Singer, drummer, songwriter
Describing his life as the drummer for the most famous, and arguably the greatest, band in rock and roll history, Ringo Starr in 1992 admitted in the New York Times, “I was just a terrified little bunny out there, you know?” It is a surprising, if typically charming, comment from a member of the Beatles, the group that led the British Invasion of the United States. Throughout the 1960s the Fab Four not only secured a place in the annals of music, but, because of timing and talent, assumed one of the high seats of popular culture. The Beatles, like Elvis Presley several years before them, became a societal force, representing the energy, romanticism, and, to some adults, the danger and indulgence of youth.
As big as the Beatles were, it makes sense that Starr, years later, would confess to having been terrified. For in the eyes of many, he was always one of the lesser Boys, a musician whose talent was dwarfed by that of the group’s principal songwriters, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Starr was seen as the drummer backing up genius—a cute and witty mop top—but still a sideman. By the early 1990s, Starr also recognized how vulnerable he had been a generation earlier and how he had succumbed to the self-destructive trappings of stardom. For Starr, the two decades post-Beatles were marked less by musical growth than by alcoholism and a handful of spotty solo albums. Finally, in the late 1980s, cleansed of his addictions and enjoying the most genuine self-confidence of his life, Starr began making real music again and, more importantly, started looking forward with optimism rather than backward with resentment. “I’m out to prove that I’m still alive,” he told Rolling Stone in 1992.
An only child, Starr was born Richard Starkey, July 7, 1940, in Dingle, a working-class suburb of Liverpool, England. The nickname Ringo was given to him by his mother because of his penchant for jewelry. Starr spent much of his childhood in hospitals, suffering from a burst appendix, peritonitis, a fractured pelvis, and pleurisy (he would undergo life-saving intestinal surgery in Monte Carlo in 1979). He left school before he was 14, helping the family’s finances with jobs as an engineer’s apprentice and waiter on a ship that ran between London and Wales. Having fashioned his first set of drums out of tin cans and an old tea chest, Starr became a proficient percussionist after being given a real set for Christmas. His dream of becoming a rock star was cemented after an encounter with one of his early heroes, crooner Johnnie Ray. Starr remembered in People, “When I was 15, he was sitting on top of
For the Record…
Born July 7, 1940, in Dingle, England; married Maureen Cox (a former hairdresser), 1965 (divorced, 1975); married Barbara Bach (an actress), 1981; children: (first marriage) two sons (one named Zak) and a daughter, Lee; two step-children.
Worked as engineer’s apprentice and ship waiter; played with several bands in Liverpool, England, including Rory Storme and the Hurricanes, 1959-1962; member of the Beatles, 1962-70; solo artist, 1970—; appeared at benefit Concert for Bangladesh, 1971; sang role of Uncle Ernie on all-star recording of The Who’s Tommy, 1972; signed with Atlantic Records, 1976; narrated television series Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends, 1984, 1986; hosted television series Shining Time Station, 1989; mounted “Tour for All Generations,” 1988. Co-owner of restaurant London Brasserie, Atlanta, GA, beginning in 1987.
Appeared in films A Hard Day’s Night, 1964, Help!, 1965, Candy, 1969, Let It Be, 1970, The Magic Christian, 1970, 200 Motéis, 1971, Blindman, 1971, Born to Boogie (and director), 1972, That’ll Be the Day, 1973, Son of Dracula, 1974, Lisztomania, 1975, The Last Waltz, 1976, Scouse the Mouse, 1977, Sextette, 1978, Caveman, 1980, Give My Regards to Broad Street, 1984, and Water, 1985.
Awards: (With the Beatles) Order of the British Empire, 1965; gold record for single “It Don’t Come Easy,” 1971.
Addresses: Record company —Private Music, 9014 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90069.
Liverpool’s Adelphi Hotel throwing photos down to the fans, and I thought, ’That’s the job for me.’”
