I were friends. I had played with the Sensations since I was 14, and Ronnie had played with the Starfires, and we were all in bar bands. The bars around here would let you in if you under 18, and they’d stamp your hand, and you could drink beer that was under 3.2%. They called it, low beer. I was able to work in these bars two, three nights a week during my junior and senior year of high school. 

Ronnie played the drums on “Time Won’t Let Me”, while he was a member of the Starfires. He’s now doing well, and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Shortly after they recorded that song, Ronnie got his draft notice. His option was to join the Air Force, which he did. As he was getting ready for boot camp, Capitol said, “We’re picking this up. We’re putting you with the William Morris Agency, and you guys will be going out on tour.” Poor Ronnie was already enlisted. He suggested Tom King call me. He called, and said, “Ronnie told me to call you. We’re chasing a hit record, and we’re going on tour with Gene Pitney, Bobby Goldsboro, Chad & Jeremy, the McCoys, and B.J. Thomas. Are you interested?” I said, “Tom, I’m in High School. Let me call you back.” My dad had passed away about four years earlier, so it was me and my mom. I told her the whole story, and she said, “Well, do you think you’ll get another chance like this?” And that made me think. And I called Tom back, and I said, “I’m in.” He said, “You’ve got three days to prepare for being out for six weeks. I’m picking you up, and we’re gonna start rehearsing. I left school in February of my senior year to go on the road with these tremendous people. 

It was the Gene Pitney Cavalcade Of Stars, sponsored by Dick Clark. A great guy. I came back, and the school said, “You missed too many days. You can’t graduate.” So I had to get a tutor to get my high school diploma, and from that point, I was with the Outsiders for two and a half years. 

Coston: What is it like when you’re in a band like that?

Biagiola: I was starstruck. We got shuttled to the first hotel, and there was guy in Beatle haircut in the lobby, and he walks up and says, “Hi, I’m Randy from the McCoys.” One by one, I met all of the entertainers, and it was an enlightening and fun time to spend on a Greyhound bus for ten hours a day, with entertainers that had their own ideas about things. I was 17 years old. I kept my mouth shut, my eyes open, and watching how professionals approach things, and how they speak. I remember it like it was yesterday. It taught me a lot about how I handle things, even now. How to talk, look professional and act professional. It was a good time.

Coston: Where you with the band when they did Where The Action Is?

Biagiola: We were on tour with the Shadows Of Knight, and Question Mark & The Mysterians. We were in Boston while they were filming the show, and they shuttled us down to Boston Harbor. It was shot outside on a drizzly cold day. Nobody wanted to bring their instruments out, because it was raining. I stood inside of a Boston bean pot, and I was tapping on the sides. I didn’t want my drums to get wet! 

We also did the Hullabaloo show. There’s another video for “Time Won’t Let Me”. That wasn’t me. That was Jimmy Fox. He was in the band for a month. He didn’t want to be in the band because he was going to college at Kent State. But what does he do while he’s down there? He meets Joe Walsh, and they form the James Gang. 

Coston: What were your favorite TV appearances?

Biagiola: Locally, there was the Big 5 Spot, and then Upbeat. Whenever we were in town, we would go downtown to see those shows. See Don Webster, and do a song. There were many other teen dance shows in nearly every state we were in. I don’t recall the names of those shows. Nobody played live, it was lip-synched. 

Coston: What were your favorite songs to play on? 

Biagiola: I liked playing “Respectable”, but my favorite song to play was “Help Me Girl”. We recorded there here in Cleveland. "Respectable" was an Isley Brothers song from 1962 that was played by the Starfires when they were a bar band. Everybody had input on "Help Me Girl", in the studio. There’s only one vocal on it. I can’t remember if it was done before or after “Summer In The City” by the Lovin’ Spoonful, but it had that descending, little bit dark sound, and that’s my favorite. Subsequent records, I don’t know if the music had changed, or if programmers’ taste had changed, but we had at least 12 singles after “Help Me Girl”, and none of them got any airplay. Most of them stayed with horn-driven, R&B sound. One of them was more flower power-type song, and we just not get them played on the radio. After “Help Me Girl”, things stated to decline. “Girl In Love”, on the second record, that was against our wishes. To do a ballad after “Time Won’t Let Me”. We lost that argument with the managers. They wanted to show that the band could do other styles. It did okay for us. “Respectable” did well for us, but after “Help Me Girl,” nothing hit, and that started the downslide after the second year with the Outsiders.

Not being a presence on AM radio, any longer. Our reputation carried us for another year, but without being on the radio, groups come and go.

Coston: Did that affect your decision to leave the group, and go back to college?

Biagiola: Yes, it did. Plus, they wanted to move to California. Tom, Sonny, mainly. They felt that the connection there with Capitol Records would be best served [in Los Angeles]. I moved with them, but after two months, that California lifestyle wasn’t for me. I didn’t fit in, I didn’t care for the surroundings, and we already begun our popularity decline, so I came back home. They didn’t do much after I left. They got another good drummer, and maybe they did some concerts, but I fell out of touch with everyone when I came home. I was the third band member to leave. Tom and Sonny stayed out there, and they fell out and broke up around 1969, 1970. Sonny stayed, and wanted to call them the Outsiders, but then there was a lawsuit with Tom King, so they changed the new band’s name to Climax, and they later had a huge hit with “Precious And Few” [in 1972]. 

