Ringo Starr shining on

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Ringo Starr/Universal publicity photo

By Ken Sharp

Back in the early throes of “Beatlemania,” Ringo Starr was asked what he would do when the bubble burst. His answer: open a hairdressing salon. Well, decades later, the bubble still hasn’t burst and the world’s most famous rock ‘n’ roll drummer has no plans to slow down. In fact, the former Beatle, at 75, is busier than ever. He’s just completed a tour with his latest incarnation of the All-Starr Band, a troupe that includes Todd Rundgren, Toto’s Steve Lukather, Gregg Rolie of Santana/Journey fame and drummer Gregg Bissonette (David Lee Roth/ELO), with plans to hit the road again later this year. He was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist (fellow band mate Paul McCartney did the honors) and he’s just released a terrific new CD, “Postcards From Paradise” (reviewed on page 22), which finds the drumming legend working with the likes of Joe Walsh, Van Dyke Parks, Dave Stewart and, for the first time, his current All-Starr Band. And as if there’s not enough activity in Ringo world, slated for publication in the fall is a new book, “Photograph.” Previously available as a pricey limited edition of 2,500 copies, the book culls an extraordinary array of more than 250 previously unseen images drawn from Ringo’s personal collection — many taken by Ringo himself — alongside vintage ephemera spanning his entire career. Augmenting the spectacular visuals is revelatory commentary from Ringo, which serves in many ways as a mini-memoir lending an intimate snapshot of a life well lived.

Goldmine: On your new CD “Postcards from Paradise,” as with “Liverpool 8,” “The Other Side of Liverpool” and “In Liverpool,” the lead off track, “Rory and the Hurricanes,” continues with your series of song-autobiographies.

Ringo Starr: It’s absolutely one of those song biographies. It was written with Dave Stewart again. If you look back down of the tracks on my past few records, Dave and I call them “the Liverpool songs.” Those songs are like memories I have, and the song “Rory And The Hurricanes” is another member of that band. We clubbed up and bought us enough gas to get to London. With the lyrics, it’s literal, really. “We woke up early heading for the M1, 200 miles to London…” We did live on bread and jam. We did have butter for the first day but we ran out of that. (laughs) That’s all we had. We all slept on the floor. We went to this dance and no girl there would dance with any one of us because of our accent. There was such a divide then. We’ve all been turned down by record labels. Elvis was turned down and the Beatles were turned down by record labels. Someone at a label said, “What’s your name? … Beatles from Liverpool? They’ll never make it.” This was an executive with a record label. Shows you what he knew. (laughs) So anyway, here we are, and I’m still doing it.

GM: How did your apprenticeship in that band, performing shows in your hometown of Liverpool and in Hamburg, shape you as player, especially given your next musical adventure?

RS: I think it absolutely shaped me, playing all that time with Rory and the Hurricanes. It absolutely shaped me. We started in clubs. I had a Grammy Museum exhibit and I had found this letter, which Rory had posted me. He said, “We got a gig Thursday (laughs). I’ll bring your cymbals and your money” – ‘cause he was the manager of the band as well. But that’s how it used to be. We played a lot in that band. We played six days a week at Butlins, and that was just great. We sometimes played in the afternoon, too. It was three months in summer camp. The people who came see us play would change. It used to be certain places in England where everybody would go on holiday those weeks and all factories closed down for those two weeks in July. Another city, all factories would close down in August or in-between, so the shift of people coming to see us play was great. 

GM: Growing up, what were the albums and singles you wore out the most?

RS: You know, as a kid I didn’t really wear out any records. I did buy The Four Aces “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing.” I mean, that’s a memory I have of early days. But then when rock ‘n’ roll came in, I’d play records by Little Richard. But I had country music as well, people like Patsy Cline, Ernest Tubb, and Kitty West was my heroine. I loved all that old school stuff. I had Willie Nelson records where he was wearing a suit in the late ‘60s. You know he wasn’t always looking like a hippie. (laughs) So I played a lot of that, and blues. At 19 years of age, I wanted to emigrate to Houston to be with Lightnin’ Hopkins, and I had a list of factories I could go to [to work].

GM: When do you feel you came into your own as a songwriter?