Despite his on-again, off-again fantasy of becoming a hairdresser, Starr was intent on a life of music, and he maneuvered his way into the Liverpudlian bands that he believed had the greatest chance for success. In 1960 he went to Hamburg, Germany, on an engagement with Rory Storme and the Hurricanes, who gigged on the same bill as a young, straight-ahead rock and roll group known as the Beatles. He had sat in with the Beatles on several occasions back in Liverpool, and, in 1962, was given the nod to replace drummer Pete Best, whose performance was questioned by an executive at the group’s new record label, EMI. At first, Beatles manager Brian Epstein harbored some misgivings about Starr, worrying that the drummer’s playing was too loud and that his appearance—he was, by most accounts, considerably less handsome than Best—was unimpressive. Loyal fans, too, were initially reluctant to accept the change. But all concerns quickly evaporated as Starr’s infectious smile and head-swaying energy proved a perfect complement to the charismatic presence of the other Beatles. More importantly, his no-frills playing solidified the rhythm-section backbone of the Beatles’ hard-driving tunes.
In the crowded English pop music scene, no combo could match the personal magnetism of John, Paul, George, and Ringo or the harmonies and brilliant melodic turns of such early Beatles hits as “Love Me, Do” and “She Loves You (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah).” The Beatles grabbed the national limelight, which would follow them throughout the decade, with concerts in London in 1963. In one case indicative of the hysteria that attended the Beatles’ meteoric rise, police were called in to rescue the musicians from a frenzied mob of teen-age fans. And, suggesting the national treasure that they would become, the Beatles, after their Royal Command Variety Performance at the Prince of Wales Theatre, were visited backstage by Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother.
As the result of an intense publicity campaign by Epstein and the success of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the much-storied arrival of the Beatles in the United States became not only the musical event of 1964, but one of the most dramatic cultural happenings of the decade. Against the backdrop of the band’s appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show and the screaming hordes who awaited their arrival at airports and crammed stadiums to listen and bop to the tunes, these working-class Liverpudlians were transformed into world-class pop icons.
While the music invited the body to dance, it was the charm of the individual Beatles that engaged the heart and endeared the group to millions of Americans. At press conferences, the musicians were irreverent yet innocent, and their vaudevillian sense of humor served as a refreshing reminder that self-seriousness need not go hand in hand with stardom. In an informal poll taken at one of their concerts, Starr was in fact rated the most popular Beatle among American fans. And while televised interviews demonstrated the Beatles’ comedie gifts, film became the extended forum for their humor and frivolity. Because of his roles in A Hard Day’s Night and Help, Starr emerged as the court jester, the ham, the acting Beatle. He later revealed in Rolling Stone, “When we were asked if we’d like to make a movie, we said, ’Are you kidding? Of course we’d like to. Doesn’t everyone want to make a movie?’ I just happened to be the one who enjoyed movies the most. I used to get to the set early, and I’d say, ’Put me on camera, man! Put me in front of it. I have a good time here.’”
But it was the music, obviously, that sustained the lure of the Beatles. From their early sugary pop tunes to the more mature psychedelia of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the group created some of the tightest, most memorable songs in the history of rock. Toward the end of the 1960s, the band stopped touring, opting instead to remain in the studio to record some of their most ambitious and thoughtful records, notably 1968’s The Beatles (popularly known as The White Album) and Abbey Road, from 1969. Throughout the decade—as the modified page-boy hairdos were replaced by flowing locks and pegged trousers gave way to bell-bottom jeans—Starr remained the ever-steady drummer, offering a consistent beat to ground the musical and, occasionally, drug-induced wanderings of the other players.
Don Was, one of four producers who pitched in on Starr’s 1992 album, Time Takes Time, explicated in the New York Times, “As a drummer, he influenced three generations of rock drummers. It’s not very flashy playing, but it’s very musical. Instead of just counting the bars, he’s playing the song, and he puts his fills in unusual places that are dictated by the vocal.” Though Starr has repeatedly called himself the greatest rock drummer in the world, he has confronted his share of doubters. The most common complaint—having nothing to do with his skills on the skins—is that he, and to a lesser extent, George Harrison, were mere functionaries, a competent but hardly spectacular support structure for the real stand-outs, Lennon and McCartney. This demon has haunted Starr unremittingly, though, to many observers, he was the most gregarious Beatle and bore the least antipathy toward the others.
When the Beatles broke up in 1970, Starr became directionless. While Lennon, McCartney, and even Harrison were able songwriters, Starr’s creative outlets were more limited. He explained in People, “It was pretty hard for me just to go and join another band, because I was bigger than any band I could have joined.” Effectively cornered into a solo career, Starr nonetheless scored a Number Seven hit in April of 1970 with Sentimental Journey, a collection of standards produced by Beatles board wizard George Martin. “I did it for me mum!,” Starr proclaimed, according to Rock Movers & Shakers, by way of justifying the odd choice of material, the success of which could most likely be attributed to the lingering Beatles glow. In June of the following year Starr released the self-penned “It Don’t Come Easy.” The song, which featured the guitar stylings of producer George Harrison and Stephen Stills, climbed to the Number Four position on the Billboard singles chart and was certified gold—indicating 500,000 units sold—two months later.
