EASY ED’S BROADSIDE: Ringo at 80
Ringo Starr's drum kit (Julien's Auctions/Creative Commons 3.0)
I love this image of Ringo Starr’s drum kit. I was going to use a picture of him, but this set of Ludwig black pearls seems so iconic that it instantly identifies the man who sat behind them. And while there are those who will likely point out that the set could have belonged to Pete Best, get real. There was and is only one Ringo, and on Wednesday he turned 80. You may have tuned in to his livestream birthday party on YouTube (which is still available to watch). I did, and it was entertaining, magical, fun and silly all rolled up into a highly stylized and psychedelic video. And yes, there was lots of music.
Of the four moptops, Richard Starkey was the least critically lauded member of The Beatles since he wasn’t a songwriter and he rarely took center stage as lead vocalist. But he provided a steady beat with a unique technique that has cemented his standing as one of the greatest rock drummers, and, more important, he brought a sense of whimsy and humor to the band that enabled him to keep pace with John, Paul, and George’s popularity.
He began his career in 1957 when he co-founded the Eddie Clayton Skiffle Group, and later had a very successful run with the popular Liverpool group Rory Storm and The Hurricanes before replacing Best in August 1962 and becoming a Beatle. The Shirelles’ “Boys” was the first vocal that he recorded with the band, appearing on their debut album, Please Please Me.
If you are anticipating that I’m about to write a book-long examination of Ringo’s long career, I’m inclined to disappoint. What I find of interest is how healthy and vibrant he still appears to be at his age, and that he is an excellent communicator and performer whose All-Starr Band is now in its 31st year of touring. Back in 1989 when he started the group, with its ever-changing lineup, the core members were Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Dr. John, Clarence Clemons, Nils Lofgren, Jim Keltner, Joe Walsh, and Billy Preston. Some nights during that first tour, Bruce Springsteen, Garth Hudson, and others would join in.
Not being one for a concert of oldies and night of nostalgia, I’ve never gone to one of their shows, and I should probably take a moment to make amends for often joking over the years that they were just a band of faded rock heroes who toured the casino and rib festival circuit. Which they did, and still do, but I meant it in a derogatory way. The fact is, after spending hours this week listening and watching Ringo be the front man, baby I’m amazed. His talent, presence, and energy has not visibly declined over the decades, and the audience loves him and the band in whatever configuration happens to be onstage.
That is from Hollywood’s Greek Theater in 2008 and featured the All-Starr Band’s 10th lineup in 19 years. The way the shows work is that Ringo usually sings a dozen songs and each member does one or two of their own. On that night you had members of Spooky Tooth, Average White Band, and Men at Work, with Edgar Winters and Billy Squier. Over the last 12 years Starr has also included members of Toto, Santana, Kansas, Journey, and 10cc as well as guitar slingers like Joe Walsh, Peter Frampton, and Rick Derringer. And the one-off guests? Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Todd Rundgren, Ray Davies, Jack Bruce, Ian Hunter, Jeff Lynne, Rod Argent, Sheila E., and on and on. A truly special collection of those who saw their popularity peak in the ’60s. ’70s, and ’80s but can still knock the crowd over with a feather.
With all his spunky charm, Ringo has a dark side. During his first marriage he was a self- admitted drunk, wife-beater, and absent father. In the 1970s he was infamously one of The Hollywood Vampires, a celebrity drinking club that was founded by Alice Cooper and included John Lennon, Harry Nilsson, Mickey Dolenz, Keith Moon, and others. He married actress Barbara Bach in 1980 and together they spent the next eight years bingeing on alcohol.
According to a 1995 article in The Independent, “To his friends, ‘Ringo was still Ringo, a lovely man’; to outsiders, particularly the journalists he had once amused, he was prickly and defensive. He had become violent and was having blackouts. After one typical binge, he awoke to find his house in chaos: ‘I came to one Friday afternoon,’ he later recalled, ‘and was told by the staff that I had trashed the house so badly they thought there had been burglars, and I’d trashed Barbara so badly they thought she was dead.’ In 1988 they went into rehab together and remain sober today.
Many of my past columns, articles, and essays can be accessed here at my own site, therealeasyed.com. I also aggregate news and videos on both Flipboard and Facebook as The Real Easy Ed: Americana and Roots Music Daily. My Twitter handle is @therealeasyed and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.