At 75, Ringo Starr still spreads peace and love
Correction: Ringo Starr's first hit single "It Don't Come Easy" was released in 1971. This story has been updated to correct the date.
Some things in life are not a disappointment. Among them is talking to Ringo Starr, who is the same soulful, cheery guy in conversation we got to know in the 1960s, when he provided the Beatles’ solid backbeat, and in films such as “A Hard Day’s Night,” where he was engaging as the floppy-haired, comedic sad sack.
Today his charisma is intact as the lean, jockey-sized singer/drummer with a comfortable solo career fronting an All-Starr Band, all the while promoting his favorite thing, “peace and love.”
Ringo, 75, was chatting by phone from Syracuse about his All-Starr Band’s 21-city spring tour of U.S. cities. He and the All-Starr Band play Detroit’s Fox Theatre on June 23.
“I’m doing grrreat,” he said, in the familiar baritone with his “Liverpool 8” accent intact. “I’m on the road, chatting to you, trying to get ready and then half an hour later, I go down to the rehearsals and we have a lot of fun.”
He was happy to hear that he’ll be playing the venue that hosted so many Motown Revues. Famously, Paul McCartney was a fervent fan of Motown bassist James Jamerson. Was Ringo influenced by Motown drummers Benny Benjamin, Uriel Jones or Pistol Allen?
“I was not a person that listened only to the drums, I was influenced by the whole track,” Ringo said. “So the answer is yes and no, really. Whoever played with Al Green (shout out to Al Jackson Jr. of Booker T and the MGs), he hit a beat on his hi-hat which was like, ‘What the hell is he doing? How far out is that?’ There’s been lots of drummers out there who were really impressive, but it wasn’t a thing I was into, to just listen to the drummers.”
This year’s All-Starr Band is the 12th lineup, and includes Todd Rundgren, Steve Lukather of Toto, Gregg Rolie of Santana and Journey, Richard Page of Mr. Mister, vocalist/saxophonist Warren Ham and drummer Gregg Bissonette.
In the past, he changed up the All-Starrs frequently, but this configuration has gone on for several years. Is it permanent?
“Well, we’re as permanent as we can be, because most of the other members have jobs,” Ringo said. “Gregg Rolie just did that Santana (reunion) thing in New York, Todd has been working all year and Steve Lukather was touring Europe with Toto, so everybody has stuff to do. We work it out where we get a good space and we can put it together.
“This year I decided that I wanted the summer off, so I’ll do spring and autumn. I do 21 gigs this month and I’m doing 21 gigs in October, we’ll have a couple of months off in between, and then the band will do whatever they do.”
Considering Ringo’s early years in Liverpool, it’s not hard to see why he’s so glad to be here. Born July 7, 1940, Richard Starkey was raised by his mother Elsie (after his father abandoned them) in what he thought at the time was a normal Liverpool neighborhood — but later realized was a slum. He endured multiple hospital stays as a child, stricken with peritonitis and later, pleurisy. Several times his mother was told not to expect him to survive the night.
But that sickly child not only survived, but thrived, thanks to Elsie, his stepfather and a loving extended family. To his joy, he was allowed to play a drum in the hospital, and later his stepfather gifted him with a set. Owning your own equipment was enough to get you gigs in late 1950s Liverpool, and Ringo polished his chops quickly, on the job.
After playing with a skiffle band, he became the star drummer (and sang a few songs in a segment dubbed “Starr Time”) with the popular Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. He even owned his own used car, for humping all those drums, a rarity in his crowd. Then he was hired away by another Liverpool act that became the greatest pop band ever.
The Beatles were still nascent in 1962, but replacing the somewhat erratic Pete Best with Ringo’s solid, in the pocket drumming helped put them over the top. From their earliest gigs, the band recognized that they could relax and let Ringo keep them in time.
