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Ringo Starr at 80: Peers, Colleagues and Musician Friends Toast the Legendary Beatles Drummer for His Birthday
While there are many acclaimed technical drummers in commercial rock music, Neil Peart of Rush, Stewart Copeland of The Police to name a few, Ringo Starr’s exceptional work as a drummer continues to elicit widespread praise from fellow musicians and the public at large.
A master timekeeper, Ringo’s fine tuned intuitive style of playing for the song, whether executing as he’s described the “funny fills” in “Rain,” the exquisite “ less is more” drumming in “A Day In The Life,” the primal psych rock of “Tomorrow Never Knows” and sheer propulsive bliss of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You,” all demonstrate his creativity and inspired work behind the kit.
Below, enjoy reflections about Ringo culled from interviews with a variety of folks associated with him over the years, including archival interviews with famed Beatles producer George Martin, engineer Geoff Emerick, members of Ringo’s All-Starr Band and contemporary musicians, to wax poetic about the inestimable gifts of the artist formerly known as Richard Starkey.
The Inner Circle
George Martin (Beatles producer): As a drummer, Ringo is unique. He’s not a great technical drummer if you measure him against someone like Steve Gadd or Jeff Porcaro, he wouldn’t be able to play like that. But he has a unique sound.
When you hear Ringo, you know it’s Ringo, there’s no one else.
He contributed an enormous amount to The Beatles’ sound with his distinctive-sounding drums. Apart from his drumming he would be the catalyst. His opinions counted. If John was doing something a bit dubious and Ringo would say, “That’s crap, John”, John would take it out. He wouldn’t get angry, he would accept it.
Geoff Emerick (Beatles engineer): Ringo was a very creative drummer. He used to play his heart out. It wasn’t a question of just playing loud. Ringo’s energy hitting the end of those drum sticks was just enormous. I always remember asking Ringo, “Can you hit the snare harder, can you hit it harder?” he’d say, “If I hit it any harder it’s gonna break.”
He couldn’t hit it any harder. Later on when we spent all that time doing those rhythm tracks, he’d thrash away for hours. I remember on “Tomorrow Never Knows” when Ringo’s drum sound started to emerge and he was well over the moon because of what the drums were beginning to sound like.
ALL-STARR BAND MEMBERS
Rod Argent (The Zombies): I do think Ringo has always been a very special musician and drummer. I was absolutely knocked out with his approach to songs from the moment I first heard him way back in ‘62-‘63. And the energy generated from the drums that you get from those early Beatles clips — it had to be seen and heard to be believed! Also the way he would often construct inventive patterns for verses on songs for a start — such as “Ticket To Ride”, or “Not A Second Time” was so innovative in rock ’n roll. It definitely led me to try a similar approach on the first hit song I wrote, “She’s Not There.”
He’s always had a unique feel and groove, which he always maintains comes from him being innately left-handed on a right-handed kit, sounds like no-one else — intensely and intuitively musical; and it was not only an honor but a joy to be playing with him on the 2006 All-Starr tour!
Eric Carmen: It was a great experience touring with RIngo. Ringo was going out again and David Spero had managed Joe Walsh and he was a member of a couple of Ringo’s previous bands.
David asked me if I’d be interested in doing that. I said, “How can you say no to playing with a Beatle?”
You think back to The Ed Sullivan Show when you saw them for the first time and there’s Ringo. I think he’s a great drummer. He was probably the single most important influential drummer in my thinking about rock and roll. The chance to get on stage with him and play some of his songs and some Beatles songs with a Beatle is thrilling. The thought of playing “All By Myself” and looking over my shoulder seeing Ringo do the drum fill (imitates drum fill) (laughs) was mind boggling.
In 1968 when I was at Brush High School playing in the band “Sounds Of Silence,” and listening to the Beatles records that I played over and over again trying to find out how they made this magical thing happen, some years down the road I’d be standing on a stage playing with Ringo Starr, “You’re joking” (laughs).
Todd Rundgren: There’s a little bit of a shuffle or something in everything Ringo does. He’s got this other feel going on over top of it and also the fact that when you hear the drum arrangements he’s come up with on records often times he can slip in and out of various feels with a relative degree of ease. He can go from a shuffle feel to a straight eight feel without having to think about it.
For instance, the drum part on “Rain,” at the time people had a hard time figuring out how do you do that. How do you play this combination of solid rhythm and at the same time over this bizarre syncopation going through it? With his playing on “Rain” in that sense he characterized the entire song. Playing with him in various All-Starr Band incarnations has been fun.
Ringo is a simple, humble guy and doesn’t have a lot of attitude about it. He’s easy to get along with.
Gregg Rolie: When I first came into rehearsals, Ringo came in and he was very congenial; that’s him, he’s a joy to work with. He came in and said, “It’s gonna take a couple of days for us to get used to each other, we’ll play and here we go.” He made it so simple. I didn’t know what to expect but he’s just like you expect him to be. It was a no-brainer. Everybody did their homework and came in wanting to play and it’s turned out to be a great band. Ringo loves it too; I’m blown away playing with him.
John Waite: Being a part of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band was a surreal and strange experience. I remember looking over at Ringo when we were playing this amphitheater, which was absolutely packed, and he hit this note and I hit the note at the same time and sank down to a low “E” and he played this fill. We just hit it together and I looked over at him and he was just grinning at me. (laughs) It was one of those great moments. It was such a fun thing to do. It was nerve-wracking playing bass in Ringo’s band because you’re not just playing his songs; you’re playing everybody else’s songs as well. Also, the thing is Ringo used to play with Paul McCartney and that’s quite a lot to live up to.
