Fifty years after helping lead the British invasion in America and transforming pop culture, the most underappreciated Beatle has arguably become the most beloved.
Ringo Starr is no longer mobbed by screaming packs of fans. But, by no means is the world famous drummer hanging in the background. He’s busy laying down tracks for a new album, and about to embark on another tour of his All-Starr Band; he’s publishing books — and he’s still making the case for peace and love wherever he goes.
Ringo is the older of the two surviving Beatles, but you’d never know it. At age 73, he could easily pass for someone 20 years younger. His rock-star DNA has kept him fighting trim. His skin is taut without looking stretched, and his gait is assured, even springy.
At a fundraising concert Jan. 20 at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles, where he was honored by the David Lynch Foundation with the Lifetime of Peace and Love Award, Ringo bounded about the stage like Peter Pan. He appeared boyish compared with the musicians surrounding him — among them Peter Frampton and the Eagles’ Joe Walsh — who are several years his junior.
“Everybody loves Ringo!” declared Lynch at the start of the show, and by the end, all his pals came up onstage, including such luminaries as Jim Carrey and Jeff Lynne, joining for the sing-along of “With a Little Help From My Friends.” The El Rey love-in was just one part of a perfect storm of Beatles-related activity that has occurred over the past year in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the Fab Four’s first visit to the U.S. — their historic appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Paul McCartney and Ringo, who remain friends, accepted the Recording Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys on Jan. 26. The following day, they were saluted at “The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to the Beatles,” taped at the Los Angeles Convention Center and airing Feb. 9 on CBS, a half century to the day after the Beatles touched down in New York, greeted by thousands of frenzied fans.
“It was such an incredible moment,” recalls Ringo. “Americans won’t understand, but we’re English and we came to America, and that’s where all the music I love came from. A couple of years before that, I tried to immigrate to America, to Houston, Texas, to be near my blues hero, Lightnin’ Hopkins. But the paperwork was too much for an 18-year-old.”
Ringo has been a fixture in the City of Angels since 1976, when he bought his first home here.
“You ask anybody who’s ever met me: I love L.A.,” he says. “I love the relaxed atmosphere here, and I have a lot of good friends here, a lot of musicians. It just suits my makeup.”
In a city overpopulated with celebrities, admirers keep a respectful distance.
“I can wander around L.A., wander around Monte Carlo, wander around London,” says Ringo of the three residences he alternately calls home. “London’s always interesting because taxi drivers always say, ‘Hey, what are you doing here?’ If I’m hassled now, they know I don’t sign autographs. I’d rather say, ‘Hi, how ya doing?’ and move on. I’m shopping. I’m going to movies. I’m doing whatever’s going on at the time.”
Ringo loves movies, and goes often with his wife of 33 years, the actress formerly known as Barbara Bach. They prefer venturing out to theaters rather than holing up in private screening rooms like so many superstar untouchables. So far this awards season, “Lone Survivor” is his favorite. “And then a weird one called ‘Prisoners,’ he adds, “that was really strange. Of course we saw ‘American Hustle’ and we laughed and we loved it. And no one’s going to beat DiCaprio in ‘The Wolf of Wall Street.’ ”
Waving the peace sign at every opportunity, Ringo is effectively the poster boy for peace and love; it’s the signature of his official website and an essential part of his brand.
If “the love you take is equal to the love you make,” then Ringo has generated enough karma to last another lifetime. He attributes his good health to being a vegetarian. “I believe that helps,” he says during an interview at Sir, a studio instrument rental shop in Hollywood. “I also work out most days.” He employs a trainer three times a week. And he meditates daily, a practice that dates back to the Summer of Love in 1967 when the Beatles were introduced to the teachings of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, also an avatar to the Lynch Foundation, which teaches the restorative powers of transcendental meditation to school kids and war vets alike.
“If you listen to the last three CDs, the theme is peace and love,” Ringo says. It’s a message from which he rarely veers, dating back to his first solo works. If there’s any doubt, the opening track on his last studio effort, “Ringo 2012,” kicks off with the lyrics, “This is an anthem/ For peace and love/ We’ve got to keep trying/ We can’t give up.”
Ringo’s well-being is all the more miraculous given his sickly childhood, with his formal education severely hampered by life-threatening illnesses. Later plagued by alcohol and substance abuse, he became clean and sober in 1989 (and has remained so ever since). He was approached around that time about touring, an idea he eventually embraced.
“I hadn’t had a drink or a drug in six months,” Ringo recalls. “I was mad as a hatter. And somebody from Pepsi asked somebody would I tour, and they were going to promote it. In the end, I said yes.”
He is about to kick off yet another tour of his All-Starr band, even though the last one ended as recently as Thanksgiving. “We’re back out in the summer,” he says, “with the same lineup we’ve had for two years.” That includes Todd Rundgren, Steve Lukather (Toto) and Gregg Rolie (Santana). The upcoming North American trek will comprise approximately 30 dates, kicking off June 6 in Rama, Ontario and ending July 19 at the Greek Theatre in L.A.
Judging by the level of talent he’s been able to attract for these outings, of which there have been more than a dozen incarnations, “With a Little Help From My Friends” is less a theme song than a mission statement.
“The special thing about it is you get to play with really good musicians that you would never get to play with,” says the Eagles’ Walsh, who jammed in the first two editions of the All-Starr Band, a dream lineup that included Nils Lofgren and Clarence Clemons of the E-Street Band, Rick Danko and Levon Helm of the Band, and super session players Billy Preston and Jim Keltner. “It was the best group of musicians I’ve ever played with, besides the band I’m in now.”
