A friend who had the misfortune of being born a bit too early to experience full frontal Beatlemania once said to me, “Ringo wasn’t one of the more important members of the group, was he?” To a rubber-souled, revolver-raving, fanatical Abbey Roadster like myself, this was among the greatest blasphemies ever spoken. If you said that Chico wasn’t important to the Marx Brothers, that Fredo wasn’t important to the Corleones, that Donny wasn’t important to The Big Lebowski, I’d simply overlook your lack of film savvy or question your taste. But to suggest that Ringo was less than essential is the ultimate fallacy. It is, in the jargon of the Brits, a complete load of BULLOCKS!
When Richard “Ringo” Starkey left Rory Storm and the Hurricanes to replace bland pretty-boy Pete Best as the Beatles’ drummer in August 1962, the group not only found its rhythm, it found its scrappy, madcap soul. Sure, John Lennon was witty and droll, bordering on cocky, but Ringo was sweetly funny, with an unassuming, wistful air and a knack for physical comedy. He was the band’s neutralizer, its fab mascot, its cinematic scene-stealer, and its fashion plate. In 1964 Ringo was the most popular Beatle in America, and my personal favorite. When I first saw the band on the Sullivan show, Ringo captured my heart with his sad, dreamy eyes, curly-lipped smile, and shaggy, bopping head. No musician has ever looked as happy as spunky little Ringo, sitting throne-like above the others (all younger than he) behind his Ludwig Black Oyster drum kit the night the Beatles conquered America.
John, Paul and George bickered, but never with Ringo. His humility, sensitivity and sense of purpose made him immune to the creative competitiveness of the others. When he quit the band for two weeks during the tension-filled recording of the White Album, the boys quickly wooed him back.
“I got a telegram saying, ‘You’re the best rock-n-roll drummer in the world. Come on home, we love you,'” Ringo once told an interviewer. “And so I came back. We all needed that little shake-up. When I got back to the studio I found George had had it decked out with flowers – there were flowers everywhere. I felt good about myself again, we’d got through that little crisis and it was great.”
As a Beatle, Ringo never aspired to be singer, spokesman or songwriter. His job was providing the backbeat for some of the most complex songs in modern music, and he did it better than anybody. Yes, I say better, because he did more with less and he never showed off. “Ringo is right down the center, never overplays,” said Sir Paul. He required no mega drum kits like those of Keith Moon, no special sticks like those of John Bonham, and no drum solos (the eight measure burst during “The End” was his one brief solo moment). His tempo and timing were perfect. Listen closely to his work on “Rain,” “Ticket to Ride,” “Here Comes the Sun,” “Come Together,” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” as a reminder of just how great he really was.
“Ringo’s got the best backbeat I’ve ever heard and he can play great 24-hours a day,” George once said. There isn’t a rock drummer from the past 50 years who hasn’t cited Mr. Starr as a beat-making godfather. Yet, Ringo modestly describes himself as “your basic offbeat drummer with funny fills.”
Ringo’s relationship with John was especially close. John wrote “With a Little Help From My Friends” specially for the drummer, in a key that perfectly suited his melancholy voice. John took note of Ringo’s many malapropisms, using two of them for song titles: “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Beatles’ record producer George Martin once said, “Ringo’s opinion was always important to John, just because he knew that with him there’d never be any bullshit. He’d often turn to Ringo and ask him what he thought, and if Ringo said, ‘That’s crap, John,’ he’d do something else.”
No one was a bigger Beatles fan than Ringo himself. He remained friendly with his mates long after their breakup, and played on many solo Beatles’ albums. A soft touch, he still still chokes up during interviews when discussing the sad deaths of John and George.
On July 7, 2014, the man known simply as Ritchie to his friends celebrates his 74th birthday. The poor, sickly boy from the Liverpool slum has lived a life beyond his wildest dreams. He’s clean and sober, a father of three, a grandfather of seven, married to a fabulous woman (Barbara Bach) and still making records. I’ve seen his All-Starr Band three times and once had the privilege of being “high-fived” by the boy I flipped over 50 years ago. He’s the rock musician most beloved by his peers.
This quote from John perfectly sums up Ringo and his contribution to that little band from Liverpool: “Ringo is Ringo, that’s all there is to it. And he’s every bloody bit as warm, unassuming, funny and kind as he seems. He was, quite simply, the heart of the Beatles.”
Here’s a nice video montage of Ringo’s movie scenes, assembled by one of his fans:
© Dana Spiardi, July 7, 2014