Parting Shots: Ringo Starr

Dean Budnick on September 16, 2015

Ringo Starr  enjoyed a particularly active 2015. The drummer celebrated his 75th birthday, was inducted into the Roll and Roll Hall of Fame, released a new studio album Postcards from Paradise, toured behind it with his All-Starr Band (more dates will follow in October), and celebrated the release of his book Photograph, which was previously available only as a limited edition. Photograph presents over 250 images from The Beatles drummer’s archives.

Looking back at your Hall of Fame induction, is there a moment that stands out for you?

The main moment was playing with Paul. That’s always good for me. He actually set it up, and humorously, we say that I only got it because Paul wanted a day out. Playing with Green Day was a high, and Joan Jett blew me away. But you know, it’s a hang. The whole atmosphere was great.

My favorite image of the book might be the one of you behind the drum kit, while the other members of Rory Storm & the Hurricanes are kicking their legs in the air. Can you talk a bit about that group?

Rory was the showman of Liverpool, and I loved playing with Johnny Guitar. He was the first guitarist with a Jimi Hendrix attitude. I was working in a factory, and then we got this gig for three months at a holiday camp [Butlins] so I left. It all could have stopped three months later, and we’d all be out of a job, but it didn’t. We went to Germany in 1960 and that’s where The Beatles were showing John’s friend Stuart Sutcliffe how to play the bass. We went down to the basement in a coffee bar and said hi. Stu Sutcliff took me to my first German meal, which was big pancakes with a lot of maple syrup that lasted the day.

The Beatles’ promoter eventually put them on at the Kaiserkeller [in Hamburg] with us. It became where we got our chops because, during the weekends, we did 12 hours a night—between two bands—and we tried to blow each other off the stage and get the audience. That’s how we learned to do what we do really well.

It was at Butlins that we thought, “Let’s all change our names.” So I became Ringo Starr. That’s how it started. Then I joined The Beatles, and we didn’t do so bad either.

Is there a photo that jumps out at you as a favorite for one reason or another?

I can’t pick out one because it’s all my life, but as I’m just turning the pages, there’s a great one on page 99 of John in Paris surrounded by people, and he’s basically being ignored. It’s interesting because we were used to
screaming girls, but when we played in Paris, it was like a 90 percent male audience. So instead of a “Waaah!” it was like a “Whoah!” They loved us in a deep voice. It was far out.

Another photo I really like is the one where John’s all folded up, sitting in a chair.

Try to sit like that—it’s impossible! He had double-jointed knees. His foot is so high and his knee is so low, across his other leg. I got that photo because we were so relaxed and we spent a lot of time together back then. I got a nice shot of him without his glasses.

Another one that jumps out at me is the picture of Brian [Epstein] in the Beatle wig.

That’s how crazy it was—Brian and George Martin in Beatle wigs. If you weren’t there, you’ll never really understand it. That’s the point of it, really, because it was just the four of us who went through this. I’ve got that photo of the kids looking at us in our limo. There was so much security, and I just pulled out my camera and took this shot. What was great was we found all of those people and they came to Vegas to an All-Starr show. We had photos and, you know, like most of us, they’d aged a little.

You have a few photos of Harry Nilsson, someone who doesn’t really get his due.

He was my best friend. We had met during the ‘60s because he did a version of “River Deep, Mountain High,” which was bordering on insanity. We heard he was in town so I invited him to come to the
studio, and we didn’t do that a lot. His voice was the purest of anyone singing in those years. John later produced that Pussy Cats album. By then, we were all experimenting with medication [Laughs] and he lost his voice altogether. But he is well worth listening to—starting with his early records, like Pandemonium Shadow Show.

I was going to ask you to name your favorite version of the All-Starr Band, but you do so in the book.

Well, the first All-Starr Band [1989] was just so crazy. I had a phone book, and just called all these players. It was like an orchestra, more than a band. I had three drummers—I was one of them, Jim Keltner sat on my left and Levon Helm was on my right because I was so nervous about putting this thing together. Levon was a find from God. He was a beautiful human being. Rick [Danko] and Dr. John and Billy Preston weren’t busy, so OK! Then, I thought I wanted someone to lean up against because I had seen Springsteen, so I called Clarence [Clemons] and he said OK! We also had Nils Lofgren and Joe Walsh, and it was mad but it was such a great start to the All-Starrs.

You mention Levon and Rick. Can you talk a little bit about The Band and what they meant to you?

I remember George and I were in New York, and we found out that Jimi Hendrix was in the same hotel. Then George said, “Eric Clapton’s coming over.” He brought an acetate of [Music from] Big Pink—it wasn’t even a record,
and said, “You’ve got to listen to this.” We played it, and we were just blown away. The whole cohesion of The Band—it had such a great feel and a swing to it. And then we went upstairs to see Jimi Hendrix, who was being Jimi, up in his suite.

Do you have a favorite song to play when you’re touring with your All-Starr band?

I love doing “Little Help” and “Yellow Submarine” and “It Don’t Come Easy”… That’s why I’m there. We do Beatles tracks, my tracks. I’m looking forward to doing “Island in the Sun,” from the new record, because we all wrote it and played on it. We were soundchecking, getting this groove on, and I later invited everyone down to my room to write some words. It had been a dream of mine, for 20 years, to write and record a song with the All- Starrs. A lot of my life works like that. You can plan until the cows come home, and nothing happens, then suddenly, you have a cup of tea and it all falls into place.