RS: Well, you know it was very difficult at the beginning for me as a writer because we did have Lennon and McCartney. I used to write these songs and they would roll on the floor laughing because I’d just rewritten someone else’s song and I hadn’t realized it. Then you have a case of today where some guy (Sam Smith) has rewritten Tom Petty’s melody (“I Won’t Back Down.”) (laughs) Finding my way as a songwriter has been a long process, really. But I’d say in the last 20 years I’ve become really comfortable with writing. You know, I wrote “It Don’t Come Easy” and then I wrote “Photograph” and “Back Off Boogaloo,” but that was over a five-year period. There wasn’t a lot in-between. Even on the Ringo album I was doing other people’s songs and then some I did with Vini (Poncia). I loved that way of writing with a partner; that’s the way I like to write. You know, I’ve written some songs on my own, but mainly it’s always a collaboration. 

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GM: How about as a singer, when did you start to feel comfortable with you voice?

RS: Well, you know, I have two thoughts about that. With Rory, I felt my voice was more rock ‘n’ roll and then those damn Beatles held me back. (laughs) They gave me that “Yellow Submarine” and that “With a Little Help from My Friends” stuff (laughs) but I wanted to rock!

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Ringo Starr concert photo by Scott Ritchie

GM: Being a drummer, do you think as a writer your songs come out differently and are tinged with that percussive understanding of a rhythmic aesthetic?

RS: I don’t know, I can’t really answer that because that’s me; that’s what I do. I don’t really think, “Let me sing that fill.” (laughs)

GM: “Back Off Boogaloo” sounds like a song written by a drummer.

RS: Well, yeah, “Back off Boogaloo” is an incredible example of how accidents are sometimes fabulous when coming up with a song. You see, George (Harrison) wanted me to play that pattern on the bass drum but the problem is I’m not that efficient as a drummer. I can’t go (imitates a beat) and play regular. So I started doing it on the snare and it worked a treat. You know, it was just out of the blue.

GM: Speaking of drumming, you’ve always cited “Rain” as a career highlight on the skins.

RS: It’s not my best playing; it’s just different. I played “Rain” and I’ve never played like it since or before it. It’s very busy for me. (sings “When the rain comes…” and imitates drum fills) I always tend to take the fill half-time whereas with that song it was full-on (smacks his hands) fast! If anyone asks me about my strangest drumming, it’s “Rain.” I don’t think it’s the best I ever played and I don’t think it’s the most inventive I’ve ever played but it’s certainly different than 99 percent of everything else I’ve played.

GM: When you dip into Mark Lewisohn’s “Complete Beatles Recording Sessions” book, he notes that you never made a mistake.

RS: Well, there are some tracks where I made mistakes but I never stopped the track. I’ve always believed, it’s not that I didn’t make mistakes but you’ve never heard it. I have to do that now with musicians and they say, “We should have stopped there” and I didn’t stop and I said, “Well, we didn’t stop. It’s not a mistake.” I have a poster in my studio that says, “We don’t make demos and we don’t make mistakes.” There’s no set rule for where a track should go. We may have rehearsed it this way but, hey, there’s another way.

GM: For your solo records in the ‘70s, you often recorded with a second drummer, often Jim Keltner. Why?

RS: That started by accident because of the “Bangladesh” concert, which we played for George. And Jim (Keltner) was on it also. That was the first time I played with two drummers and I just loved it so much. Then we got to do the Ringo album and the “Goodnight Vienna” album. And also when we got to New York to do the album, “Ringo the 4th” that Arif (Mardin) produced, suddenly we had Steve Gadd around. I think a bit of that was a union situation as well in those days. You can sing because no one can do that for you but I think it was something about taking the job away from an American musician.

GM: Your drum work was not only tight but could be very adventurous. The ending of “Strawberry Fields Forever” showcases some wild, off-the-wall, tribal drumming. Was that work you enjoyed as well?

RS: You know, what you’re talking about just happens. There was no plan for that. I can play basic patterns and the freedom is the fills. To move it to where you can put it in a different space as a drummer, especially with The Beatles, only came at the end because the songs were so set up that there was two verses, a chorus, a verse, a middle eight and a chorus and something like that. Then at the end we’d all be allowed to blow our tops, which we did. And we still did that under three minutes. (laughs)

GM: You truly blossomed as a drummer on “Revolver.” Did the vast improvement in sound inspire you?

