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Ringo Starr "I'm learning to handle life"

Although he came late to the party, Ringo Starr played a vital role in The Beatles' remarkable success. By Simon Evans

When John Lennon was murdered, on December 8, 1980 Ringo Starr took the first available flight to New York so taht he oculd comfort his old friend's widow, Yoko Ono, and their young son, Sean.

it was typically generous gesture from a man whose contribution to The Beatles has often been underplayed or overlooked.Never flashy or showy (except for the many rings that, according to some accounts, gave Ringo his nickname and later stage name) the man who was born Richard Starkey, in July 1940, was the glue that kept the group together, musically and personally.

Although technically he was never going to be the world's greatest drummer, Ringo’s contribution to the Beatles’ records was often instinctively correct, from the drum roll that kicked off She Loves You to the thunderous, much-sampled, patterns of the extraordinary Tomorrow Never Knows. 

Personally, at least in the early years, Ringo was the everyman figure in the Beatles; where Lennon was cynical, McCartney cute but out of reach and George, cerebral, Ringo was the Beatle that you could take home to meet your mum.

Ordinary and unpretentious, while Lennon and McCartney spoke of one day becoming songwriters to the stars once the Beatles bubble finally burst, Ringo’s ambitions extended no further than opening a hairdressing salon.

While George and John were sampling esoteric macrobiotic food during their stay in India with the Maharishi, Ringo preferred to tuck into good old beans on toast, which he had flown in specially. And while his former bandmates were bearing their souls on their initial post-Beatle solo recordings, Ringo preferred to release Sentimental Journey, an album comprising cover versions of old standards. “I did it for my mum,” he said.

But then Ringo had never lost touch with his Liverpool roots or forgotten the debt he owed to his mother, Elsie, during a childhood that would not have been out of place in a novel by Charles Dickens.

Ritchie, as he has always been known to family and close friends, was born in The Dingle, one of the poorest areas of Liverpool at the time.

Ringo’s parents separated when he was four and Ringo said later that he had “no real memories” of his father, who was known as Big Ritchie. Elsie had to take on a number of menial jobs to support herself and her young son, and life did not get any easier when, at the age of six, young Ritchie contracted peritonitis causing him to fall into a coma.

He ended up spending a year in hospital, and when he eventually came home Ritchie could not read or write.

A kindly neighbour tutored Ritchie twice a week to help him catch up at school but then, at the age of 13, he contracted tuberculosis and spent two years in a sanitorium.

He never went back to school, but during his stay in hospital developed his love for the drums, playing in a band, initially as therapy, but later for the sheer love of it.

Elsie had married an ex-Londoner, Harry Graves, and through him Ritchie was introduced to recordings by Dinah Shore and Sarah Vaughan. Harry was the father Big Ritchie never was, and years later the now Ringo Starr remarked, “he was great… I learned gentleness from Harry.”

It was Harry who bought Ritchie his first, rudimentary, drum kit and soon the future Beatle was an important part of the burgeoning Liverpool beat scene.

By early 1960 he was a member of Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, one of the leading Mersey bands, had adopted the stage name of Ringo Starr and had abandoned an apprenticeship as a machinist.

For Ringo it was now rock and roll or nothing. During a residency at a sleazy Berlin nightclub Ringo met up with The Beatles and he would occasionally sit in with the scruffy group who, at that point in their career, were well below Rory Storm on the bill. They got on well, and when, during the summer of 1962, The Beatles needed a new sticks man Ringo – by now regarded as the leading drummer in Liverpool – was top of the list.

The group’s previous drummer, Pete Best, had never really fitted in with the rest of the band, personally or musically. And although Beatle producer George Martin was initially reluctant to use Ringo on the group’s recordings, it didn’t take long for him to be fully integrated into the band.

Not only did he fit in musically with The Beatles, he also shared their surreal sense of humour, and soon developed a reputation for his malapropisms – A Hard Day’s Night was one such Ringoism, Tomorrow Never Knows another.

And although he experienced some initial hostility from angry Pete Best admirers, soon Ringo was receiving the same amount of fan mail as the rest of the band, much of it asking him to sing on a couple of numbers.