These triumphs, however, were only a warm-up for Starr’s 1973 score, the Number Two album Ringo, which featured “Photograph,” a Number One chart hit co-written with Harrison, “You’re Sixteen,” another Number One, and “Oh My My,” a Top Five hit. Joined on the recording by the other former Beatles, Starr, who had only rarely contributed more than the beat to the Fabs—with the conspicuous exceptions of nasal but endearingly distinctive lead vocals on “Octopus’s Garden,” which he wrote, “Yellow Submarine,” and “With a Little Help From My Friends”—proved he could successfully step out from behind the drum kit. Ringo was followed by 1974’s Goodnight Vienna, which took up residence at the Number Eight slot. In 1975 Starr landed another single in the Top Ten, a cover version of the Platters 1955 blockbuster “Only You.” And April of that year saw his take on the Hoyt Axton ditty “The No No Song” hit the Number Three mark.
But Starr soon fell from this peak, throughout the late 1970s and ’80s releasing only the occasional forgettable album—his Old Wave LP, from 1984, could only find wide release in Germany and Canada—sitting in with other artists, and plunging into a miasma of drug and alcohol abuse. As the world remained under the spell of the Beatles, as stories of a reunion continued to surface, the ex-Beatle, playing the role of the faded star, talked about his reemergence on the musical scene but failing to deliver on his plans.
Meanwhile, Starr appeared in several B movies, including That’ll Be the Day, Born to Boogie, which he also directed, and Son of Dracula. After John Lennon’s murder, in 1981, Starr released And Smell the Roses, which Stereo Review’s Joel Vance described as “simultaneously Ringo’s farewell to Beatledom and a display of his own strengths as an entertainer, which are considerable.” But abuse of alcohol was taking its toll; just as his life seemed to lack coherence, so did the drummer-singer’s professional output lack constancy.
In 1988, fresh from a detoxification program, Starr assembled a stellar lineup of sidemen, including erstwhile Bruce Springsteen saxophonist Clarence Clemons, New Orleans pianist Dr. John, former Band members Levon Helm and Rick Danko, drummer Jim Keltner, guitarist Joe Walsh, keyboardist Billy Preston, and singer-songwriter-guitarist Nils Lofgren. With his All-Starr Band, the ex-Beatle toured for the first time since 1966. In 1992, a slightly modified version of the ensemble embarked on a second tour, and Starr, though offering no new material, brought audiences to their feet, with, among other songs, his signature, “With a Little Help From My Friends.” Boston Globe contributor Steve Morse reported of Starr’s winning performance, “He hasn’t lost his ability to entertain with a friendly, geezerlike presence that would bring a smile to the most hopeless Scrooge.”
Further evidence of Starr’s renewal was his widely acclaimed 1992 release, Time Takes Time. August Rolling Stone reviewer Parke Puterbaugh assessed the effort thus: “Ringo sings in that wonderfully plain-spoken style of his, and his drumming is artful simplicity itself. He conveys avuncular concern without being preachy, and while the album is not without bland spots and pat tunes, it stands as heartening proof that Mr. Starkey still has something to offer at fifty-two.”
With the Beatles
Please, Please Me, Parlophone, 1963.
With the Beatles, Parlophone, 1963.
A Hard Day’s Night, Parlophone, 1964.
Beatles for Sale, Parlophone, 1964.
Help!, Parlophone, 1965.
Rubber Soul, Parlophone, 1965.
Yesterday... and Today, Capitol, 1966.
Revolver, Parlophone, 1966.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Parlophone, 1967.
Magical Mystery Tour, Capitol, 1967.
The Beatles (White Album), Apple, 1968.
Yellow Submarine, Apple, 1969.
Abbey Road, Apple, 1969.
Let It Be, Apple, 1970.
Hey Jude, Apple, 1970.
The Beatles—Circa 1960—In the Beginning, Polydor, 1970.
The Beatles 1962-1966, Apple, 1973.
The Beatles 1967-1970, Apple, 1973.
