Interview: Ringo Starr’s Drum Beat Can’t Be Beat

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Ringo swinging on the kit/Photo by Scott Ritchie

Ringo swinging on the kit (Photo: Scott Ritchie; used with permission)

Kvetch all you want to about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but the respect came rolling in for one Richard Starkey on April 18, 2015, in Cleveland. The man we’ve known for all these years as Ringo Starr was finally inducted into the Hall as a solo artist, the last of the Beatles to be so honored.

The guy who inducted him was the same fella who pushed hard for his nomination, Paul McCartney. Starr went to the podium, began with a deadpan “My name is Ringo and I play drums,” and went on to weave his starting-out story, finally getting to, “It’s been an incredible journey for me with these three guys who wrote these songs.”

There remains a stubborn contention that he was the luckiest guy in the world to have joined The Beatles – an average drummer who happened to have joined up with three genius musical talents. But there are many who know better.

Ringo turned 84 on July 7, 2024. He’s fit, trim and healthy. He’s been married to Barbara Bach since 1981 and lives, we have to suspect, a life of ease. When he works, it’s his choice, a labor of love.

Listen to one of Ringo’s earliest lead vocals with the Beatles

He lived the high life many decades ago, thank you, and drank all the booze and snorted all the cocaine he was going to with Harry Nilsson, Marc Bolan, John Lennon and various friends back in the ’70s. He also sold a lot of records back then – and, beating the odds, out of the box he was the most commercially successful of the ex-Beatles. He’s released 20 – count ‘em – solo albums through 2019’s What’s My Name, followed by many EPs.

When I talked with Ringo in 2010, around the release of Y Not, I asked him, “You launched your solo career after the Beatles’ breakup, and I know many people thought, ‘Oh sure, John, Paul and maybe George will make it solo – but Ringo?’”

“I made the Ringo album and I was like the biggest-selling Beatle! Ha-ha-ha-ha!” Starr said, before downshifting a bit. “We didn’t get too involved in what everybody talked about. We just kept doing what we did.”

Of course, his three ex-bandmates did play on that 1973 record. It gave the world the idea that whatever drove John and Paul apart, Ringo was still the glue that could bring them together (in a manner of speaking.) Lennon wrote the kickoff track, “I’m the Greatest,” and played on it alongside George Harrison.

Ringo & Paul (crop)

Paul joins Ringo at his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction (Photo via Carol Kaye)

Ringo had started his good-natured assault on the Top 40 two years earlier with “It Don’t Come Easy” (#4 hit) and “Back Off Boogaloo (#9). Ringo spawned two #1s, “Photograph” and “You’re Sixteen,” a #5 in “Oh My My.” In 1975 he hit #3 with “No No Song.”

The Five Minute Interview?

When we did that interview, it was locked in for five minutes, an absurdly short time in which to do even the most cursory of interviews. I was ever-aware of the clock ticking. This leaves little time for “hey-nice-to-meet-you” chat and creates a need to jump in the deep end.

Starr was approaching a birthday when we talked. I asked what he wished for. “At noon,” said Ringo, “I’d love everybody, wherever you are – in your office, on the bus – or whatever you’re doing, to stop for one moment. Put your fingers up in the peace-and-love way and say ‘Peace and love.’”

All he is saying is give peace one moment/Photo by Scott Ritchie

All he is saying is give peace one moment (Photo: Scott Ritchie)

I couldn’t help myself: What, exactly, might that accomplish?

“Well,” Ringo said, “it will have an effect on all those people who do it. Because for one moment they’ll be thinking peace and love, and thought is very powerful.”

The Beatles’ “message” sometimes gets simplified as “peace and love” when it was a lot more complex and diverse.

“There was more, but that’s how it is,” Ringo responded when asked about that. “’Stairway to Heaven’ – if you talk about Led Zeppelin, you go right there. Everybody loves to put a tag on everything, but we were the peace and love band. That’s all it was. ‘All You Need is Love’ – we did that track and it was very high on our agenda. We did ‘Hey Bulldog’ and ‘Paperback Writer’ and a lot of other stuff. But I think it’s not a bad thing if you look at the Beatles and the representation is peace and love.”

He’s asked about his tours with the All-Starr Band.

“The whole idea is basically the same,” Ringo told me. “I was invited to put a band together and go on tour in 1989, and I’d never done it before. So in my nervousness, I took out my phone book and flipped through the pages and got Dr. John, Joe Walsh, Levon Helm, Rick Danko. It was like an orchestra. I was insecure and I got this band and it worked so well. I could be down in the front being Ringo, doing ‘With A Little Help from My Friends.’ Then I could be the drummer and play [the others’] songs. I got the best of both worlds. That’s why I love it and that’s why I continue to do it. And I continue to do it with different artists. I still don’t have a basic band. They have to have had hits in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s or ’90s. I certainly had hits in the ‘60s! That’s what we’re about.”

[Ringo is on tour with the All-Starr Band in 2023. (Tickets are available here and here.]

