By Robyn Flans
I could not have been more thrilled to hear that Ringo Starr is to be inducted into the PAS Hall of Fame. As longtime writer for Modern Drummer magazine, I cannot count the number of drummers who have told me that Ringo inspired their passion for drums when they first encountered the music of the Beatles.
Starr is the first to admit that he is not a technician on his instrument. But his creative input, time feel, unorthodox fills, and emphasis on serving the music helped make the Beatles' music what it was. Without the contributions of all four Beatles--Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr--the Beatles music would not have been that music.
"Before Ringo, drum stars were measured by their soloing ability and virtuosity," says Steve Smith. "Ringo's popularity brought forth a new paradigm in how the public saw drummers. We started to see the drummer as an equal participant in the compositional aspect. 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.
"He was also the first drum star who was not an American by birth," Smith adds. "Ringo was the first `outsider' to join a very exclusive club of drummers, because the drumset was developed in the United States. Ringo was the first of the English rock drummers of the '60s to define the archetype of the present-day rock drummer."
Twenty years earlier in Liverpool, England, it would have been impossible to predict that a boy named Richard Starkey would make the mark he made. As a young boy, he battled with ailments, first at age six, when appendicitis developed into peritonitis, and then at thirteen, when a cold turned into pleurisy. During his second hospital stay, which ran nearly two years, Starkey cultivated an interest in a band that came to entertain the kids.
"In the hospital, we used to play on the little cupboard next to the bed, and then once a week, they had a band to keep us occupied," Starr recalled when I first interviewed him in 1981 for Modern Drummer. "This guy would have these big green, yellow, and red notes, and if he pointed to the red note, you would hit the drum, or the yellow was the cymbal or the triangle, and things like that. I wouldn't play in the band unless I had the drum."
At age sixteen, he bought a $3.00 bass drum, made a pair of sticks out of firewood, and played constantly. He recalls next making a kit out of tin cans. Finally, in 1957, his stepfather bought him a used, mixed-and matched drumkit for Christmas. Two months later, he joined his first band, the Eddie Clayton Skiffle group.
"If you had an instrument, you could join a band," he recalled with a laugh. "It didn't matter if you could play. We'd start with the count of `one, two, three, four,' and then it would be like an express train because we'd get faster and faster and faster. People were dropping like flies on the dance floor."
While working full-time in a factory, Starkey played occasional gigs with the group. He was hooked, though, and in 1960 he quit his factory job to work full-time with another skiffle group, Rory Storme and the Hurricanes. Starkey became known as Ringo Starr, a name he chose due to his fascination with American cowboys and in keeping with the style of British skiffle music, which was much like American rockabilly. During his two years with Storme, rock music began to seep into the band, who was playing the same venues as another Liverpool group, the Beatles.
"The Beatles were the only band I ever watched because they were really good, even in those days," Starr recalls.
One day, Beatles' manager Brian Epstein knocked on Starr's door, asking him to play a lunchtime gig at the Cavern club with the Beatles. Starr recalls that every couple of weeks he was sitting in for the Beatles' drummer, Pete Best. Soon, Epstein asked him to permanently join the Beatles. "I said, `Yeah, I'd love to. When?'" Ringo recalled. "He called me on a Wednesday and said, `Tonight.' I said, `No, I can't leave the band without a drummer. They'd lose a six-week gig.' I said I'd join Saturday, which gave Rory the rest of the week to find a drummer."
When Starr showed up that next Saturday night, there were two camps engaged in what he described as a "shouting match." One crowd of fans was screaming, "Ringo never, Peter forever," while others yelled, "Pete never, Ringo forever."
When the Beatles did their first recording session, producer George Martin wasn't sure Ringo could cut it in the studio, and so he hired a session drummer named Andy White. Two versions of "Love Me Do" were recorded, the single with White on drums and Ringo on tambourine, and the album cut, on which Ringo played drums. From then on, however, Ringo played on all the Beatles tracks, with the exception of "Back in the U.S.S.R," on which McCartney did the drumming because Ringo was away.