Rock ’N’ Roll Music, Capitol, 1976.
The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl, Capitol, 1977.
The Beatles Live! At the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany: 1962, Lingasong, 1977.
Love Songs, Capitol, 1977.
Rarities, Capitol, 1979.
Dawn of the Silver Beatles, PAC, 1981.
Reel Music, Capitol, 1982.
Twenty Greatest Hits, Capitol, 1982.
Past Masters Volume One, Parlophone, 1988.
Past Masters Volume Two, Parlophone, 1988.
Sentimental Journey, 1970.
Beaucoups of Blues, 1970.
“It Don’t Come Easy,” 1971.
“Back Off Boogaloo,” 1972.
Ringo (includes “You’re Sixteen,” “Oh My My,” and “Photograph”), Capitol, 1973.
Goodnight Vienna, 1974.
“Only You,” 1975.
“No No Song,” 1975.
Blast From Your Past, Capitol, 1975.
Ringo’s Rotogravure, Atlantic, 1976.
Ringo the 4th, Atlantic, 1977.
Bad Boy, Atlantic, 1978.
And Smell the Roses, 1982.
Old Wave, 1984.
(With Buck Owens) “Act Naturally,” 1989.
Starr Struck: Ringo’s Best, Vol. 2 (1976-1983), Rhino, 1989.
Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band, Rydokisc, 1990.
Time Takes Time, Private Music, 1992.
Contributor to Artists United Against Apartheid album, 1985, and Stay Awake, 1989.
Davies, Hunter, The Beatles: The Authorized Biography, McGraw-Hill, 1968.
Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers & Shakers, ABC/CLIO, 1991.
The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, edited by Jim Miller, Rolling Stone Press, 1986.
Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon, The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul, St. Martin’s, 1989.
Ward, Ed, Geoffrey Stokes, and Ken Tucker, Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, 1986.
Wiener, Allen J. The Beatles: A Recording History, McFarland, 1986.
Boston Globe, June 23, 1992.
New York Times, May 31, 1992.
People, August 28, 1989.
Rolling Stone, August 24, 1989; March 19, 1992; August 6, 1992.
Stereo Review, March 1982.
Time, June 22, 1992.
Drummer Ringo Starr earned a place in musical history in 1962 at the age of 22 years, when he accepted a position with a then unknown band called the Beatles, which was destined to become one of the most popular groups in the history of rock and roll. During the Beatles’ concert performances Starr was the most easily recognizable of the group, as he sat toward the back of the stage, pounding a steady rhythm behind singers John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison. A collection of gaudy rings adorned Starr’s fingers, which earned him the nickname Ringo. When the Beatles dissolved during the early 1970, Starr reemerged in an acting career, and he continued his musical career as a solo artist.
Starr was born Richard Starkey, Jr. in a dingy Liverpool slum, on July 7, 1940 to Richard Starkey, Sr. and Elsie Gleave. His childhood was filled with an endless series of setbacks and tragedies. His parents were poor bakery workers, and Starr’s father deserted the family during World War 11. His mother later remarried, to Harry Greaves, a house painter. Starr’s childhood was plagued by a series of personal illnesses. At age six he was hospitalized for one year when he lapsed into a ten-week coma from peritonitis brought on by a ruptured appendix. At age 13 he suffered pleurisy so severe that he was confined to a sanitarium for two years. Starr’s miseries were compounded when he developed an alcohol addiction early in life, which caused him to suffer blackouts from the age of nine.
By 1955 Starr was hopelessly behind in his schoolwork, so he quit school altogether and took a job as a messenger for British Railways. He lost the job, not surprisingly, when his employer received the results of Starr’s physical examination. After a stint as an apprentice carpenter, Starr, who played drums as a child, acquired a new drum kit and found work as a professional drummer. He joined Ed Clayton’s skiffle group for a time and then joined a band called Rory Storm and the Hurricanes.
It was in Hamburg, Germany, when Starr was performing with the Hurricanes that he became acquainted with the Beatles’ John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and their drummer Pete Best. The Beatles, who were relatively unknown at the time, called on Starr a short time afterward to join their group to replace Best. As Peter Brown and Steven Gaines said in The Love You Make, “[Starr] was an unlikely candidate to sign on as a character player in the greatest bit part ever written. He was … unassuming, with sad blue eyes… [but he] was fun-loving and uncomplicated and got along well with everyone in the group.” When Beatlemania exploded throughout the world in 1963, Starr, along with his Beatle bandmates, achieved instant fame; and for Starr, the sickly boy from the dockside Dingle tenement, the recognition brought particular gratification.