Steve Lukather: First off, getting a call to work with Ringo was such a kick, I’ve had the chance to work with Paul (McCartney) and George (Harrison) and I became friends. But I really wanted to do this gig and be a member of the All-Starr Band because I’ve always heard about it. Knowing some of the guys in the band they told me, “You’d be perfect for the band” so I said, “Throw my name in and I’ll drop everything and do it!” And that’s what I did, I got the call and I dropped everything. I was thinking, “Oh geez, I hope he likes me.”
The first night we rehearsed everyone in the band got on so well and had so much fun. We were rehearsing in Canada and we were onstage and I looked over and Ringo is singing “With a Little Help From My Friends” and I’m playing. I was very moved, it was the full circle. I saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show and it changed my life. I got a guitar, I got Meet the Beatles and I taught myself how to play to those records. It was always the go-to place to go. It’s still the best music in the world to me.
Bun E. Carlos (Cheap Trick): I think what makes Ringo a great drummer is: Ringo is a lefty who plays on a right-handed kit, without the benefit of pesky drum lessons. He always played the right drum lick and his tempo was usually spot on. Being in a band with Lennon, McCartney and Harrison and produced by George Martin didn’t hurt either. I had the pleasure of meeting Ringo and he was just like I’d imagined, a swell guy. For his 70th birthday I gave Ringo a Ludwig drum made a month after he was born.
Elliot Easton (The Cars): The best thing about Ringo’s drumming is that he’s a “song” drummer, never to show off, always to lift the track and deliver the song. The others were lucky to have him to help lift their songs off the page and make them swing.
Bill Mumy (actor/.singer/songwriter): As Ringo himself has said, “I’m the fucking CLICK!” No one in any musical style has better time than Ringo. He’s solid as solid can be and he’s always had great power and of course, his fills are unique and Fab. Probably because he’s naturally left-handed but plays a right-handed kit? Whatever the recipe is, Ringo’s the best.
Having grown up working in film and television with some of the most iconic and talented actors, directors, producers in history, you’d think meeting and playing a couple of songs onstage with Ringo would be “cool” but not necessarily mind blowing. But it was. I truly became flummoxed in the presence of Fab.
After getting a call the day before from longtime pal Steve Lukather telling me he had suggested to Ringo I join the band for a few songs at the Greek Theater for the closing night of their 2016 tour and that Ringo had approved … I literally had spent the night before the gig not only practicing “With A Little Help From My Friends” and “Give Peace A Chance,” the two songs I joined Ringo and his amazing All Starr Band onstage for, but I also spent quite a lot of time thinking of subjects to talk to Ringo about.
But, once we had finished hanging backstage pre show in “the Band Room” and Luke brought my wife Eileen and I into “Ringo’s Room” and said, “Hey Boss, I want you to say hi to Billy Mumy. Remember, you okay’d him to play with us tonight.” I really went stupid. It’s funny to remember it. I managed a “Hey, great to meet you. Thanks so much.” And ALL the other things I had prepped to chat with him about instantly went to the cornfield.
Ringo simply radiates Fab and my mind went blank. He’s short and he’s in fantastic shape and he was friendly and he says to me, “You know the songs?” I say, “Yep. I’ve heard ‘em before.” He says, “You know the words?” I say, “I do indeed.” Then he pauses and slowly says, “Ahhh, but do you know the CHORDS?” And I managed to nod my head and I assure him, “Yep,” He looks at Lukather then to me and says, “You’ll do.”
Ringo then takes a couple of quick photos with us and moves on to chat with other guests who were cool enough to actually hold a conversation.
His crew ran smoother than the Secret Service.
The show was great.
I returned backstage toward the end of the set where I was led to the wings, handed Luke’s 12-string acoustic Yamaha guitar, asked if I needed a pick, (I did not. At least THAT I was ready for.) and then, when the time was right… I was walked out onstage, the roadie plugged me in, Ringo says, “Look who we have with us. Billy Mumy!”
The sold-out Greek audience cheered.
I shared Luke’s vocal mic and had one of the best ten minutes of my life. And luckily … I knew the songs, the words and the chords.
And it all was good. It was real good.
Kasim Sulton (Utopia): I first played with Ringo in the late ‘70s. Utopia played a Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy telethon and we jammed with Ringo and Bill Wyman. It’s funny, I was in my car and it was Valentine’s Day and I was at a 7-Eleven with my girlfriend. For whatever reason I looked at my phone and saw that I had an email from Todd and there was nothing in the subject, just two words, “You busy?” I emailed him right back and said, “No, what’s up?” He mailed me back and said, “Someone’s calling you.”
About 15 minutes later I get a call from a guy named Wayne Lebeaux and he said, “Todd said you would be perfect to come in and sub for our bass player Richard Page who has some health issues and he might not be able to make a few shows. Would you be interested in playing a few shows with Ringo and also can you be on a plane at five o’clock the next morning?” I had to learn 20 songs in one day. Ringo is the sweetest guy in the world work and he made me feel welcome. It was an experience of a lifetime. I only wound up doing a third of one show and was onstage for the encore of “With A Little Help From My Friends.” Thankfully, Richard was not that sick, but they just needed to make sure if he did happen to fall ill that they would be covered and they wouldn’t have to end the tour because the bass player wasn’t there.