RS: Yeah. Also, I think we decided we could finally hear the bass drum on our records. If you listen to the early ones there’s no sign of the bass drum, just like the snare and cymbals. So the recordings were getting better and you would play differently because you could hear it.

GM: On the new CD, you’ve recorded and written a few tracks with members of your current All-Starr Band and one joint group composition, “Island in the Sun,” which sports a contagious tropical reggae groove.

RS: Yeah, “Island in the Sun.” Individually, I also worked with Steve Lukather and Richard Marx from another All-Starr band and Todd Rundgren. But with “Island in the Sun,” this is the first time in 25 years that the All-Starrs wrote a song together. I have tried for 25 years; it’s been a goal of mine to get the band to write and to record. But it never worked, never worked. With this band we were doing a sound check and Gregg Rolie started playing a cool piece, and we’re all jammers and we know how to jam. So we sort of went with that during the sound check and then we improved on it. Lukather came up with a guitar part and Todd played great rhythm and Richard Page, of course. People were shouting lines and bits of melody. Anyway, after four sound checks we had something. We were in Biloxi (Mississippi) and I remember it so well because this was the first time it ever happened. I called everyone down to my room and said, “Let’s write this song!” and we did. Richard Page did a couple of verses, Todd did a verse, I did a verse and I got lucky and got the title. We can all relate looking around for that island in the sun. The beat was vaguely reggae. Because it was reggae, we got into this deep thinking and came up with “Island in the Sun.” (laughs)

GM: You co-wrote “Postcards from Paradise” with fellow All-Starr Band member Todd Rundgren. 

RS: Let me tell you this; I like postcards and I liked “Postcards from the Boys” (Ringo’s book, which featured his collection of postcards that John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison sent him through the years). But Todd Rundgren actually named this track because we wrote it together and he called it “Postcards from Paradise.” Everybody keeps saying to me, “What is it about you and postcards, Ringo? What’s going on?” (laughs)

The current All-Starr band lineup (L to R): Warren Ham, Richard Page, Todd Rundgren, Ringo Starr,  Steve Lukather, Gregg Rolie and Gregg Bissonette. © Rob Shanahan

The current All-Starr band lineup (L to R): Warren Ham, Richard Page, Todd Rundgren, Ringo Starr, Steve Lukather, Gregg Rolie and Gregg Bissonette. © Rob Shanahan

GM: “Not Looking Back,” a co-write with one-time All-Starr Band member Richard Marx, is a beautiful song. In the song, you sing, “I’m looking forward, not looking back.” Is that a lyrical sentiment you hold true to in your life?

RS: It applies to how I look at the world and applies to my life now. I am looking forward and though I do look back I don’t live in the past. Richard and I wrote two songs together, “Not Looking Back” and “Right Side Of The Road.” My start was walking on the right side of the wrong side of the road but then you’re walking on the right side and on the right side of the road, so it was an expression of joy. Richard had the start of “Not Looking Back.” For him it was more of a separation song and then we stared writing it. It may have gone somewhere else if it was his record, but it was my record and I wanted it to be more positive, that we’re still here and we’re looking forward. We’re not looking back. Barbara and I had been through 35 years of life together and we’re looking forward still.

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GM: One of your most delightful and underrated solo tracks is the B-side “Snookeroo,” which to my ears could have been a smash single.

RS: Yeah, that’s a good one. That was written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin. It was written for me, but you’d have to ask them if it was written about me. (laughs) I knew all of these people and said, “I’m making a record, have you got a song?” Bernie was great with words and Elton is great with music and arrangements. (sings) “Snookeroo, snookeroo…”  It would have been a good version if he had done it as well.

GM: I disagree, your version is really good.

RS: Yeah, I did do a great version but the song was strong enough that he should have done it, too. He should do it now (laughs) ‘cause he’s struggling, you know. Elton John is struggling. (laughs)

GM: Fifty years ago, The Beatles met Elvis in 1965. There’s talk that you jammed with him.