As drummer for the Beatles, Starr rarely took over the microphone, and he almost never sang in the background. His very deep singing voice was restricted by poor tone and by an extremely thick, Liverpudlian accent. Starr’s voice was heard nonetheless on a selected few of the early Beatles recordings, including “Boys,” “Honey Don’t,” “Matchbox,” and “Act Naturally.” In time, Beatles songwriters Lennon and McCartney composed and arranged certain pieces specifically as solos for Starr. He sang the title song in the Beatles’ cartoon film, Yellow Submarine, and Starr good-naturedly furnished a rendition of the homely Beatles ballad, “With A Little Help From My Friends” on the 1967 album Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Starr did not receive critical acclaim as a drummer, but his steady, driving beat earned him respect among fellow musicians. Starr also dabbled in composition, contributing his song, “Don’t Pass Me By” to the 1968 album, The Beatlesmore commonly referred to as The White Album.
In 1970 the Beatles disbanded, yet Starr rebounded quickly. He was already involved in a budding film career, and he took the opportunity to embark on a solo singing career as well. Starr’s acting skills impressed
Born Richard Starkey, Jr., July 7, 1940, in Liver pool, England; mother Elsie Gleave, bakery worker; father, Richard Starkey, Sr., bakery worker; married Maureen Cox, February 11, 1965; children: Zak, Jason, and daughter Lee, one granddaughter; married Barbara Bach, 1981.
Drummer with Ed Clayton Skiffle Group, 1959; Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, I960; Beatles, 1961-70; began solo career, 1970; formed All-Starr Band, 1990.
Addresses: Record company —Mercury Records, West Coast Office, 11150 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025.
the critics on a par with his vocal skills, but as with everything Starr attempted, he offered a certain soulful, child-like allure that could never be denied. His first solo film role (without the other Beatles) was in 1967’s Candy, and in 1969 he appeared in The Magic Christian. Starr’s other film credits include That’ll Be the Day in 1970 and Stardust in 1975. In 1981 he starred in Caveman, with actress Barbara Bach, whom he later married. He also dabbled in film direction with Born to Boogie, the story of T. Rex singer, Marc Bolan.
Starr’s first solo album, Sentimental Journey, was released in 1970, and as the name implies, it was a Tin Pan Alley collection. His next release was a country music album, Beaucoup of Blues. Starr also on John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band and with George Harrison on his solo album All Things Must Pass. Starr’s other solo ventures included a number of hit singles. He earned his first gold record for “It Don’t Come Easy,” which rose to number four on the charts. His singles “Photograph” and “You’re Sixteen” each reached the number one spot, and “Back Off Boogaloo” peaked at number nine. From time to time the other members of the Beatles joined Starr on his LP recordings. Starr established his own recording label, Ring O’ Records, in 1975.
In the late 1980s Starr formed his All-Starr band, a dynamic and versatile group. The All-Starr band—whose lineup rarely remained constant—has included Billy Preston and Dr. John, Peter Frampton, and assorted other musical celebrities. By 1998 the All-Starr band was in its fourth incarnation. Ringo’s All-Starrs have toured extensively and joined in the Jam Against Hunger organized by former Beach Boy Brian Wilson in 1995. Starr’s 1998 album, Vertical Man, featured, among others, Starr’s own son Zak, young chanteuse Alanis Morissette, and former Beatles George Harrison and Paul McCartney. Overall Starr’s record sales have exceeded 10 million worldwide from his first nine solo album releases.
Sentimental Journey, Apple, 1970.
Beaucoups of Blues, 1973.
Goodnight Vienna, 1975
Blast from Your Past, 1975.
Ringo’s Rotogravure, Atlantic, 1976.
Ring the Fourth, 1977.
Bad Boy, 1978.
Stop and Smell the Roses, Boardwalk, 1981.
Time Takes Time.
Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band, Rykodisc, 1990.
Vertical Man, Mercury Records, 1998.
Brown, Peter, and Steven Gaines, The Love You Make: An Insider’s Story of the Beatles, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, 1983.
Pareles, Jon, and Patricia Romanowski, eds., The Rolling Stone
Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, New York, 1983.
Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock, and Soul, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1974.
People, August 28, 1989.