Ringo Starr is one of the best rock drummers of all time, but not everyone knows it. He might not have been as technically proficient as his late friend, The Who’s Keith Moon, but his contribution to the music of The Beatles, and his influence on generations of rock drummers, is enormous. He’s also a talented frontman with sharp musical instincts, and, though he doesn’t seem to know it, some acting ability as well.
Ringo Starr was born Richard Starkey in 1940 in (where else?) Liverpool, England. Beset by a number of often-serious health problems, his childhood included several long hospital stays that severely limited his education. Nevertheless, his stepfather’s gift of a drum set gave Ringo his lifelong calling. Born a left-hander, but pressured as a child to become right-handed, Ringo developed a unique style that attracted attention. Eventually, he would join one of Liverpool’s best-known young bands – the Raving Texans. And so, Richard Starkey became Ringo Starr. “Starr,” obviously enough, came from “Starkey,” while “Ringo” was chosen because of his habit of wearing rings and because it sounded like the name of a movie cowboy. (John Wayne’s raving Texan in 1939’s “Stagecoach” was “the Ringo Kid.”)
But there was this other band from Liverpool. When the Beatles finally sacked the handsome Pete Best in favor of the more facially distinctive Ringo in 1962, fans were divided at first, but, before long, the largely female fan base was more than won over. With the Beatles making their first recordings with producer George Martin, things were moving incredibly fast. Martin hadn’t realized that the erratic Best had been replaced by a stronger hand, and the assiduous producer hired a session drummer to sit-in on the recording of “Love Me Do.” As late as 1995, Ringo’s hurt feelings over the incident were still evident in interviews featured in “The Beatles Anthology.”
Though he was as much in the limelight as the other Beatles, the unintentional slight set something of a pattern – for years the affable Ringo, blessed with a sharp sense of humor, gamely endured jokes about his presumably lower stature in the band. Though his drumming was an essential part of the band, it was true that, unlike John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison, Ringo rarely wrote songs and only sang lead once per album. On the other hand, several of his songs became hits and include some of the Beatles best known tunes, ranging from the country cover “Act Naturally,” to the children’s psychedelia of “Yellow Submarine.”
His natural talent and hang-dog expression also made him a good focal point for much of the action in the first Beatles film, Richard Lester’s “A Hard Day’s Night” (the title of the song and the film came from a “Ringoism” that John Lennon found particularly amusing). Lester’s film was a huge worldwide hit and remains a classic. Ringo also figured prominently in the follow-up film with Lester, “Help.” As Beatlemania was reaching its insane heights, Ringo did something really strange. He married an old fan from Liverpool who had become his girlfriend, Maureen Cox. The two remained married until 1975 and had three children together, including drummer Zak Starkey.
In the next few years, life in the world’s biggest rock band wasn’t going to get any simpler, even as Ringo’s artistic growth continued on pace with the increased sophistication of the Beatles’ music. Help, Rubber Soul and Revolver, considered by many to be the greatest rock record of all time, showed the band gradually evolving from skilled popsters into serious artists. Still, it was the 1968 “concept album,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that really got the world’s attention and launched a thousand imitations. Ringo’s rendition of “A Little Help from My Friends” starts the record in earnest, and remains a touching highlight of the Beatle’s discography. The Beatles officially broke-up in 1970 – but not before Ringo did something he had never done before on any Beatles’s final recording. On the appropriately titled “The End” from Abbey Road, Ringo played a drum solo.
In the years that followed, Ringo kept extremely active. Even while the Beatles were still technically together, he had recorded Sentimental Journey, a record of orchestral jazz and pop standards. He followed that up with the country-based Beaucoup de Blues. Recorded with Nashville producer and pedal steel player Pete Drake, many critics now consider the album to be Ringo’s finest solo work. Though Ringo’s voice seems a much better fit for country than standards, the record actually sold less well than “Sentimental Journey.” But Ringo was still getting mainstream hits, his single, “It Don’t Come Easy,” a pop classic of sorts with George Harrison producing and co-writing, remained in the top 40 for three months. Another hit, the glam-inspired “Back Off Bugaloo,” followed.
In 1973, Ringo staged a frontal assault on the pop world with the album, Ringo. Produced by Richard Perry, it would feature all four ex-Beatles – though not on the same track. The first single, “Photograph,” another collaboration with George Harrison, featured one of the most impressive line-ups of studio musicians in rock history, led by George on guitar, and an orchestral wall of sound arranged by composer Jack Nitszche. The song was pure pop bliss and reached #1 on the American charts. A second solo album, Goodnight Vienna, and more hits, followed. Nevertheless, as the 70s wound down and new forms of rock became dominant, Ringo was increasingly on the margins of the music world. Still, he never stopped recording for long, and also continued his interest in acting.