RS: We didn’t jam with Elvis. I don’t care who says it. The big memory was we walked in and Elvis was on the settee watching TV and he had a TV commander (remote), and we were all like, “Wow!” For us, we were fans of Elvis. When he came in he was just incredible. For me, I was used to seeing people like Bill Haley and a lot of other guys and they all seemed like your dad. And Elvis, for me, as the first one who wasn’t like my dad. Those are the big memories. We didn’t jam and we didn’t really play American football, although he and his guys did; we didn’t know how to play that.

GM: Moving into the “Photograph” book, you’ve mentioned in the past that you had little interest in an autobiography, as most people want to focus on the Beatles years, which was just a small part of your life. However, looking at “Photograph” and reading your wonderful commentary, it really feels like this is your official autobiography in words and photographs.

RS: Well, that’s what I’ve come to believe. I’ve been asked to do the autobiography, but I have no real interest and I haven’t had an interest in doing that for 20 years now. But I started looking back on my life, on the records I’ve been making and there’s always a song about Liverpool. So I thought I’ll do it on record; they were like three or four-minute autobiographies and then last year when we started looking at what I have and we started archiving. Surprise surprise, I did find all these old photographs and I also found two books of negatives, which just blew me away. So I thought I’m gonna do a book this way. I’ll put a selection of the photographs from when I was 1 year old, which is the first picture in the book up through my early days growing up in Liverpool and through the Beatles and my solo career, all the way up to the All-Starr Band. That’s a good clear amount of time that we can cover properly.

GM: The photos and accompanying text really evoke a sense of time and place.

RS: Oh yeah. I have a million more photos but then it makes the book too cluttered. It wasn’t the easiest thing to go, “No, not that one” (laughs) or “I’ll keep that one.” But you have to watch when you’re doing that so you don’t get attached to something that only means something to you.

GM: There are wonderful photos along with heartfelt memories of your mother Elsie and your stepfather Harry. From what I can gather, music was a big part of your household, and the parties they threw helped instill that great love of the classics. What kind of music were you hearing in the household?

RS: It came from my step-dad because he loved all the big bands. He taught me all about the big bands — Billy Daniels, Billy Eckstine … all the Billys we used to laugh about. He was a really good singer. At parties in Liverpool everybody has to sing. He did one incredible thing that I have also passed on to my children. When I was playing the music I was playing he would never say, “Oh that crap!” He’d always say, “Oh that’s fine but have you heard this?” And it would be Sarah Vaughn or Ella Fitzgerald or whoever, but he did it in such an incredible way that I thought I’d do the same thing when my kids were growing up. They were playing what they were playing and I’d say, “Oh, but have you heard this?” (laughs) So I’m passing that experience on to my kids. I don’t know if they’re doing it with their kids, but I did it because of Harry. He loved Glenn Miller, just all big band stuff and great singers. He loved singers.

GM: Do you think that influenced the direction of your first solo album, “Sentimental Journey,” where you recorded standards?

RS: Oh definitely. They say about me as a drummer that I swing no matter what. It’s always got an edge of swing to it, even if it’s straight rock ‘n’ roll, and I think I got that from him.

GM: As a kid, you were in the hospital for two extended periods, often over a year. There are photos of you in your hospital room in the new book. How did all that time spent away from your family and being stuck inside a hospital affect your outlook on life?

RS: I think that’s really hard to tell. How can you measure it? I mean, how were you affected by something that happened to you when you were seven years old? I can’t say that it made me like that. The one thing that it did make me realize is I never want to go back into hospital. (laughs) But I think it must have had some affect on me. You can’t sit in a hospital bed for two years of your life and not be affected by that experience. It has to do something to you. I’m not saying it was a bad thing or a good thing, but it must have had an affect on me in some way.

GM: I guess the one good thing that came out of spending all that time in the hospital is that’s where you first became interested in the drums on a very primitive level.

RS: Very primitive, yeah. I was a 13–year-old boy in bed and played a 7-inch snare drum. You never know when the ball starts rolling for some people, but I know exactly where my love of drums started and that was in the hospital.

GM: You were playing with others in the hospital?

RS: Don’t forget, we were in the ward and they would send people in to keep us busy. I also learned how to knit in hospital because that was sort of a thing you could do in bed.

GM: Why did you pick drums over guitar or bass? I know you also played piano early on.