Sonny fell in for that California thing, and I always wished them the best. We did not honestly keep in touch, but as band members left, they left on good terms. Myself, it got a little grueling, and I got a little homesick. Not that I’m a musical genius, but it seemed like the writing was on the wall. My mother was here, so that was the end of that. 

Coston: Did you continue playing with bands, after you returned home?

Biagiola: I’ve always played with local bands, and still do. I made the whole gamut of musical styles. When I came back, I joined a blues band with horns. We played around here for a year, guys came and went, and I decided I wanted something steadier, so I got into a lounge group. There was plenty of work around here, six, seven nights week, playing hotel lounges. It was softer music for older folks, and that was a good ten years, doing that. When they ended, I got into a disco band, and we did for two or three years. Two of the Outsiders now, we’re in an oldies band here in Cleveland. Those are mostly VFW, AMVets, or bars that have live music. But yeah, I never stopped. Imagine that, 60 years.  

Coston: How were Chad & Jeremy to tour with?

Biagiola: Chad was married to a British girl, and she traveled with them. It was our first experience, traveling with a girl that acted like a guy. She would curse and get loud. She was beautiful, but she would be quite shocking, at times. They also had long hair, and the tour would stop somewhere to get something to eat, and it certainly caused a lot of commotion. Her being loud, and occasionally crude added to the dislike of younger people with long hair. They were great. Both of them were quite quiet. They traveled with an acoustic bass player. That bass player was Jim Guercio, who went on to manage Chicago. I used to give them haircuts, because I started to go to barber school. I didn’t finish because I didn’t like it, but I would give them a trim every now and then. He also was part of Caribou Ranch. He probably wouldn’t remember me, but we spent six weeks on the bus together. 

Coston: Did you play with the Left Banke?

Biagiola: I think we did a TV show with them. I know that we did a show with the Association. That was an outdoor show. It might have been a minor league baseball park. It was full. That was the most people we ever played for. There was 7,500 people. The audience was so far away. We were in centerfield, and people were in centerfield. I don’t know how they saw our faces.  

We spent a lot of time with the Shadows Of Knight, and Question Mark & The Mysterians. Question Mark were from Michigan. Their keyboard player was the same age as me, so we struck up a friendship. Eddie. Eddie Surrato. Question Mark as very flamboyant, and he always wore sunglasses. He didn’t want anyone to know his real name, it was always, Question Mark. They were unique. 

Shadows Of Knight, we had real good times with those guys. They did a lot of that British R&B. Their singer, Jimmy [Sohns], was more of a Mick Jagger-type frontman, and Sonny was a little smoother. Cannibal & The Headhunters, we had some good times with them. We spent several weeks on the bus with them and Keith, of “98.6”. That was an odd mix. Keith was more of a David Cassidy, Bobby Sherman kind of performers, and Cannibal & The Headhunters wee chicanos from Los Angeles. They are loud and a little coarse, themselves. 

We had got a good times down in Texas. We did a lot of shows down there. There was a band down in Dallas that we became friends with. We would play touch football, and they’d sell tickets. They had a lot of fans in the area, and they’d buy tickets, and they’d beat the hell out of us. They made us look silly, but they did raise some money for charity at that game. 

Len Barry, we did run into him after the Gene Pitney tour. His background was similar to ours. He had a real R&B style. Had some James Brown type moves when he background. He had some continental suits. Bobby Goldsboro, he got his own TV show after the tour. Do you remember The Bobby Goldsboro Show? He was a sweetheart of a guy. Gene Pitney, he was the Frank Sinatra of pop music at that time. Every time we got to a town, he’d have beautiful women waiting for him. He’d show up with them, one on each arm if we went to dinner. Always dressed in a suit. Kept himself at a distance, but not unfriendly, at all. 

The last stop on that tour was in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He had the song, “24 Hour From Tulsa”. It was some sort of a ballpark, or stadium. When he finished that song, he got such applause, we were underneath the stadium, waiting to get on the bus, it seemed like the steel and concrete was vibrating, the people were so loud and cheering for him. We actually got scared. We throughout that there was going to be a building collapse. When he did “24 Hours From Tulsa”, it was like, wow. It was thunderous.

Coston: What would you say to fans of the Outsiders, both back in the 60s, and now? 

Biagiola: My friends are with me [in this band], and they are with me because they’re my friends. They are top notch players, right here in town. And the fact that we all live within an hour of each other allows us to get together socially, as well as rehearse. If they enjoyed the Outsiders then, they’re gonna enjoy the Outsiders now. Because the music is unchanged. The music is re-produced authentically, ‘cause that’s the way I prefer it. No extended guitar solos, no classic rock posturing. It’s just pop. It’s Top Forty music that that’s presented the way it was then. And the guys in the band feel the same way. 

So I think that somebody who liked the Outsiders then, yeah, they are gonna miss Sonny. It’s inevitable, but he got taken. And I will pay tribute to him when we perform. And Tom King, as well. Because it hadn’t been for him asking me, I would never have been in the Outsiders. I won’t ever neglect the people who gave me a break. But as far as the performance goes, we’ve got a pretty high powered show. A lot of the Outsiders material will be in the show, as well as songs that were popular during that time, we were going to play it, as well. I’m hoping that they enjoy it. I haven’t received negative remarks, or posts about the performance, itself. People seem to really enjoy it. I’m proud of that. 

May 5, 2020

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