Ringo had costarred with none other than the great Peter Sellers in the outrageous 1969 satire, “The Magic Christian.” In 1973, he earned critical respect with his co-starring role in the naturalistic rock film, “That’ll Be the Day.” Still, Ringo’s offbeat sensibilities led him to parts in some truly strange movies, including playing the Pope in Ken Russell’s notorious blend of classical music and rock, “Lisztomania,” and an obnoxious director in “Sextette,” a disastrous comedy that featured classic screen comic Mae West.
Ringo’s next movie was a much better experience. 1980’s “Caveman” was no one’s idea of a classic, but Ringo got to play the lead for a change and it had an interesting cast that included beautiful Barbara Bach (“The Spy Who Loved Me”). He married the former Bond girl the following year. Still, 1980 was marked by shocking tragedy when John Lennon was assassinated outside his Manhattan apartment. Ringo flew to New York with Barbara to give his condolences to the grieving widow and five-year-old Sean Lennon. He was the only former Beatle to meet with the controversial Yoko Ono in the killing’s aftermath. With the much-discussed possibility of a Beatles reunion gone forever, Ringo’s public life retreated further into the background. His best-known work from the 1980s is probably his narration of the “Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends” animated children’s series.
By the late 80s, addiction was marring Ringo and Barbara’s personal life, so in 1989 they both entered rehab. By all accounts, the treatment took and the pair remain sober, happily married, and extremely health conscious. On the professional side, he never stopped playing music with old and new friends. In 1989, he formed his first Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band. Over the years, the touring bands have included some of the most respected talents in rock and roll music history. When George Harrison passed away from cancer in 2001, Ringo was prominently involved in the many tributes to the guitarist, who had been one of his closest friends and co-workers.
In 2007, the big news was that Ringo was recording a new studio album, Liverpool 8, to be co-produced by his longtime partner Mark Hudson. However, Hudson and Ringo fell out, and he was replaced by Dave Stewart, best known as half of the Eurythmics. Still, at this stage of Ringo’s career, a little public friction with a co-worker is nothing to get too down about. A living legend who has never taken himself too seriously, Ringo remains both a reliable working musician, and a true rock and roll hero.
Ringo Starr on the Web
Ringo’s official web page. Includes the latest information on Ringo’s projects, news, video updates and more. Also, you can sign up to have voice updates directly from the man to your cell phone.
“Ringo's Rhythm Without Blues”
A recent Time magazine profile.
A tribute page focusing on Ringo’s drumming and his biography. Includes MP3s of career highlights.
An online database of Ringo’s film career.
Photos, interviews and news, as well as Ringo’s latest TV appearances.
More about Ringo’s life and work.
On the Screen
When you talk about Ringo’s acting career, there’s little doubt that his comedic hangdog persona was used to best effect in “A Hard Day’s Night.” Not only does he give the mostly breezy film a bit of pathos when, stung by hurt feelings (and probably too many jokes about his nose), he goes out “parading” – but he delivers many of the film’s funniest lines and even came up with a few of them himself. So, we’re sorry that Ringo long ago decided to give up acting. He recently told Time "I came to the conclusion that there are a lot of good actors out there.” He added, "I'm really just a personality who can learn a few lines." The original Ringo Kid, John Wayne, could have said the same thing.
For a healthy and happily married guy in his late 60s whose pretty much beloved by everyone, lately Ringo hasn’t been doing a very good job of staying out of the gossip rags and websites – even as Ringo, the recovering alcoholic, pays attention to the life-threatening public struggles of performers like Amy Winehouse. Still, he’s attracted some scandal sheet and trade press attention of his own for some less than scandalous drama, including his falling out with music industry veteran Mark Hudson, as well as an incident in January of 2008 in which Ringo left the set of “Live with Regis and Kelly” after he’d learned, contrary to what he’d believed, that he only had two and a half minutes to perform his song. He declared “we still love Regis” on the way out, so we guess Ringo won’t be deported any time soon. On the more positive side, Ringo’s definitely staying active, touring behind Liverpool 8 and reportedly well into on a new project with Dave Stewart, a stage musical reported to be a “meditation” on childhood. Should be interesting.
On his less than privileged childhood:
"I was so poor that I had to hop to school. We only had one shoe."
On high culture:
“I like Beethoven, especially the poems.”
On Beatles fame:
“We’d get in the car and I’d look over at John and say ‘Christ. Look at you. You’re a bloody phenomenon!’ and just laugh because it was only him.”
On his drumming skills, in an over-critical mood:
“I became a drummer because it’s the only thing I could do. But whenever I hear another drummer, I know I’m no good… I’m not good on the technical things, but I’m good with all the motions, swinging my head, like.”
On songs with deep, deep meanings:
“Do you remember when everyone began analyzing Beatles songs... I don’t think I ever understood what some of them were supposed to be about”
Prophetically, on looking back at it all:
“When I’m ninety five and it’s ‘This is Your Life’ time, they’ll still be referring to me as ‘ex-Beatle’… it does have its advantages. It’s still the best way to get a good table at a restaurant.”