Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2015: Ringo Starr steps to the front as the last Beatle enshrined as a solo act
By Chuck Yarborough, The Plain Dealer
April 09, 2015 , updated April 10, 2015
Ringo Starr performs with his All Starr Band during a news conference at SIR studios on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013 in Los Angeles. Starr announced another leg of 2013 tour dates in Latin America and the U.S. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- With a few notable exceptions, drummers usually are not that great as frontmen.
Not that we don't WANT to front bands; it's just that for the most part, our singing voices are like the feet of dancing bears, where the wonder of a dancing bear isn't how well it dances, but that it dances at all.
Ringo Starr may have become a frontman by default when the Beatles broke up in 1970, but make no mistake, the 74-year-old former Beatle who is entering the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo act on Saturday, April 18, deserves the honor.
He's going in alongside the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Green Day, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Lou Reed, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, Bill Withers and the "5" Royales.
"It's great,'' Starr said in a brief phone call on what it's like to step out from behind the kit and actually be THE GUY.
"Like you said, I always wanted to be out front,'' he said, calling from his home in California. Not that he didn't love his time with the Beatles -- "I loved that front line.''
But there were options.
"I was offered a job to be a bass player with Gerry and the Pacemakers,'' Starr said, that sardonic Liverpudlian accent just dripping humor. "Standing in front? That sounds pretty cool.
"The only drawback is, I never played bass.''
Of course, frontman probably was in Starr's destiny. After all, his first solo album, "Sentimental Journey,'' came out before Paul McCartney announced he was leaving the iconic band. Oh, and it predated any solo album by the man now known as Sir Paul, even if John Lennon and George Harrison did beat him to it with their solo efforts.
"Sentimental Journey'' was almost a vanity project -- the album was a collection of standards like the title cut, and included Cole Porter's "Night and Day,'' Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust'' and a really wonky version (at least to my ears) of "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing.''
The man born Richard Starkey Jr. famously said, "I did it for my mum,'' and indeed it appears the idea really was to say thank you for the support of his mother, Elsie, and his stepfather, Harry Greaves.
Not many vanity projects, though, sell 500,000 copies in their first two weeks. Of course, not many vanity projects feature someone as famous as the Beatles were then -- and remain today. If he'd stopped then, you might expect the guy who supposedly was going to be most hurt by the Beatles' breakup could end up sweeping floors back in Liverpool, or trying to live off his royalties.
But Starr didn't stop. Indeed, he moved on ... and challenged himself. His newest studio effort, "Postcards From Paradise,'' came out on March 31 of this year. It's his 18th project as a solo act.
Lennon, who was assassinated in New York in 1980, had 11 solo projects. Harrison, who died of cancer in 2001, had 12. McCartney -- as a solo act and with Wings -- has had 24 studio albums in his post-Beatles career.
For a guy who was supposed to be relegated to the background and instead defined the position of rock 'n' roll drummer, 18 studio albums, 10 live albums and five compilation albums -- beyond the 20 studio LPs and countless compilations and live albums from the Beatles -- represents a prolific artist with a healthy work ethic.
And it almost didn't happen, not with the Beatles or anyone else.
As a 6-year-old, he developed appendicitis and subsequently peritonitis. His convalescence took a full year, and that put him far behind academically. At 8, he couldn't read and had little understanding of mathematics. A family friend had almost tutored him back to the level of his schoolmates, but at 13, in 1953, he was stricken with tuberculosis, and spent two years in a sanatorium.
Even that worked in his favor.
"I had peritonitis and [then] tuberculosis when I was 13 or 14,'' Starr said. "When I was in hospital -- we were all in bed in those days -- this woman came in with miraculous triangles, little drums, all percussive things.
"That first day, by chance I was given a drum,'' he said. "And from that moment on, I wanted to be a drummer.
"I'd go to music stores and look at drums in the window,'' Starr said. His stepfather actually gave him his first set.
"He went to a funeral and bought the kit from the guy,'' Starr said. "Well, not from the guy, because he was dead.''
With that $30 set as his starting point, Starr went on to join several skiffle bands -- the music, popular at the time, combines several genres and usually is played with homemade instruments -- and eventually found himself with a group that came to be known as Rory and the Hurricanes.