And so a tradition was established that on (nearly) every album Ringo would sing at least one number, usually a cover version but sometimes a Lennon- McCartney original and, later, his own songs. Who else but the lugubrious Ringo could have sung Yellow Submarine, or With A Little Help From My Friends, that slightly cheeky, but typically generousspirited, hymn to the Summer of Love.

And it was Ringo who stole the show when The Beatles made their first feature film, A Hard Day’s Night. One of the most memorable, and poignant, sequences involved Ringo going missing from rehearsals for a TV show. He is captured walking by a canal, riding a bike and drinking in a pub, all the kind of activities now denied him as one of the most famous men on the planet

Ringo doesn’t speak during this sequence, which somehow adds to its effectiveness, but the blunt truth was his disheveled appearance was due to the fact he had been out night-clubbing the night before. “Because I’d been drinking all night I was incapable of saying a line,” he revealed many years later.

Watching early interviews with the group it is fascinating how they would feed lines off each other almost telepathically, a close bond forged through hard times.

Ringo recalls how, shortly after joining the band, they were in the middle of one of their punishing national tours in the middle of winter and to keep warm in the van they would lie on top of each other. “We had a bottle of whiskey and we would take it in turns to have a swig from the bottle and lie on top; it was the only way we could stay warm.”

It is little wonder then that when recently presented with his knighthood at Buckingham Palace Ringo became visibly emotional when he said how he wished all four Beatles could have been together for the occasion, and how he misses John and George “every day”.

When the band stopped touring in late 1966, following a disastrous American and Far East trip, Ringo felt himself increasingly at a loose end as the group entered the studio to work on their masterpiece, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. He would contribute his drum parts when required, and his showpiece vocal number, but as he remarked later, “it’s a fine album – but I did learn to play chess while we were recording it. That was the peak for everyone else, but for me it was a bit like being a session musician.”

It also gave Ringo a chance to spend time with his young family. He had married his girlfriend of four years, Maureen Cox, in February 1965 and at this point they had two children, Zak and Jason, who would be joined by Lee in 1970.

In December 1966 Ringo and his family had moved into an exclusive estate on three acres in Weybridge, Surrey, which he proceeded to kit out with televisions, light machines, film projectors and stereo equipment, a billiard table, go-kart track and a bar named the Flying Cow. There was, however, no drum kit. “When we don’t record, I don’t play,” he explained Ringo’s interest was however peaked by the prospect of making a film, Magical Mystery Tour. He had developed an interest in photography and filmmaking and spent many hours with Paul McCartney editing the film, which was shown on Boxing Day 1967.

It was not well received, however, and, following the creative and commercial peak of Sgt Pepper, cracks had started to develop within the band.

Without the constant camaraderie provided by touring, the individual group members developed different interests and, ultimately, different lives. And when The Beatles’ record label, Apple, was launched, in 1968, financial disputes also entered the mix.

(Ringo took little interest in Apple, but his one major contribution was significant. A builder working on Ringo’s house asked if he would listen to a tape of a composition by his brother, a young composer, John Tavener. Ringo liked what he heard and signed Tavener to Apple, which would go on to release two albums of his work, The Whale and Celtic Requiem. Tavener, who died in 2013, is now regarded as one of Britain’s greatest composers.)

The schisms in the band could be heard on The White Album, released in November 1968. Many of the songs were recorded by individual Beatles, with the other band members acting as essentially studio musicians. Disenchanted and disillusioned, Ringo walked out of the sessions and stayed with his friend Peter Sellers in Sardinia for two weeks, during which he wrote the song Octopus’s Garden. When he returned to the studio his drum kit was covered in flowers and for a while all was well. It was only a temporary respite, however, and by the end of 1969 The Beatles were no more.

Nothing was announced until April 1970, when McCartney finally admitted the Beatles had broken up while promoting his first solo album, itself the cause of some ill-feeling

Ringo visited his old pal to try and persuade him to delay the album’s release so it did not clash with The Beatles’ swansong Let It Be. McCartney angrily refused and told Ringo to leave, promising to “finish” him and the other Beatles. “It was fairly hostile,” McCartney later admitted, “but things had got like that by this time. It hadn’t actually come to blows, but it was near enough.”

