BY WAYNE BLANCHARD
He may have gone on to become the purveyor of peace, love and a whole lot of memorable drumming, but for a while back in the ’50s it looked like little Richard Starkey was destined for nothing more than the life of a fitter in a rather sodden and rain soaked post-war Liverpool. Plagued by ill health and living in the Dingle, one of the roughest areas of the city, he was locked into a scene that promised little more than a factory job to see him through to the grave. “We’ve always just been ordinary, poor working-class,” he once said. And he was, like his mates, living the life he was expected to live, and not at all unhappy with his lot. After all, it was the British way.
The post-war industrial gloom and rough-and-tough docklands life of Liverpool was hard. But one great thing about the not-always-so-great Britain of that era was that everyone had a radio. Music — especially homegrown skiffle, then American rock and roll — hooked Richie, and soon he was playing washboard and other percussive odds ‘n’ sods in The Eddie Clayton Skiffle. Next was the hip and happening Rory Storm & The Hurricanes. Richie didn’t get his first kit — a bass drum, snare, and crude cymbal — until he was 18, so he was a very late starter. And in those days there were no drum books, DVDs or YouTube, so for young Richie Starkey it was a matter of learning from hearing the radio, records, and bands in the clubs.
How did he fare? Not bad at all. Now let’s look at some reasons to love the man who is responsible for so many of us picking up a pair of sticks, growing our hair, and getting our Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs out.
1. HE’S GOT THE BEST NAME
Elvis and Madonna did it, but how many drummers achieve single-name status? Ginger? Mitch? Buddy? Carmine? No, though close. Throw those names to the public and you take your chances. But everyone knows Ringo. The name happened when a growing number of rings on his fingers earned him the nickname “Rings,” which evolved into Ringo. And to fit the “Ringo Starrtime” drum solo segment in Rory Storm’s performances his Starkey surname was abbreviated to Starr. So, Ringo Starr: A winner of a name for someone then netting £16 per week playing a Butlins Holiday Camp.
2. HE’S COOL
Let’s face it; right from the start, even before the Beatles, Ringo was cool. Those pics of him with Rory Storm, where he’s got the Teddy Boy hairstyle, suite and tie, multiple rings, and beard reveal someone doing his very own thing. And though originally concerned about fitting in with the other three Beatles, he quickly created his own space by simply being himself in an otherwise tumultuous life of one-nighters around the UK and rather depraved residencies in Hamburg. Yes, Ringo was up for the game. Shave the beard? No problem. Change the hairstyle for the Beatle look? No problem. He’s always been very real. And though he shuns the term “legend,” all indicators suggest he’s comfortable cozying up to “cool.”
3. HE’S NOT THE BEST
“Ringo? He’s not even the best drummer in the Beatles.” John Lennon’s cheeky comment raised a laugh (was it a pun about the band’s former drummer Pete Best?), but it didn’t detract from the reality that many people — typically those who knew nothing about drumming or, conversely, felt they knew more than they actually did — really didn’t quite get Ringo. When the likes of jazz/rock/fusion great Steve Smith rave about Ringo crafting his drumming to be a crucial element of the songwriting, he’s pointing to the Beatles’ legacy as proof that Ringo did a supremely fine job of helping make those songs what they became. The Beatle also gave wannabe drummers an accessible style of drumming that was relatively easy to emulate. Or so we all thought!
So while he may not be the “best” drummer, he is the best Ringo in the world. And that’s what matters most.
3. HE’S GOT PERSPECTIVE
Ringo may have been thrilled to take Brian Epstein’s call at the Butlins Holiday Camp where he was playing with Rory Storm, but having gotten to know John, Paul, and George when in Hamburg and Liverpool, the offer of the Beatles gig maybe wasn’t such a surprise. Some folk said he was the lucky one; others felt The Beatles were the winners. John Lennon said people forgot that Ringo was a star before he joined the band. “I was,” said Ringo. “Within Liverpool I was a lot more well known than them. Rory and The Hurricanes were big shots in the city. They were lucky to get me. It wasn’t just that I was a big shot; I was a cool drummer.” When he walked out on the lads while recording “The White Album” it’s very possible he was simply putting things in perspective — for them. After all, he was Ringo. And the rest of the band had obviously forgotten Lennon’s comment (above). Perspective regained, he returned.
4. HE’S GOT HIS OWN SOUND
In addition to the playing there was also “that” sound. From the signature tom intro to “She Loves You,” to the sloshing hi-hat and full-on washy ride so evident at the band’s outset, Ringo had his own thing going on. It was somewhat raw on Meet The Beatles and With The Beatles, but by the time of A Hard Day’s Night, Beatles For Sale, and Help, the arrangement and production brought him up in the mix.
