Ringo Starr (Richard Starkey) was raised in the working class Dingle area of Liverpool. He went through two serious illnesses as a child and spent a total of three years in hospital, thereby falling considerably behind in school; after his last visit to the hospital, at age fifteen he could barely read and write.
Like the other Beatles, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison, young Ritchie (as he was known in those days) also eventually became caught up in Liverpool’s Skiffle craze. In 1957, he started his own group with Eddie Miles called The Eddie Clayton Skiffle Group; then he joined The Raving Texans in 1959, a quartet that played while Rory Storm sang. During this time, he got the nickname Ringo, because of the rings he wore, and because it sounded “cowboyish”, and the last name Starr so that his drum solos could be billed as “Starr Time”.
Starr first met The Beatles in Hamburg, in October 1960, while he was performing with Rory Storm and The Hurricanes. When The Beatles removed Pete Best as their drummer on August 16, 1962, Starr was their choice to replace him.
Although Storm was magnanimous about losing Starr, Best fans were upset, holding vigils outside Best’s house and fighting at the Cavern Club, shouting “Pete Best forever! Ringo never!”
Starr’s drumming style played a pivotal role in the music played and recorded by The Beatles. He filled a role for which he was hired in 1963, then went on to establish a new approach to rhythm in popular music that continues to grow in its significance and influence with every decade since The Beatles recorded their music. Starr is left-handed yet plays a right-handed kit; his tendency to lead with his left hand contributes to his distinctive drumming style.
Many drummers list Starr as a major influence including Max Weinberg of The E Street Band, Liberty DeVitto of Billy Joel’s band, Phil Collins, and others. According to Collins, Starr is “vastly underrated. The drum fills on the song “A Day in the Life” are very complex things. You could take a great drummer today and say, ‘I want it like that.’ They wouldn’t know what to do.” In his extensive survey of The Beatles’ recording sessions, Mark Lewisohn confirmed that Starr was both proficient and remarkably reliable and consistent. According to Lewisohn there were less than a dozen occasions in The Beatles’ eight-year recording career where session ‘breakdowns’ were caused by Starr making a mistake, while the vast majority of takes were stopped due to mistakes by the other three members. Starr has commented that the most difficult drumming he has ever performed was on The Beatles’ song “Rain”. Starr is also notable for having advanced various modern drumming techniques (for playing and recording) such as the matched grip, placing the drums on high risers for visibility as part of the band, tuning the drums lower, using muffling devices on tonal rings, along with his general contributions to The Beatles as a whole.
John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison have all said that Starr was the best rock and roll drummer in the world, although when asked in an interview once “Is Ringo Starr the best drummer in the world?” Lennon quipped “He’s not the best drummer in The Beatles!” This was in reference to the songs on 1968’s White Album “Back in the USSR” and “Dear Prudence”, the first two tracks on the album, in which Paul was forced to do the drumming; Starr had stormed out earlier and didn’t return for two weeks until the other three Beatles begged him to return. They even went so far as to dress up his drum kit in flowers when he returned. Paul was also behind the drums in “The Ballad of John and Yoko” in early 1969, since only Lennon and McCartney were available to record the song. He also didn’t play in the early recording of their first single, “Love Me Do”, the session drummer Andy White was brought in by their producer George Martin fearing that Starr was out of practice (“ring rust”), but Starr’s version eventually was released on the single, with the other version later appearing on their first album.
Starr’s easy-going, everyman personality played a major role in The Beatles’ success, combining very effectively, Lennon’s wit, McCartney’s charm, and Harrison’s quiet seriousness. With these qualities The Beatles became the “Fab Four”. Starr also contributed in areas where the others were weak, like public relations (Starr does most of the talking during their press conferences) and acting (Starr being the only competent actor of the four, being cast in the lead roles in their feature films and specials).
Starr generally sang at least one song on each studio album, as part of establishing the vocal personality of all four members. In some cases Lennon or McCartney would write the lyrics and melody especially for him, as Lennon did with “With a Little Help from My Friends”, from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and as McCartney did for “Yellow Submarine” from Revolver. Often these melodies would be deliberately limited to take into account Starr’s vocal range—most of “With A Little Help From My Friends” is sung within the space of five notes.
Of all The Beatles, Starr did the least songwriting. The Beatles explained that when he would present a song as a contender for an album cut, the song would sound (to the other three Beatles) like a knockoff of another popular song, but Starr did not recognize the similarities until they pointed it out. He did, however, write “Don’t Pass Me By” (on The White Album) and also, “Octopus’s Garden” on the album Abbey Road, albeit with quite a bit of help from Harrison. The White Album continued to show the taste for country music that Starr had brought into the band on earlier albums, such as on Rubber Soul's “What Goes On”, co-written by Lennon, McCartney and Starr. Starr also wrote “Taking a Trip to Carolina” (on the second CD of the Let It Be . . . Naked release), and received joint writing credits with the other three Beatles for “Flying”, “Dig It”, “12-Bar Original”, “Los Paranoias”, “Christmas Time (is Here Again)”, and The Beatles’ version of “Free as a Bird”, while “Maggie Mae” was credited as being “Traditional arr. Lennon McCartney Harrison Starkey”.