A photo taken outside Duncan the Tailors shop in Liverpool: Storm is in the middle and Starr is on the far left
He was with the band when he met John, Paul, George and their then-drummer, Pete Best.
Indeed, the lead cut on the new album is "Rory and the Hurricanes'' and is an homage to those days in the late 1950s. A particular line -- kind of funny when we think of the Beatles being multimillionaires -- talks about existing on "jam and bread'' and "sleeping on floors," and not minding one bit because they were making music.
Here's a testament to healthy living: Best had fallen ill and was unable to make a recording session, so Starr filled in, just because he and the Hurricanes were playing a gig on the same bill with the Beatles. It was just three songs, but it set the stage for history.
The other three Beatles journeyed to a resort where Rory and the Hurricanes had a summerlong job and asked Starr to join them. Loyal to a fault -- I can't remember Starr ever saying a bad word about anyone -- he waited till the end of the season, when Rory could find a replacement. He didn't want the band to lose their 25 pounds-a-week gig.
The sweetness -- and again, loyalty -- that is Starr comes through in that cut, and in much of the other music on the newest album, especially on the title song, "Postcards From Paradise.'' Its lyrics reference more than 20 Beatles songs.
"I had a track, a sheet of paper, really, with words on it,'' he said. "I came across it by accident. I was trying to write another love song and trying to have the words to 'Mr. Moonlight,' that John Lennon track.''
When "Eight Days a Week'' and other tunes worked their way into the lyrics, Starr realized he was onto something.
"I carried it on to 10 titles and finished most of the mixing on the album when I was on tour with the All Starrs,'' he said. "I had this track, this sheet of paper, and I gave it to Todd [Rundgren, a longtime member of Starr's annual touring band of great players]. I said, 'See if you can put this together,' and he did a great job.''
It really IS a career retrospective of some of the Beatles' biggest hits, but because of the way Starr delivers it -- no one is ever going to accuse him of channeling Pavarotti -- it's got a simplicity that turns it from a novelty song into an homage.
Not that Starr has any issue with novelty songs. His Beatles days had him covering Buck Owens with "Act Naturally,'' and his solo career gave us the celebrated "No No Song'' and "You're Sixteen.''
But he has moved far beyond that, mainly by remaining true to himself. When we saw those Beatles movies like "A Hard Day's Night'' and "Help!,'' we couldn't help but wonder if the lads were playing roles instead of themselves.
Maybe they were, but Starr -- even now, it's hard to say Starr instead of Ringo, because he FEELS like a Ringo to the world -- always gave the impression of being the most genuine. His cuts as lead vocalist on Beatles albums -- "A Little Help From My Friends,'' "Octopus's Garden,'' "Act Naturally'' and "Yellow Submarine,'' among others -- are songs devoid of gussied-up tracks or vocal calisthenics. They're just music. Real, honest music.
He's a family man -- his son, Zak, one of three children with his first wife, Maureen -- has become a celebrated drummer himself, having toured with the Who and Oasis as well as his father. He's been married to actress Barbara Bach for 35 years now, and you don't find him in the tabloids.
And while the joke was that he was "the second-best drummer in the Beatles'' -- allegedly, Paul was better -- the reality is that he was severely underrated as a musician.
Indeed, it was his ability to play odd time signatures that made for groundbreaking music. "All You Need Is Love,'' for example, is in 7/4 time, and "Here Come the Sun'' has time signatures of 11/8, the traditional 4/4 and 7/8, according to writer John Bryant in a post called "Thirteen Reasons to Give Ringo Some Respect.''
Bryant also points out what should be obvious to anyone -- that Starr really was a human metronome. Yes, he could do the fancy-schmancy beats -- you try playing "Birthday,'' and you'll see there's a lot more there than his usual solid 2-4 backbeat. But his ability to repeat take after take at the same pace in the days before digital recording and Pro Tools had to give producer George Martin some unbelievable options.
And yet, he remains humble. He's not Sir Ringo -- all four Beatles were designated Members of the Order of the British Empire, but only Sir Paul has been knighted, that back in 1997.