"I was on all the other records, with my silly style and silly fills," Ringo said. "Everyone put me down--said that I couldn't play. They didn't realize that was my style and I wasn't playing like anyone else--that I couldn't play like anyone else."
Drummer Gregg Bissonette says that many of those "silly fills" were complicated and all of them were creative. "One fill, in `Come Together,' was an important part of the song," says Bissonette. "And the fills near the end of the Abbey Road album, where the bass drum is pumping eighth notes and he's filling over that, became a really famous part--actually considered his only solo. The triplet fills he did in `A Day in the Life' were very aggressive, but they fit the music and they swung so great.
"In the middle section of `Here Comes The Sun,' I count three bars of 3/8, then a bar of 2/8, a bar of 4/4, a bar of 2/4, and then 3/8, repeated. It doesn't feel like a prog-rock odd-tempo number, it's just Ringo playing the melody. In `Hey Jude,' when Ringo comes in after Paul's long intro, the fill is double the length of what you think it would be or should be, but it moves you into the B section and lifts the song up. Then in the bridge of `Hello Goodbye,' Ringo does a whole section of fills that are perfect for the song He's playing a bunch of stuff, but it swings and percolates. His fills add motion to the song and they're anything but silly. They took the music to a different place. They're really genius."
To Bissonette, Ringo's lack of formal training only added to his charm as a player. "His playing is so innocent and emotional, heartfelt and not pretentious at all," Bissonette says. "The parts work for the song, and he never did fills when there were vocals going on. He always waited for those breaks; he never stepped on the vocal. He subscribed to the `less is more' philosophy throughout the verses, and when there was a place for a fill, they said a lot. Like on `Help,' `Ticket to Ride,' or `Tell me Why,' they were often double stops at very brisk tempos.
"Ringo was also one of the first drummers I saw to bail on the traditional grip. For years drummers had to play everything traditional grip. If they were doubling in a symphony orchestra, they had to play timpani, xylophone, and marimba with matched grip, so why did there have to be a whole different grip for drumset, just because years ago the military guys had their snare drum at an angle and their left elbow was up in the air? Ringo brought the matched grip into the mainstream.
"Ringo also did the percussion on all the Beatles tracks," Bissonette adds. "Nowadays, bands hire a percussionist to add a percussion track, but in those days, they were just four guys sitting in a room and George Martin would say, `Maybe we could use some percussion,' at which point Ringo would play great-feeling maracas, lots of tambourine, and he even played timpani on `Every Little Thing.' He played bongos and congas, the backs of chairs, and had great musicality."
In my 1997 Modern Drummer interview with Starr, he revealed that his favorite Beatles track is "Rain." "It's the first time I think I was playing that `snatch' hi-hat [`open' punctuations]," he explained. "And what helped me to do that was that I was born left-handed. I write right-handed, but if I throw or play cricket or do anything physical, I'm left-handed. So I'm sort of this left-handed guy with a right-handed kit. I cannot start on the snare, go to the top tom, and then go to the floor tom. I have to start on the floor tom and move up, so those `snatches' on the hi-hat were just to give me room to get somewhere so I could get my hands working and get my arms to move around the drums."
The body of work from the Beatles with Starr's creative and imaginative drum parts helped legitimize the role of an ensemble drummer, whose input helped form the songs and bring the music to life. Starr, himself, says it was a complete team effort. "Our roles in the Beatles were that we supported each other," he told me. "No matter who was on, the others were supportive, the best they could. A lot of it was telepathy. We all felt so close. We knew each other so well that we'd know when any of us would make a move up or down within the music, and we'd all make it."
Jim Keltner, who recorded with Starr countless times (first on percussion on Ringo's "It Don't Come Easy" and then on many double-drum tracks on various Beatles solo projects), as well as touring on Ringo's first All Starr Tour, sums up Starr's contribution: "When you think of Ringo, it's impossible to not think of the Beatles, and when you think of the Beatles, you remember those perfect songs with the perfect drum parts. When you hear the live BBC tapes, recorded with no more than two or three mic's, and the way he's laying it down, you know Ringo is one of the greatest rock drummers of all time."
Robyn Flans is a Los Angeles-based journalist who contributes regularly to Modern Drummer and People magazines.