The constant stream of singles from the band tended to serve notice of directional and sonic change, with “Paperback Writer”/’Rain’ and “Day Tripper,” with its psych-like 12-bar build-up, revealing Ringo’s ability to play parts and create sounds that matched the ever-progressing music. His displaced snare/tom/floor tom double-stops in “Ticket To Ride” are clever, but the drumming for “Rain” defined Ringo’s real sound texturally and technically, with single-stroke rolls punctuating throughout, McCartney’s zooming bass lines, and a swathe of vocal harmony it was the teaser for Revolver, the album that would see Ringo’s sound flip from the kick/snare punch of “Taxman” to the psychedelic sonic sea of “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Of course seeing tea towels draped over his drums was a major reveal on just how that new Ringo sound was achieved.
5. HE PLAYS LIKE RINGO
Which is why we’re discussing Mr. Starr in the first place. Yet despite playing some of the headiest rock and roll, most creative rhythmic parts, and melodic fills, Ringo would be the first to admit he’s never been a technical player. With Rory Storm his fills were furiously fast single-strokes that tended to accelerate more than a few BPMs per bar. His playing improved when he joined the Beatles, who liked that he could mimic Milt Turner’s drumming on Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say?” (put to good use on “I Feel Fine”). Yet in the 50-plus years since first topping the charts, Ringo has consistently maintained and cultivated — rather than changed — his drumming style. There was no latching onto linear independence, fill-loaded fusion … whatever was hip and might make him more credible. No, Ringo remained Ringo. It’s like he simply avoided everything around him, opting instead to stick with simply doing what he does best. Today he still plays like that Beatle guy wearing the red mac up on the rooftop of Apple building. And that’s a very good thing.
6. HE PLAYED THAT KIT
Before that Ludwig Downbeat kit with Black Oyster Marine Pearl wrap appeared with The Beatles, did anyone outside of rabid drum fans ever notice a band’s drums?
Ringo got this kit after he and manager Brian Epstein went shopping for a new black kit in Drum City, down London’s Shaftesbury Avenue. He picked out a color sample and requested it be in the wrap. When told it was for Ludwig drums, that’s what he ordered.
The famous drop-T Beatles logo on the front head was an off-the-cuff design by shop owner (later legendary industry figure) Ivor Arbiter, who put the focus on the “B” and the “T” to highlight “BeaT,” as The Beatles were, indeed, a beat group. Local sign painter Eddie Stokes did the artwork, all of which set Epstein back a total of £5!
The drums were delivered to the Beatles on the day they made their first headline appearance on top TV show Thank Your Lucky Stars in Birmingham. Ringo played his Premier kit for studio rehearsals in the afternoon, then the Ludwigs in the evening. Though he went through six kits — two Premier, four Ludwig, including his blonde 5-piece — the original Ludwig “Downbeat” kit continues to be the focus of drummer lust 50 years on from its initial appearance.
7. HE PLAYS THE SONG
There was no denying The Beatles’ music sounded great; but it also felt really fine. Everything, including drumbeats and fills, was custom-fit yet organic. Even with rhythmically complicated or orchestrated songs like, say, “A Day In The Life,” “Yer Blues,” “Strawberry Fields,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” or “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” — each with nuances specific to the writer (for these, John Lennon) — the drum parts were uniquely creative and highly specific to the composition.
For pop music this was a newly innovative approach. It was no longer just about the beat; it was about space, time, and sound enhancing the context. And therein was one of Ringo’s greatest strengths: He was flexible, adaptable, and versatile. He orchestrated parts (at times likely with input from the band and producer George Martin), devising rhythms and fills for specific sections of each song. An intro fill, a rollicking groove, a roll into the bridge, a roaring ride for the chorus … each fit the flow of the music. Indeed anything the other three threw at him — ’50s rock and roll, psychedelia, soul, country, lush ballads, the mood morphing on Sgt. Peppers, or the diversity of “The White Album” — prompted drum parts that not only served their timekeeping role, but further defined the tunes. If you remember “Penny Lane” then you’ll recognize that he made his mark within the context of the group effort, like a piece in a puzzle that was surprisingly complex for all its apparent simplicity.
To underline where this approach fits, consider a few others renowned for delivering on the same level: session great Hal Blaine (The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”) and the legendary Steve Gadd (Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover”). Rick Marotta (Steely Dan’s “Peg”) is another. So is Jim Keltner (Traveling Wilburys), who three of the four Beatles have used on their solo albums, Ringo included. Like Keltner and the others, Ringo plays the tunes. They just happen to do so on their drums.
8. HE CAN DANCE
Don’t laugh. Most drummers can’t dance. As seen in the Beatles’ movie A Hard Day’s Night, Ringo can dance. He may have been late to drumming, but the 5’6″ lad could move to the music. And like Steve Gadd and Rick Marotta, he studied dancing, though most of his real learning was at local clubs. Possibly all that twisting and jiving made him the natural he was when it came to drumming. After all, just a few years after getting his first kit he was a Beatle sitting in Abbey Road Studios with producer George Martin. Mind, Martin was not impressed, opting to use session player Andy White for the band’s debut single “Love Me Do.” But once White’s version was played back it was decided Ringo had done a credible job after all. (Both versions were released, the latter with Ringo playing tambourine). So once again Ringo was up to par, with thanks likely to the fact that his dancing inspired his feel for the tune.