The 2023 edition of the All-Starr Band: (L-R) Warren Ham, Edgar Winter, Colin Hay, Ringo Starr, Hamish Stuart, Gregg Bissonette, Steve Lukather (Photo: Mike Colucci; used with permission)

Ringo was heading into his 70s at the time of the interview, and given Paul’s famous song, “When I’m 64,” I wondered what his thoughts were when he turned that age. Did 64 seem so far away when the Beatles first tracked it?

“I don’t think you think like that,” Ringo said. “I was probably about 26 when we recorded that, and you’re just doing what you’re doing. Paul had written that song and we played it to the best of our ability.”

Did he think he would make it to that age?

“No. But I gotta tell you 64 was a big birthday just because of that song.”

A True Superstar of the Drums

Even as he becomes the first star from the drum stool to enter the Hall of Fame solo, the question remains: Is Ringo a good drummer?

That drum kit! (Photo © Greg Brodsky)

As charming as Ringo was in public and as solid as he was behind the kit, there has (or had) been the contention that he wasn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles, the best one being Paul (and some also suggest Pete Best, who he replaced). McCartney drummed on “Back in the USSR” and “Dear Prudence,” as Ringo had temporarily quit the band in a snit. Later, McCartney also played on “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” as Ringo was off doing a movie.

I had to ask how he felt about those who underrated him.

Me: Your skill as a drummer has been debated widely over the years. Many have sung your praises, but even you have taken note of your limitations, calling yourself average, I think.

Ringo: “No, never average. Nobody plays the groove like I play it.”

Watch Ringo sing and drum on “Boys”

Ringo is touring in 2024. Tickets are available here.

Related: Ringo was knighted in 2018

Jim Sullivan

10 Comments so far

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  1. tagoldich
    #1 tagoldich 16 July, 2017, 20:19

    One of the great drummers, Ringo is the king of feel!

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  2. spinetingler
    #2 spinetingler 20 March, 2018, 21:52

    Paul was not a better drummer than Ringo, by any standard. Yes, Paul filled in competently on those tracks, but go ahead – try to remember them. Now, start on the list of distinctive and memorable Ringo drum parts. I’ll go get lunch while you’re doing it.

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  3. RickeyMoose
    #3 RickeyMoose 9 July, 2018, 07:27

    Listen to “Rain” and tell me Ringo isn’t a good drummer.

    Reply this comment
  4. Da Mick
    #4 Da Mick 8 July, 2022, 00:50

    Love RickeyMoose’s comment about “Rain” as I actually just had that window open in my mind while hearing it again just recently. But for anyone needing any additional proof of Ringo’s understated excellence, you should look no further than the recent “Get Back” documentary. For all the screwing around the Beatles do during that time, Ringo sits on his kit waiting patiently. Then, when the other Fab Three finally decide that it’s time to actually do something Ringo is crack on — right there, solid as a rock. Out of that whole documentary, Ringo is what I was most impressed with. That, and those few times when Lennon and Mac finally would put their voices together on a song and magic would instantly happen that gave you chills.
    One last thing — Ringo is one of the few drummers out there — in any generation, that had distinct drum tone, and it was a great and memorable tone. And in many cases, much like guitar, the tonal sound of the instrument is every bit as important as what is played on it. Like guitarists, there’s certainly been some great technical players out there, but many of them never captured a memorable tone, which makes all their technical wizardry sound like many others. Not Ringo, who you can recognize almost immediately by the sound of his drums and, as the man himself says, by the feel of his groove.

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  5. HiHat
    #5 HiHat 8 July, 2023, 09:47

    My favorite “Ringo’s a Great Drummer” story came in 1989. I was paying bills with MTV on the tube. A song came on after many others, and I looked up to see who the drummer was. It was Ringo, playing the very, very simple beat on Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” But what had caught my ear was the perfection with which he played it — the perfect mix between the snare, cymbals, and bass drum. When people say, “What a great drummer,” the drummer is probably overplaying. When people say, “What a great BAND,” the drummer is doing his job. Ringo backed bands and served the singers and songs better than anyone…

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  6. Wiccapedia
    #6 Wiccapedia 8 July, 2023, 13:22

    On the one hand, if you are able to drum, and I am, you can really appreciate how slick some of Ringo’s stuff was in the Beatles, almost all drummers in those days came from a jazz background so he put in lots of cool stuff. On the other hand, could he play like John Bonham, Ian Paice, Nigel Glockler or Anderson Pak? I doubt it.

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  7. Dan
    #7 Dan 8 July, 2023, 21:22

    Look at Ringo play ” Long tall Sally”…He is fantastic, specially the last verse of the song. That rapid movement of both hands playing his drum kit up and down is just amazing….John said it about Ringo, you are the greatest..

    Reply this comment
  8. mickey
    #8 mickey 8 July, 2024, 09:26

    To paraphrase the late, great Keith Moon, Ringo is the best Ringo Starr style drummer in the world.

    Reply this comment

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