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RETRO: Meet the 4th Beatle

When he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a recipient of the Award for Musical Excellence in 2015, Ringo Starr was individually honored as a solo artist, just as the other three Beatles had been, years earlier.

And yet, Ringo will always be most famous for his drumming with the Beatles between 1962 and 1970.  That’s always been the case; it always will be.

Which is not to say that his solo output is negligible. It isn’t. Not at all. 

Starting in 1970, Ringo’s post-Beatles career was swiftly launched with his trailblazing Sentimental Journey LP (eons before Linda Ronstadt, Rod Stewart, and Bob Dylan re-created classic Sinatra-era standards, Ringo did so with Sentimental Journey), quickly followed by Beaucoups of Blues, a fine country-western album recorded in Nashville.

One year later, in 1971, “It Don’t Come Easy” topped the charts and Ringo’s Top 40 hit singles (“Back Off Boogaloo,” “You’re Sixteen,” “Photograph,” “Only You,” and others) continued through the mid-1970s. 

Ringo Starr, 1964

Oddly, he’s knocked for roping in the other three ex-Beatles to play on different tracks (and to contribute songs) to his eponymously titled 1973 mega-hit album Ringo. Such snark is inane, because John Lennon and George Harrison did the same thing.  Only Paul McCartney made early solo albums with no ex-Beatles aboard.

The standard riff on Ringo is that he was the luckiest bit-part player in the history of Pop music.  That at just the right time—at the last minute, shortly before their first recording dates—the Beatles dumped their original drummer.  Therefore, Ringo just lucked out. 

Always missing from that summation is the fact that John, Paul and George recruited Ringo Starr—specifically—because whenever they had jammed together after hours, everything gelled and grooved like never before.  He was tailor-made for the other three. And nothing alters the fact that in the realm of the Beatles and their best works, Ringo Starr remains essential.

The biggest misconception people have about drummers is that to be terrific, they must be technically busy with extra-large drum-sets arrayed before them.  Playing long, visually dazzling solos is, for many undiscerning listeners, the one true sign of a great drummer.

Ringo Starr, 1969

Most musicians, however, concur that a non-flashy drummer who plays to serve the needs of the ensemble is a gem to behold.  If a drummer can check his or her ego, hold back, and play what the song requires (in addition to keeping time), everybody wins.

Throughout the Beatles’ recording career, Ringo’s gift was to bring to the band a richly textured “feel” in his playing that was musically–and temperamentally–ideal. Examples abound: His snap-crackle-pop of a “fill” that follows a brief guitar solo in the middle of “I Feel Fine”—that’s enough to get anyone up and dancing, not to mention his unique samba-rock rhythms galvanizing the song from start to finish. Or listen closely to “A Hard Day’s Night” and catch how Ringo overdubbed the funky cowbell and the perfectly pitched bongo-drums to augment the overall recording.  When listeners or dancers hear that cowbell hit on each downbeat as the song evolves, that’s when the headbanging begins. A small detail, yet it defines the groove.

Have another listen to “In My Life” (from 1965) or “Get Back” (from 1969). John Lennon’s lead vocal on “In My Life” is superb, and the piano solo is exquisite.   However, you’ll soon realize that what you can’t get out of your head is Ringo’s way of practicing the art of omission. Throughout most of “In My Life,” he omits half of the cymbal-tapping and snare-and-bass drum work usually required for a basic rock ballad beat.  The result? Silent spaces buoy the song in a way that’s reminiscent of Count Basie’s less-is-more piano playing.

As for “Get Back,” any attempt by a tribute band to play it is doomed unless the drummer replicates Ringo’s two-handed snare-drum “shuffle rhythm,” which is exactly what gives that song its unique kick.

And nothing (not even John Lennon’s lead vocal) defines “Ticket to Ride” more than the unusual rhythm pattern performed on drums, lending that song its waves of percussive accents, enhancing its shifting moods.  Watching dancers react to “Ticket to Ride” is the surest way to see his savvy drumming subtleties affecting how we move our bodies. Each time “Ticket to Ride” takes off in a new direction, it’s because Ringo shifts gears.  Intuitively, dancers always respond to that by moving in a brand new way.

Did he grow and evolve like the other Beatles? Yes, indeed. Ringo’s ornamental touches on “A Day in the Life” and Strawberry Fields Forever show a percussionist at work, not just a drum-set player. And his playing on Abbey Road (the Beatles’ final studio album) is endlessly inventive, especially on “Here Comes the Sun,” with its effortless use of three different time signatures.

Ringo laid down the beat for the most influential band in the history of popular music.  For that alone he deserves to be individually honored. His solo years? A bonus.

Now, at 79, his beat goes on.  Ringo’s touring again with his All-Starr Band.  Rock on.

Ringo Starr, Today

(M. J. Moore is Honeysuckle Magazine’s RETRO columnist. His novel, For Paris ~ with Love & Squalor, was published in 2017. His new book Mario Puzo ~ An American Writer’s Quest, the first-ever biography of Mario Puzo, was published by Heliotrope Books [heliotropebooks.com] on March 8, 2019 – the 50th anniversary of The Godfather.)

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