9. HE’S CREATIVE
Ringo really rocked out on those early Beatles albums. “She Loves You,” “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” “Mr. Postman,” “Please Please Me,” and “Twist And Shout” revealed a rhythm section that rocked far better and harder than most. True, much of it was basic 2-and-4, based on McCartney’s ’50s-inspired bass playing, but as Deep Purple’s Ian Paice said, “Give a two-to-the-bar to most drummers and bass players and it comes out country. Give it to Paul [and Ringo] and it comes out rock and roll.” While early tunes didn’t call for much more than basic beats, once A Hard Days’ Night and Help arrived there was an increasing need for Ringo to devise unique drum parts. One assumes that McCartney, who was always quick to get on the drums whenever Ringo left them vacant, inspired what he played for the likes of “Ticket To Ride.” Still, Ringo played it and what a cool part it is. How many other hit records have you heard where the drums are as much riff as they are rhythm? “Tomorrow Never Knows” is one. So is “In My Life.” Cleverly creative stuff, for sure.
10. HE’S GOT FEEL
Ultimately it’s not just about what Ringo plays, it’s how he plays it. Let’s face it, when he was onstage with the likes of Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, and The Band for The Last Waltz, he wasn’t there because he was a former Beatle. Have a look at the film — when he’s grooving there is a tangible similarity between him and Levon Helm. Sure, Helm’s Dixie-style swing may be more funky and pronounced like, say, some French Quarter bar band beater in New Orleans, but Ringo’s fatback could place him in Alabama’s Muscle Shoals Studios or even Sun Studios in Memphis.
George Martin noted that, “Even though he couldn’t do a roll to save his life, Ringo’s got tremendous feel. He always helped us hit the right tempo for a song and gave it that support, that solid backbeat.” Drummers took note, though most failed to catch the nuances of Ringo’s style because he’s a left-handed player on a right-handed kit, so how he played parts was often tricky to decipher. Phil Collins and Dave Grohl got it, though for many the real value of Ringo’s drumming remains elusive.
Someone who does get it is also closest to it all. When asked if he’s learning anything from Ringo, Gregg Bissonette, who shares the drumming with Ringo in his All Starr Band responded with, “Oh yeah! Every day.” One of the world’s great drummers, Bissonette can nail virtually anything. But that Ringo thing isn’t quite so easy. Because for a player as adept at Bissonette to do Ringo means stepping way, way back and seeing the big picture of the music, not the microcosm that is the technique. Steve Jordan is another who eased back to get simple with John Mayer and Eric Clapton at their most soulful. Though one doesn’t hear it applied to Ringo, “soulful” could also be applied to his feel. After all, those early R&B tracks he played, like “You Really Got A Hold On Me” and “Anna’ surely taught him something about soulfulness.
11. HE LIKES IT SIMPLE
Drummers may not be so keen, but musicians in most bands appreciate simplicity from the player on the kit. “Just play the groove and do a couple fills … nothing too complicated,” is a common directive. But simple is easier said than done.
After the rhythmic flurries of Ginger Baker in Cream and Mitch Mitchell dishing out clusters of rolls with Hendrix, it took John Bonham’s debut with Led Zeppelin to proclaim the power that creative simplicity can exert over a song. That’s something Ringo had been doing all along: working his kit with the aim of making every drum, every stroke, every idea serve the song in its biggest possible way. Imagine Ringo pumping out “How Many More Times” with McCartney riffing on his Höfner, “Helter Skelter”-style. He would definitely have his groove on. And it would be powered by simplicity, not bigger, heavier, and louder, which is something too many drummers, unfortunately, don’t quite grasp.
12. HE’S DOES THAT “LIVERPOOL SHUFFLE”
Ah yes, what about Ringo’s sweeping hi-hat shuffle? Falling somewhere between straight-up eighths and swing, it is one of his most iconic moves, yet is criminally overlooked by so many drummers attempting to emulate Ringo’s style. Sorry kids, but having the kit and all those beats and fills together may be great, but overall it isn’t happening until you nail that swinging hi-hat technique. Have a look back at that early Beatles footage and take a good look at what Ringo was doing. It’s simple yet stunning. And it swings, which is something not enough rock drummers can do.
13. HE’S STILL DOING IT
At 73, Ringo is still doing it. You’ve got to respect that. Though life beyond The Beatles has been dramatically different, today he is who he wants to be: Ringo. The Ringo. And fronting his own Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band, he tours with an evolving line-up of legends whose legacies rival his own. Todd Rundgren, Mark Farner, Richard Page, Jack Bruce, Gary Wright, Steve Lukather, Rod Argent, Edgar Winter, and many others get to do their greatest hits with Ringo drumming along with Bissonette. For him The Beatles was a long, long time ago. He got over it all and moved on. You’ve got to respect him for that too.
14. HE’S RINGO
He was a Beatle. He played great drums on some great songs. And damn, he is, was, and always will be Fab.
Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Drum Magazine
Photo credits: Solo shots of Ringo by Jean Fortunet. Photo of Ringo’s kit by doryfour.