It hadn’t helped that McCartney had sued his fellow Beatles in order to extricate himself from the group, and over the next few years the former buddies exchanged insults via their solo recordings, Ringo weighing in with Back Off Boogaloo, one of his biggest hits (Boogaloo was McCartney’s nickname).

Fed up with the infighting Ringo had already branched out into film, earning excellent notices for his performance opposite Peter Sellers in the movie The Magic Christian. He also enjoyed considerable critical and commercial success with his early solo records. Sentimental Journey reached the Top Ten and an LP of country recordings, Beaucoups of Blues, earned rave notices.

Fellow ex-Beatle George Harrison helped out with the writing on the singles It Don’t Come Easy and Back off Boogaloo, both of which reached the Top Ten and Ringo returned the favour by appearing at Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh in 1971.

When the hits started to dry up Ringo’s career received another shot in the arm thanks to his fellow Beatles, all of whom – even McCartney – contributed songs to the album Ringo, a massive seller that included the hit singles Photograph and You’re Sixteen, both of which topped the US singles charts.

It was a creative high-point, but Ringo’s film career struggled to keep pace with his unexpected musical success. Apart from Magic Christian he had starred in the Frank Zappa vehicle 200 Motels, Ken Russell’s Liztomania and several other critical and commercial flops. More successful was his role as a teddy boy in That’ll Be The Day, and Born To Boogie, a quirky film Ringo directed about his friend Marc Bolan

But as his music career nosedived in the Seventies, with a series of increasingly poorly received albums, Ringo returned to the movies with a part in the dreadful Caveman, released five months after the murder of John Lennon.

For those who stayed awake that long there was a reference to Ringo’s pal in the opening title sequence, revealing the action as being set on October 9, One Zillion BC, October 9 being Lennon’s birthday. The film had one happy ending, however; Ringo met former Bond girl Barbara Bach on set and less than a year later they were married

Ringo and Maureen had divorced in 1975, their marriage a casualty of the jetset lifestyle that Ringo had first embraced while recording the Ringo album in LA.

He was part of a hard-partying crowd that also included Harry Nilsson, Keith Moon and, for a while, John Lennon, during his split from Yoko in the mid-Seventies. Moon, in particular, became a close personal friend, and when Ringo’s son, Zak, took up the drumsticks it was Moon the Loon’s powerhouse style that he would copy, rather than his father’s more subtle approach, making Zak a perfect fit during stints with both The Who and Oasis.

By the mid-Eighties both Ringo and Barbara were suffering from the bad habits common at the time amongst the LA music business crowd, and in 1988 both entered re-hab.

They got sober, and have stayed ‘clean’ ever since. Barbara studied for a degree in psychology and worked for a number of charities dealing with addiction – she still does – while Ringo went back on the road with the first in a series of All-Star bands that, over the years have included Peter Frampton, Nils Lofgren, Greg Lake, John Entwhistle and members of The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and, for one night only, Paul McCartney.

The problems of the break-up and Apple long behind them, the surviving Beatles reconvened in the early Nineties for the monumental Anthology project, a TV series, book and series of albums that told the story of the greatest band there has ever been.

They even reunited, one last time, to play on two unreleased John Lennon tracks, Free As A Bird and Real Love, recapturing, momentarily at least, some of that old magic.

In the years since that all too brief reunion Ringo has experienced the sorrow of losing ex-wife Maureen and fellow Beatle George Harrison to cancer, but also the joy of eight grandchildren. In 2016 he also became the first Beatle to become a great-grandfather, yet another landmark of sorts, and then, earlier this year, came that long overdue knighthood. For while Ringo might not have been the most talented member of The Beatles or even, as someone once unkindly quipped, even the best drummer in the group, he was a vital part of their appeal and success.

And although he can be a bit grumpy these days, routinely refusing autographs, he stills hold a torch for the ideals of love and peace that The Beatles represented through their music.

“I feel the older I get, the more I’m learning to handle life. Being on this quest for a long time, it’s all about finding yourself.

“For me, God is in my life. I don’t hide from that. I think the search has been on since the Sixties. I stepped off the path there for many years and found my way back onto it, thank God.”

What do you think of Ringo? Who is your favourite Beatle? 

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