Steve Barnett, chair and CEO of Capitol Music Group, notes that Starr carved out a very successful post-Beatles career. “He had platinum and gold albums, seven top 10 hits — and two of those were No. 1s.
For those who viewed Ringo as an orphan left to his own devices after the Beatles officially went their separate ways in 1970, the perception is far from reality. He was the first Beatle to initiate a studio solo album, with “Sentimental Journey” in the fall of 1969.
In fact, he released two solo LPs before the end of 1970, when everyone was still in denial about the break-up: “Journey,” which was a top 10 hit in the U.K., and the country-flavored “Beaucoups of Blues.”
He was the one Beatle with whom the others never feuded, and consequently benefited from their input on his albums, while playing on theirs, including the two most acclaimed solo works by former Beatles: John Lennon’s “Plastic Ono Band” and George Harrison’s magnum opus, “All Things Must Pass.” Ringo’s single “It Don’t Come Easy,” co-written by Harrison and the highlight of “The Concert for Bangla Desh,” reached No. 4 in the U.K.
And with all the recent Grammy attention they shared together, his relationship with Paul is stronger than ever. “If we’re in the same town, a lot of times we hook up,” Ringo says. “We’re the two people (left) who actually experienced the life we led in the Beatles. Besides that, we have the rest of our life to relate to. I’ve been on several of his records, he’s been on mine. It’s not like we don’t work together; it’s just that we don’t make a fuss about it.”
As he prepares for his next All-Starr Band closeup, Ringo has another album in the works, and has laid down 14 rough tracks in his home studio in L.A. The DIY setup is not as lavish as one might think for a musician whose net worth is $300 million — making him the world’s richest drummer according to a survey published by Celebrity Net Worth in 2012.
“Mine is really home,” he explains. “We have Pro Tools and a desk, and the bedroom has two kits of drums and a kitchen that’s still serviceable.”
Ringo’s reputation is more than serviceable: An ongoing exhibit at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, “Ringo: Peace and Love,” unveiled in June, spurred a 19% bump in attendance, the largest growth in the institution’s five-year history, according to executive director Robert Santelli. “Interestingly enough, of the three Beatles exhibits that we’ve done, the Ringo exhibit has been the most popular,” he adds.
In November, Brit publisher Genesis debuted “Photograph,” a lavish, leather-bound limited edition of Ringo’s photos and memorabilia. The book quickly sold out. And Feb. 4 will see the release of his children’s book, “Octopus’s Garden,” based on the tune he wrote and sang for the “Abbey Road” album, the Beatles’ final studio recording.
Ringo might not be the most technically proficient drummer in the annals of rock ’n’ roll, but his importance to the movement in general, and the Beatles in particular, is beyond dispute. The Beatles didn’t gel as a group until Ringo — the most accomplished professional among them when they were all plying their trade in Hamburg’s red light district and the Cavern Club in Liverpool — joined their ranks in 1962 from Rory Storm and the Hurricanes.
Blue Note label chief, producer and musician Don Was, who has worked with Ringo repeatedly, calls him the most underrated drummer in rock history. “He changed the way rock ’n’ roll drummers approach music,” Was says.
If Ringo was overshadowed by the brilliant songwriting of his Fab Four mates, especially Lennon and McCartney, who, says Walsh, “commanded your focus with whatever they were doing,” the spotlight on his percussive gifts was further diminished by a group that stopped touring in 1966, concentrating on studio recordings that became ever more conceptual and inventive with each outing. This occurred at a time when jam bands like the Who, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Led Zeppelin started airing it out in arenas, giving ample room for their flamboyant drummers to shine in front of a captive audience.
“Being an ensemble player in a band is the most important thing,” Was asserts. “The Beatles were a great band because they listened to each other and reacted off each other very much the way a jazz group does. It requires subverting the ego and being part of a whole. The Beatles are an amazing example of that.”
Santelli goes so far as to call Starr the most important drummer in the history of rock. “The reason I say that is prior to Ringo, certainly there were rock ’n’ roll bands, but hardly anybody knew who the drummer was. Ringo comes along and changes everything. (He has) a very interesting and compelling sense of humor and personality, and we get to know him on a first-name basis.”
Anybody who knows the Beatles’ music intimately knows the tympanic accents and fills as clearly today as when they were recorded: the famous drum roll that launches into “She Loves You”; the shimmering incandescence of his cymbal work on so many of those early hits; the impressionistic free-form of “Rain”; the loping cadence and crispy snare of “Sexy Sadie”; the haunting, almost cinematic drama and rich texture behind “Long, Long”; the building, tour-de-force crescendo that leads up to the “The End” on “Abbey Road.”
“Here’s what I discovered in the very first session that I did with him,” recalls Walsh. “He came in and I said, ‘You want to see a chart on the song?’ And he said, ‘No, give me the lyrics.’ He responds to the singer. A great example of that is when he plays on the Beatles’ ‘Something’ and he does that fill that’s such a musical response it’s almost like a guitar player; there’s notes to it.”
Ringo himself says he brought time and openness to the table as the Beatles drummer. He would do things like putting tea towels on the drums. “The towels would deaden the sound, and give you depth,” he explains. “Until I got the Maple kit, which has the depth of real skin. So if you listen to ‘(She Came in Through the) Bathroom Window’ and ‘Polythene Pam,’ it’s like a tom-tom solo all throughout.”
Ringo has just come off several live performances in Latin America in October-November. Recently, he’s been spending time in his most western home.
“I’m in L.A. now,” Ringo says. “I love the weather. I love the casualness. I have a little studio at home. And if you can play and you ring my bell, you’re on the record.”