Beatles' drummer gets his due in 'Ringo'
Biographer separates life of the 'funny' band member into three parts
By Bob Ruggiero
June 26, 2015
The Beatles early in their career, shortly after Ringo Starr joined the group. Note the short-lived "bug" band logo on Starr's drums.
Photo: Keystone-France/Gamma Keystone
In his signature song for a little pop group from Liverpool, England, Ringo Starr warbled "I get by with a little help from my friends."
Well, those friends better be proficient in iCal and multitask scheduling because the diminutive Billy Shears is a little busy these days.
Starr, recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist (the last Beatle to be so honored), has released a new CD, "Postcards From Paradise." He's the face of both a new ad campaign for Skechers and his own #PeaceRocks social media movement. And he's headed back to the concert trail this fall with the latest version of the All Starr Band.
Did we mention that he turns 75 on July 7? And that he has, thanks to an insanely healthy lifestyle, plenty of boundless energy (as Houstonians saw firsthand last year during his gig at The Woodlands) and only a slightly higher body-fat percentage than, say, Gollum.
In the first major biography of the "funny Beatle" in nearly a quarter century, Michael Seth Starr (no relation) charts the life and career of the man born Richard Starkey.
The book separates Starr's life into three parts: pre-Beatles, Beatles and Post-Beatles. Readers learn that growing up, Starr - beset by a variety of medical ailments, some life-threatening - spent nearly three years of his youth confined to hospitals.
Ringo Starr and Barbara Bach's wedding day, April 27, 1981, with the two other surviving Beatles and their families. Linda McCartney is holding James, her son with Paul McCartney. The other child is Bach's by a previous marriage, Gianni Gregorini.
Photo: Terry O'Neill
A besotted fan of U.S. music (especially country), he and a friend went so far as to visit their nearby U.S. Consul, filling out forms and looking into factory jobs for a planned emigration to … Houston. Because that's where bluesman Lightnin' Hopkins lived.
His memorable moniker was a gift from his former bandleader, Rory Storm, who first christened him "Rings," due to his penchant for fingerwear. Later, Rory and the band gave themselves cowboy-style nicknames because they were all fans of cowboy movies. John Wayne played "Ringo Kid" in the movie "Stagecoach."
The book's wild ride through Starr's career with the Beatles from 1962-70 is filled with fascinating stories and quotes - the text is a combination of original interviews and previously sourced material - though many of them will be familiar to the more-than-casual Beatles fan. Admittedly, though, it is convenient to have all this material in one place and part of a brisk retelling.
The casual fan and reader will find humor in many of the book's details. For example, Starr's wordless, melancholy stroll on a riverbank in the movie "A Hard Day's Night" - for which he won acting accolades - was actually filmed in the morning while he had a wicked hangover from partying too hard the night before. The planned scenes with dialogue were scrubbed.
And when the Beatles visited Rishikesh, India, in 1968 to study under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Starr brought one suitcase filled with nothing but baked beans, as his sensitive stomach couldn't handle spicy foods. Not surprisingly, he and wife Maureen (who had a phobia about insects) were the first to exit the outdoor compound after only two weeks.
The intense, all-the-time pressure of being a Beatle could also get scary and downright bizarre. In the early years, lines of sick and crippled children would be presented to the band backstage - as if the touch of a Beatle could cure them. And one time, at an elegant party at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., a member of the tuxedo-and-jewelry crowd whipped out a pair of scissors and, without word or warning, cut off a chunk of Ringo's hair.
The book's best section, though, examines Starr's life and music after the Fab Four's messy dissolution. Starr often was adrift professionally without the musical gifts of his three former bandmates who, as a credit to the drummer's geniality, were all happy to lend a hand on his solo records. He was adrift personally, too. A series of high-profile romances and a nonstop jet-set lifestyle provided ample opportunity to fall into severe alcoholism.
That he spent so much time partying with fellow substance-abusing drummers Keith Moon and John Bonham - as well as Alice Cooper, Harry Nilsson and John Lennon - led to some "lost years" and talk-show appearances where Starr was clearly drunk. Smoking upward of 60 cigarettes a day didn't help, either. Starr and his second wife, actress Barbara Bach, finally got clean and sober in the late '80s after one too many violent altercations. Both made complete turnarounds and today are many years happy and healthy… though maybe a bit too healthy. "Every time I see Ringo, he smells of kale!" Eagles singer/guitarist Joe Walsh (Starr's brother-in-law) told Rolling Stone earlier this year.
Just how good a drummer Ringo Starr is and was is always a subject for debate, with fans, music journos and fellow skin thumpers taking all sorts of positions.
Was Ringo Starr just an average technician who got lucky by being in the Beatles? Or was his no-frills/no solo style perfectly suited to the material? The author doesn't take sides but quotes plenty of advocates for both of them. And they generally fall toward the latter.
"Ringo: With a Little Help" is clearly the definitive biography of one of the most famous musicians - or, heck, people - of the last century (though author Starr could not get subject Starr to participate). And, while he did get help along the way, Richard Starkey richly deserves this solid literary treatment.
Bob Ruggiero is a Houston-based music journalist who many moons ago competed in a Beatles trivia contest that was supposed to be emceed by … Ken Hoffman. He currently is writing a biography on the funk-rock group WAR.