Because behind that humorous, gentle demeanor was a serious musician. As a drummer Ringo was relentless, always on time, and never in the way of the singers — a style that is sometimes underestimated. He not only kept time, but often had a bassline going with his kickdrum that allowed McCartney the freedom to play creative, melodic lines on bass.
After the Beatles finally unraveled for good in 1969, Ringo, long dismissed (unfairly) as the least essential Beatle, surprised many when he struck early with a barrage of single hits, starting with the self-penned “It Don’t Come Easy” in 1971.
Was it easy for Ringo to make the segue into a solo career? The Beatles’ breakup unspooled painfully over several years, so there was time to think about life afterward.
“Well no, it wasn’t easy,” Ringo said. “I mean, I was with Rory, then I was with the Beatles, and then I was on my own. When we broke up I had those moments, ‘Oh, what are we going to do now?’ I picked myself up and I called (longtime Beatles producer) George Martin and we did the ‘Sentimental Journey’ album.”
That 1970 album, a collection of old-time favorites such as “Stardust,” was followed up later that year with “Beaucoups of Blues,” a country-rock album recorded in Nashville.
Then came the big one in 1973, the more contemporary, Richard Perry-produced “Ringo” album that spawned several Top 10 hits.
Ringo, who doesn’t like to practice by himself, says he has always preferred collaboration, preferring to play drums in a band setting with others.
“I’ve sort of kept that spirit alive,” he said of his all-star L.A. sessions, “In the All-Starrs, I had Levon and Rick (Helm and Danko, respectively, of The Band), and Joe Walsh and Dr. John. That’s how I started, and that’s how I’m continuing, with Todd and Richard and Steve Lukather and Gregg Rolie.”
Ringo will perform solo favorites such as “It Don’t Come Easy,” “Back Off Boogaloo” and “Photograph,” as well as songs he popularized with the Beatles such as “Boys,” the Buck Owens song “Act Naturally,” “I Wanna Be Your Man,” Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox,” “With a Little Help From My Friends… and of course, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Give Peace a Chance” to finish the show.
As far as writing a memoir about his life, he’s still saying no. Last year’s “Photograph,” a collection of his photos accompanied by autobiographical snippets, was as close as he’ll get in book form.
He prefers to sing about his early years. He’s making a record right now, after releasing “Postcards to Paradise” last year, and there will be another autobiographical song, he promises.
“I’m not doing an autobiography, but I’ve done songs that sort of relate to my time in Liverpool, my time in the Beatles and Rory Storm,” Ringo said. “It’s a track this time about Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. Glen Ballard came over, and I had this idea for a song and I wrote it with him. So it’s ‘Johnny Guitar’s Chance.’ ”
Johnny was the guitarist in the Hurricanes, who all adopted Western-style nicknames (Ringo being one).
“Great band to play with,” Ringo said.
Coming up on July 7 is his annual birthday “peace and love” celebration. Ringo asks that the world pause, at noon, and say “peace and love.”
Are there any new tweaks to it this year?
“No. It’s the same old ‘peace and love,’ ” Ringo said, laughing. “Well, this year it’s at Capitol Records in L.A. (the Beatles’ longtime label). We have a soiree, people will come, people will talk. This year we’ll be sponsored by American Airlines, so it’s getting a little bigger than it used to be.
“But it doesn’t matter, at noon, wherever you are, stop for one moment. If you’re on a bus, on a train, it doesn’t matter. It’s not a good idea if you’re driving, but wherever you are, if you could just put your hands in the air with the fingers, peace and love, and say ‘peace and love,’ that’s all I ask.”
Susan Whitall is a longtime music writer, author and contributor to The Detroit News
Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band
7:30 p.m. June 23
Fox Theatre, 2211 Woodward, Detroit
Tickets: $35, $45, $75 and $95, available at OlympiaEntertainment.com, the Fox Theatre and Joe Louis Arena box offices and Ticketmaster.com. To charge tickets by phone, call (800) 745-3000.