Known for his warm personality, disarming earnestness and witty malapropisms, Ringo Starr — born Richard Starkey on July 7, 1940 — just may be the most beloved musician in the history of rock ’n’ roll. From his fellow Beatles to the sprawling list of big-time collaborators who have passed through the All-Star Band, there doesn’t seem to exist a single musician on earth who has a bad thing to say about the versatile musician and film actor.
Furthermore, one could argue that he is the most charismatic of all the Beatles. After all, it’s he, and not John Lennon nor Paul McCartney, whose mix of charm and pathos steals the show in the band’s 1964 flick, A Hard Day’s Night.
Ringo & The Beatles
The Liverpudlian’s personality is so lovable that it has tended to overshadow his achievements as drummer, singer and songwriter. Alongside Genesis’ Phil Collins and the Eagles’ Don Henley (both of whom cite him as a major influence), he is one of pop music’s most successful singing drummers. In addition to his fuzzy and warm baritone gracing a pair of the Beatles’ most celebrated tunes,“Yellow Submarine” and “With a Little Help From My Friends,” he sang lead on a string of twang-fried gems — “What Goes On,” “Act Naturally,” “Don’t Pass Me By,” et al. — that presaged the rise of country rock towards the end of the ’60s. If all that weren’t enough, he achieved phenomenal commercial success as a solo artist. Between 1971 and ’76, Ringo Starr notched 10 Top 40 hits, including “It Don’t Come Easy” and “Photograph,” each a deliciously infectious concoction of power pop, glam and bubblegum.
You can listen to a Ringo drum part without the rest of the music and still identify the song.
As for Starr’s distinctive style behind the kit, through the decades it has frequently been summed up with the expression “less is more.” But if you really pick apart his contributions to The Beatles, it becomes significantly more complex than that. Starr wasn’t just the rhythm machine that propelled their songs. Steeped in country and western, New Orleans R&B and jazz in the early years of learning his craft, he cultivated an economical, dexterous and ingeniously melodic sound that became a compositional tool central to the band’s songwriting.
As Journey drummer Steve Smith has insightfully pointed out, “One of Ringo’s great qualities was that he composed very unique and stylistic drum parts for The Beatles’ songs. His parts are so signature to the songs that you can listen to a Ringo drum part without the rest of the music and still identify the song.”
This exceptional skill first blossoms on the band’s second wave of hits, arriving in late 1964 and lasting throughout ’65. Among these are the Latin-flavored “I Feel Fine,” the chiming “Ticket to Ride” and the hard swinging “Day Tripper.” Starr’s drumming then grows increasingly inventive as The Beatles penetrate deeper into their psychedelic phase. The patterns he weaves on “Rain,” “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “She Said She Said” are hypnotically kinetic, tangled and dense. On the latter (one of Lennon’s finest pieces inspired by LSD), Starr’s labyrinthine succession of fills and cyclical beats essentially becomes the lead instrumental voice –a brilliant move. When The Beatles began experimenting heavily with overdubbing (see both “Strawberry Fields Forever” and the psychedelic opus “It’s All Too Much”) the studio technique offered Starr a chance to weave together multiple parts into rhythms of astonishing depth and fractal-like intricacy.
Ringo is Ringo, that’s all there is to it.
Starr’s Solo Sound
Though Starr was busy recording his own records after The Beatles’ dissolution at the tail end of 1969, he continued to ply his trade for other artists, including his ex-mates, with whom he was always on good terms. Some of the very best drumming of his career can be heard on George Harrison’s landmark triple LP All Things Must Pass and especially Lennon’s powerful Plastic Ono Band. On the latter Starr mercilessly strips away what little ornamentation his style possessed in order to match the stark emotional honesty of the lyrics. Over the years, he also has worked with the likes of Leon Russell, Stephen Stills, Harry Nilsson, Bob Dylan and many more classic rock heavyweights.
There exist countless quotes from a long list of legendary musicians that attest to Starr’s greatness as both a musician an human being. But perhaps the most touching thing anybody has ever said of Starr comes from his old pal, John Lennon: “Ringo is Ringo, that’s all there is to it. And he’s every bloody bit as warm, unassuming, funny and kind as he seems. He was quite simply the heart of The Beatles.” There exists no finer endorsement of the man.