Ringo Starr often gets a bad rap. Written off as “the luckiest guy in the world,” his solo career has been overlooked and disparaged in comparison with the other ex-Beatles. But as an artist in his own right, his impact on music is impossible to ignore. Between recording 18 studio albums (including 2015’s excellent Postcards from Paradise), photography, acting, and fronting one of the longest-lived supergroups in history, Ringo Starr is a force to be reckoned with.
Far from the diminutive underdog he played in A Hard Day’s Night, the real Ringo was born to take the spotlight. As a member of one of Merseyside’s most popular bands, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, he was known as the best drummer in Liverpool. His dry sense of humor, his penchant for flashy jewelry, and the distinctive gray streak over his right temple further set him apart on the stage. And unlike many drummers, who can’t or don’t want to sing, he always had his time at the mic. The Hurricanes’ popular “Starrtime” segment pushed Ringo out front, singing crowd favorites like “Boys” and “Alley Oop!,” accompanied the fan screams that he would come to know so well.
Flash forward about a decade. Ringo was a quarter of the biggest band in the world — a band veering into a public and contentious breakup. Like the other three, Starr had begun to establish himself as a solo artist, and made a surprisingly big splash with 1970’s Sentimental Journey, a collection of pre-war standards. Released in March 1970, it dropped three weeks before McCartney, Paul McCartney’s controversial solo album that officially marked the Beatles breakup. Ringo only provides the album’s vocals; in an odd start to his solo career, the most famous drummer in the world releases his first solo album, but doesn’t drum.
Sentimental Journey was quickly followed by Beaucoup of Blues, 14 country-flavored songs written specifically for Ringo. Both did well in the charts — many reviewers thought he found his niche with Beaucoup — but it was Ringo’s self-titled third album that kickstarted his post-Beatles music career. (Ringo may have agreed with this assessment; his sixth album was titled Ringo the Fourth.) Ringo established the formula that defines his solo work: fun pop/rock albums full of collaboration from a huge number of his famous friends, featuring Starr’s signature drums and vocals.
The early ‘70s were great years for Starr: Sentimental Journey and Ringo both reached #7 on the UK album charts, and the latter went Platinum. Eight singles hit the top 10 between 1971 and 1975, most notably 1973’s “Photograph,” “It Don’t Come Easy” (both co-written with George Harrison), “You’re Sixteen,” “Back Off, Boogaloo,” and 1975’s ode to getting sober, the laugh-out-loud funny “No No Song.” “It Don’t Come Easy” hit the airwaves at the same time that the other three ex-Beatles released singles: George’s “Bangladesh,” John’s “Power to the People,” and Paul’s “Another Day.” Ringo’s song topped them all.
As painfully cliche as it is to say, it’s true: Ringo does get by with a little help from his friends. Or rather, a lot of help, since collaborations are the key to Ringo’s projects. Every album is bursting with famous names — Harry Nilsson, Elton John, and Billy Preston, among others — writing, producing, playing, or singing. And his collaborators often included John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison. As the peacemaker, Ringo was the only ex-Beatle who consistently maintained close relationships with the other three after the breakup. They all wrote for him and performed on his albums; in fact, all four Beatles appeared on Ringo (though not at the same time).
The solo years also found Ringo exploring his love for film. He’d been in love with the movies, especially Westerns, since he was a sickly child in Liverpool. And after being a fan favorite in both A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, Ringo was eager to try his hand at non-Beatles-related projects. He had already appeared in a few movies, including Peter Sellers’ The Magic Christian, which he shamelessly plugged on the 1969 Beatles Christmas Record. Though never a huge success, he worked frequently in the ’70s, was praised for his performance in 1981’s Caveman (where he met his current wife, Barbara Bach), and again played a fictionalized version of himself in Paul McCartney’s ill-fated foray into film, Give My Regards to Broad Street. Yet as an actor, he’s most well-known for his stint on the small screen, as the narrator of iTV’s Thomas the Tank Engine, and later, appearing as the tiny conductor on the US version, Shining Time Station.
Ringo kept producing records through the ‘70s and early ‘80s, but none achieved the success of his earliest post-Beatles efforts. Some, like the disco-inspired Ringo the Fourth (1977), were disastrous, but many were simply non-events. And as his popularity waned, Ringo’s addictions took over. Drugs and alcohol played a huge part in Starr’s life since he was a kid — he was nine years old the first time he blacked out from drinking — and his addiction issues were at an all-time high by the late-’70s. People began to notice; the once goofy, happy-go-lucky Starr became a public drunken mess: lost, depressed, and uninspired.
Hey now, you’re an All-Starr
After years of battling drug and alcohol addiction, Ringo got clean in 1989. Around that same time, his dormant music career was revitalized with a new project: Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band, a rotating lineup of classic rock musicians where, as Ringo says, “Everybody on stage is a star in their own right.” The tour features Ringo singing Beatles and solo favorites, alternating with other band members who perform hits from their own classic rock days (the current lineup includes Steve Lukather from Toto, Gregg Rolie from Santana and Journey, and Todd Rundgren). They don’t write new music or put out records beyond the occasional live album; they simply play what the audience came to hear. The All-Starrs are a lot like Ringo himself: putting on a night of fun and memories for friends and family without taking themselves too seriously. Twenty-six years after that first tour, the All-Starrs still sell out.
At 75, Starr is still touring, making records, and spreading his message of “peace and love” around the world (check out his Twitter if you want to smile). He’s also an avid photographer; a new book of photos, aptly titled Photograph, will be released in September 2015.
The past decade has finally brought Starr the recognition he deserves as a solo artist. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, was named a Commander of Arts and Letters in France, was GQ Magazine’s 2014 Man of The Year, and even has a minor planet named after him. And this year, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the final Beatle to be recognized for his solo work. As Stella McCartney once said about her father’s own induction, “About fucking time.”