Who knows? That may come for Starr, who is now the last Beatle to go into the Rock Hall as a solo act. But you get the sense that neither situation really fazes him.
"I think it's a cool thing, but I wasn't searching for it,'' he said when asked if going into the Rock Hall as a Lifetime Achievement Award winner validated his post-Beatles career.
"Suddenly, I got this message from Paul saying, 'Would I accept it?''' he said. "It's the business I'm in. I mean, I was in the biggest pop group in history, and now I'm going in as a solo.''
I asked if he knew who was going to play with him after his induction and, in typical Starr fashion, he was quick on the draw:
"I know EXACTLY who's going to play with me ... but I'm not going to tell YOU,'' he said, laughing. Not that it matters because, fittingly, Ringo Starr will be right out front.
As he should be.
Gregg Rollie,Steve Lukather,Richard Page, Warren Ham, Ringo Starr, Greg Bissonette, and Todd Rundgren of Ringo Starr and his All Starr Band perform at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts on October 21, 2014 in Ft Lauderdale, Florida.(Photo by Jeff Daly/Invision/AP)
Former Beatle Ringo Starr dances and plays the air drums during a performance, Sunday, July 2, 1995 in St. Louis, MO. His Ringo Starr?s All-Star Bank includes musician from groups popular in the 60?s and 70?s such as the Rascals, Grand Funk Railroad, and Bachman-Turner Overdrive. (AP Photo/Mary Butkus)
Former Beatles drummer Ringo Starr gestures as he performs onstage with his All-Starr Band at Great Woods Center for the Performing Arts in Mansfield, Mass., Tuesday night, Aug. 16, 1989. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Ringo Starr, wearing dark glasses, poses with band members during a news conference at New York's Palladium to announce their upcoming U.S. tour, June 20, 1989. Ringo doesn't play with just anyone; all stars in their own right, from left are: Levon Helm, Clarence Clemons, Nils Lofgren, Billy Preston, Ringo, Joe Walsh and Rick Danko. (AP Photo/Mario Suriani)
Ringo Starr performs behind the drum kit with his All Starr Band during a news conference at SIR studios on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013 in Los Angeles. Starr announced another leg of 2013 tour dates in Latin America and the U.S. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
Ringo Starr, left, and Richard Page of his All Starr Band perform during a news conference at SIR studios on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013, in Los Angeles. Starr announced another leg of 2013 tour dates in Latin America and the U.S. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
Ringo Starr, left, and guitarist Colin Hay perform in the "Ringo Starr and his 8th All Star Band," during a press conference preview in New York, Tuesday July 29, 2003. The group will play perform 35 concerts in a nationwide through September. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
Ringo's drums, clothes to be displayed as part of Rock Hall of Fame exhibit
April 8, 2015
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will display memorabilia from each of its new inductees in an exhibit that will include a set of 2015 inductee Ringo Starr's drums, it was announced by the museum April 7. The drum set was used during the years from 1964 to 1968, the Hall said. Also on view will be the shirt he wore on the cover of his “Goodnight Vienna” album that was released in 1974.
Also on view at the special exhibit will be Bill Withers' Martin acoustic guitar, Lou Reed's Bolin guitar and Soldano amp, instruments and clothes worn by Joan Jett and each of the Blackhearts, the drum kit lit on fire in 1998 at RFK Stadium by Tré Cool of Green Day and original recordings by the 5 Royales that were later covered by James Brown, Mick Jagger and Derek and the Dominoes.
The exhibit features a video wall with soundbars highlighting performance footage and exclusive interviews with the 2015 inductees. The signatures of the 2015 inductees will also be added to the signature wall and their song catalogs will also be added to the interactive jukeboxes. The exhibit will also include a multimedia highlight reel of speeches and special moments from the past 29 years of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s induction ceremonies.
Celebration Day on April 11 will feature free admission to the museum, live local entertainment and more. The events will begin at 9 a.m. at the museum and will conclude with a fireworks show at 8 p.m. at Voinovich Park. More information is available at the Rock Hall website. The day kicks off a special week of events that concludes with the induction ceremony on April 18.
Ringo's shirt from "Goodnight Vienna" and Beatles items on exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. (Courtesy Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum - used by permission.)