In addition Starr contributed a number of lyrical ideas and song titles to Lennon and McCartney, although sometimes unintentionally. One of the most famous examples of this was the title for the band’s first motion picture, A Hard Day's Night. Starr had emerged from the studio after a long day of work and commented to the others that it had been a “hard day’s . . . “ - before he finished his sentence, Starr noticed that it was now night time and added “night”. Lennon and McCartney liked the twisted phrase enough that they decided to use it as the title for the still untitled movie the band had been filming. Another example is the title to “Tomorrow Never Knows”. Starr also contributed to the lyrics of the Clapton/Harrison song “Badge”. According to a Clapton interview, the following lines of the song were thought up by Starr:
I told you ‘bout the swans that live in the park. Then I told you ‘bout our kid, now he’s married to Mabel.
After the breakup of The Beatles on April 10, 1970, Starr scored hit singles with “It Don’t Come Easy” and “Back Off Boogaloo”. The latter was his biggest UK hit at number two - he remains the only Beatle not to have a solo UK number-one single. He also participated in Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh.
In 1973 the Ringo album came out, lushly produced by Richard Perry and with participation by all three former bandmates on different tracks. It was a major triumph and Starr unexpectedly became the most commercially successful ex-Beatle at that time. The Goodnight Vienna album followed the next year and was also successful. Hits and notable tracks from these two collections included “Photograph” (co-written by Harrison), “You’re Sixteen”, “I’m the Greatest” (written by Lennon), “Only You”, and the “No No Song”.
Starr’s recording career subsequently diminished in impact, although he continued to sporadically release albums. Beginning in 1989 he became a visible presence on the summer touring scene, organizing a series of concert tours under the name Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band, teaming with well-known musicians from various different rock eras. The format of the concerts has Ringo singing a couple of his Beatles’ or solo songs, then each of the other musicians taking a turn to sing one of their songs with Ringo behind the drums, then Ringo singing a couple more, then another go around, and so on. In this way Ringo is relieved from having to carry the full burden of the show and the audience gets to hear a variety of music. The eighth such All-Starr Band tour took place in 2003.
Other than the films Ringo did with The Beatles, (A Hard Day's Night (1964), Help (1965), Magical Mystery Tour (1967), Yellow Submarine (1968), Let It Be (1970)), he has acted in several films such as, Candy (1968), The Magic Christian (1969) (alongside Peter Sellers), Son of Dracula (1974) and Caveman (1980). He starred as Larry the dwarf in Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels (1971). His voice is featured in Harry Nilsson’s animated film The Point! (1971). He was especially well-received in the British film That'll Be the Day (1973) where he co-starred as a Teddy boy. He also made an appearance in The Who’s rock opera film, Tommy.
In 1978, he started a furniture company with Robin Cruikshank and sold $4,000 coffee tables and a donut-shaped fireplace designed by Starr.
In 1984, he narrated on the children’s television series Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends and portrayed the character Mr. Conductor on that program’s American spinoff Shining Time Station, which debuted in 1989.
In 1991, he appeared as himself on the cartoon “The Simpsons”. In 1996, he appeared in a Japanese advertisement for apple sauce; coincidentally, ringo is Japanese for apple.
In 2002 Starr was inducted into the Percussive Hall of Fame joining the elite group of percussive inductees, which includes Buddy Rich and William F. Ludwig, Sr. and his son.
In 2003 Starr began recording for the independent label Koch Records, releasing Ringo Rama that year and Choose Love in 2005; the former includes his stylish tribute to Harrison called “Never Without You”, and the latter features appearances by Billy Preston and Chrissie Hynde.
In January of 2005, it was announced that comic book creator Stan Lee would be working with Starr to produce a new animated musical superhero based on Starr.
Y Not is the 2010 album from the former Beatle and Rock icon. For the first time in one of popular music’s most enduring and illustrious careers, Ringo Starr has decided to take charge and produce himself. The result is perhaps the most personal and impressive album of this Rock legend’s entire solo career. The joyous result finds Ringo leading a smaller core group of old and new friends, including longtime pal and recent brother-in-law Joe Walsh, Dave Stewart and longtime Roundheads member Steve Dudas on guitar, Benmont Tench of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on keyboards, Don Was and Mike Bradford on bass. The album also features special guests like Joss Stone, Ben Harper and Richard Marx on vocals, Ann Marie Calhoun on violin and Tina Sugandh on tabla and chanting. Starr’s former band mate and longstanding mate Paul McCartney adds a characteristically brilliant bass part to the inspiring “Peace Dream” and even more notably provides his unmistakably fabulous vocals to “Walk With You”, an exquisite new composition by Starr and Van Dyke Parks.