Still Fab After All These Years

Everybody considers Ringo Starr the goofy Beatle. The likeable Beatle. The Beatle with the least songwriting talent. The Beatle with the best knack for self-promotion. But Starr, born Richard Starkey in 1940, didn’t just accidentally replace original drummer Pete Best. And Ringo was surely no pushover to the more forceful personalities of John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison. In fact, all three actively lobbied to get Starr, who was already an established member of Liverpool band Rory Storm & The Hurricanes, into The Beatles after Best was unceremoniously sacked in 1962.

Seven years later, as The Beatles were recording their double-album masterpiece “White Album,” Starr quit, annoyed by all the infighting and recording delays. The surprising part is how hard the other three Beatles worked to get Ringo back.

McCartney and Lennon sent postcards that said, “You are the greatest drummer in the world. Really.” And when Starr finally returned, he found Harrison had decorated the studio with flowers.

Of course, it’s only a small testament to Ringo’s impressive contributions to The Beatles. He coined the offbeat terms “a hard day’s night” and “tomorrow never knows” before they became titles for a film and two songs. He lent his singsong-y baritone to playful hits like “Yellow Submarine” and “With A Little Help From My Friends.” And his biggest songwriting achievements came on “Octopus’ Garden” and “Don’t Pass Me By,” both of which lightened up The Beatles’ increasingly gloomy late-period oeuvre.

Ringo’s time in The Beatles wasn’t without controversy, though. In 1964, he came down with tonsillitis, just before the band’s profitable European and Asian tours. Producer George Martin urged the band to go on, using a session drummer, but Harrison in particular chafed. Ringo rejoined the band after only 12 days, but many thought karma was coming back to haunt him à la Pete Best. Yet everyone associated with The Beatles asserted throughout the years that Ringo’s drumming was integral to the band’s untouchable success.

Martin said Starr gave The Beatles “that rock-solid back-beat” and called him “probably the finest rock drummer in the world” after the unparalleled success of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” — ironically Ringo’s least favorite album. And in 1980, long after Starr had established himself as an all-around success — seven consecutive Top 10 singles, a documentary about T. Rex, a furniture company and his own record label — Lennon had this to say: “Ringo was a star in his own right in Liverpool before we even met. Whatever that spark is in [him] that we all know but can’t put our finger on … he would have surfaced with or without The Beatles.”

There were disappointing post-Beatles moments, though. Ringo produced several dreadful disco-inspired albums in the late 1970s. His personal record label folded after only four releases. Many ridiculed Starr’s mid-’80s decision to narrate the first two seasons of iconic children’s show, “Thomas The Tank Engine & Friends,” as a desperate ploy for celebrity attention — British critics used to joke that if there was an envelope opening somewhere, Ringo would be there. An ill-fated 1995 Pizza Hut commercial featured Starr trying to rally the remaining Monkees for a reunion before saying, “Wrong lads” to the camera. In 2008, he announced he was “too busy” to sign autographs any more, and in ’09, hardcore fans derided him for drumming up support for “The Beatles: Rock Band” video game.

Then Ringo found himself on the rebound. In 1988, he did six weeks in rehab, eventually getting clean and sober. The following summer, he put on his first Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band concert with a phenomenal cast including Joe Walsh, Nils Lofgren, Dr. John, Billy Preston, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Jim Keltner and Clarence Clemons (since then, the lineup has changed each year). In 1997, Starr and Paul McCartney’s tune “Really Love You” earned the duo their first joint songwriting credit, wiping away decades of perceived ill will. And Ringo has released seven well-received records in the last 14 years, a solid run for even the most energetic of recording artists. “I’ve been asked to write an autobiography of myself, but they really only want those eight years,” he told SiriusXM earlier this year. “And I say, ‘But there are 10 volumes before we get to that and 20 afterwards.’ ”

In 1992, Ringo told Rolling Stone, “I am the greatest drummer in rock & roll,” but his main message has always been a selfless one of peace and love — good luck finding a photo of him not flashing the peace sign. Many are already mourning the day that Starr and McCartney, the final remaining Beatles, will pass. Earlier this year, Ringo said he wants to keep the show going. “[My] hero is B.B. King,” the 71-year-old percussionist told Spinner in February. “He’s 86, but he’s still playing. He might be sitting down but, hey, I’m sitting down already. My new attitude is, ‘as long as I can hold the sticks, I can play.’ ”

Nick McG

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