RS: We always had a piano in the family, not actually in our house but in our family. It was of no interest to me. And my grandparent’s banjo and mandolin was of no interest to me. And they gave me those instruments. I might have just thrown them into the fire. For some reason, from the age of 13, I only wanted to be a drummer. It was one of those things and guess what? It happened.

GM: There’s a very interesting batch of photos in the book of you on an American army base in Fontenet, France, where you and Rory & the Hurricanes played for a period of time. Having almost emigrated to Houston and having a love of all things America, recount that experience.

RS: As for playing on the U.S. Army base, we had to bring a girl singer along as well — there’s a photo of her in the book, but I can’t think of her name anymore. The soldiers like to listen to guys play but they really just want to look at the chicks. (laughs)

GM: Were you able to get your fill of American culture from the American soldiers?

RS: There were actually a lot of good musicians on the U.S. bases, and the food was really cheap. We weren’t being paid a lot of money but we wanted to play, so that was what it was all about back then. So it was a great experience. One of the most incredible moments happened when we were at that base; it was the time I saw my first Oldsmobile, a 1960 Oldsmobile that was bigger than our house! (laughs) That’s how it was.

ringo-photographGM: There are also extraordinary photos of George (Harrison) in the book, especially the shot you took of him on a boat where he has this huge smile that could light up the room.

RS: Isn’t that a great smile? George’s wife, Olivia, saw that and she said, “I haven’t seen that photo!” And we all agreed it was one of those great sh*t-eating smiles. If you look at the photos in the book, why I’ve captured something like that is because I was in the band. It wasn’t somebody being intrusive from the press; we were just hanging out, so everyone was up for it.

GM: George was the one who convinced Paul and John they needed to get you in The Beatles. Because of him being an early champion of yours, was your relationship with George different than, say, yours with John and Paul?

RS: Yeah, of course. We used to always say, “George took a punch for me.” He actually had a fight in The Cavern over me.

GM: That’s a real friend.

RS: Yeah, but as it went on we all became very good friends. We were  interchangeable. I was starting to tell someone that the other day; there are pictures in the book of John and I on holiday, of course, with Cynthia (Lennon) and Maureen (Starkey), and then I’d go on holiday with Paul. We’d all go on holiday but usually two of us would go together. It’s very interesting and one of those wacky things. It really didn’t matter which one it was that I went on holiday with; it was like, “Where are you going, OK, I’ll come along” or “Where am I going, OK, I’ll come with you.” That’s how it was. And that picture you mentioned liking of George, I’d rented that boat in Cannes. He decided that he wanted to come on holiday, so I said, “OK, come on down.”

857_Cover.inddGM: Usually the images you see of The Beatles manager Brian Epstein are very staid, but in the book there’s a remarkable photo of Brian Epstein wearing a Beatles wig and looking downright gleeful.

RS: I know, isn’t that great? (laughs) I mean, I got lucky in a lot of those shots where people just gave me that moment like Brian did in the one where he’s wearing the Beatles wig. I was talking to Henry Diltz, who is a great photographer, about how some of the photos I took aren’t so in focus but it didn’t matter. We got the moment, and that’s what’s important. You need to catch the moment; it doesn’t matter if it’s not as clear as people like photos to be today.

GM: What is the Beatles musical legacy?

RS: I’m really proud of the music that we made, and it took a while but we were very serious players and the results are the music is still being played today – and that’s what’s great. Bob Santelli talked about the very young grandfathers at 65 who liked the Beatles and their kids. (laughs) But it’s still going on and how great is that? The memories I have of those days — I’d like to say every day was great, but it wasn’t. But overall the emotions were great. We worked hard and we only wanted to be musicians. We didn’t sort of sit around and say, “Let’s be famous.” We said, “Let’s be musicians” and you all know, unless you’re from another planet, The Beatles became very famous. That was part of it, but the music is the most important thing we did.

GM: Lastly, in the early ‘60s you famously said once the “bubble burst” you’d open a hairdressing salon. Well, the bubble didn’t burst. When did you realize you would never need that as a fall back job?

RS: I always felt deep in my soul even if what happened with me with the Beatles didn’t happen with this explosion and living like we are, I’d have been still playing in clubs. I still would have been playing whether I made it or not ‘cause I love to play. But who knows? It’s easy to think that’s what I’d be doing but you just don’t know. 

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