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The Solo Beatles: Ringo Starr

Ringo Starr

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When the Beatles broke up in 1970, one would naturally fear for dearest Ringo Starr. The other three had established themselves as talented songwriters, but Ringo was, well, Ringo. He was a great drummer. He um, kept good time. But he was the funny one, the odd man out, the tone-deaf musician who depended upon the other three.  In a recent segment on the Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert proclaimed “Paul, the cute one; John, the smart one; George, the quiet one; and Ringo, the luckiest man on earth.”

Sure enough, of the four musicians, Ringo Starr was the least successful as a solo artist. But realizing this, he made up for it in other areas – most notably, acting. With low expectations, he recorded several huge singles, kept his name in the spotlight and over time has seemed to be the most comfortable with his status as an ex-Beatle.

Starting Over

So what does a drummer do for a solo career after his cash cow abruptly calls it quits? At first, Ringo struggled to find his voice, so to speak, releasing two albums of cover songs – one album of standards and one country-western album. But in 1973, he went back to what made him famous, asking his former bandmates to contribute songs and play on his self-titled album.

He always wanted to lend a hand to musicians. His contributions over the years include playing drums for Harry Nilsson, Carly Simon, Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, Paul Simon and of course, Paul, John and George. It pays to be nice to people. Ringo was the only member that got along with the other Beatles. (Although George Harrison would play on a few of John Lennon’s albums, their relationship was testy at times, and neither had any relationship with Paul McCartney.) And when Ringo needed help, all three ex-Beatles gladly agreed to contribute. Ringo was a smashing success and stands as the closest the Beatles ever came to a reunion:

  • John contributed a song that he had written a few years earlier called “I’m the Greatest” (John proclaimed that only Ringo could pull off a line like “I’m the greatest – and you better believe it baby!” and not sound egotistical).
  • Paul wrote a charming song called “Six O’Clock” and sang backup vocals on it and another song, “You’re Sixteen.”
  • George wrote and performed the hit song “Photograph,” which rocketed to No. 1 in the United States.

And then there was “It Don’t Come Easy,” a song Ringo actually co-wrote with George. It proved to be a huge hit – probably the only song from his catalog that most people recognize. Punctuated by horns and George’s trademark slide guitar, the simple melody lent itself well for Ringo’s voice.

It was the highlight of his solo career. And the fall from the top was quick.

The Failures of Ringo Starr

1974’s Goodnight Vienna tried to copy the success of Ringo, using John as the composer for several songs, but the quality was not quite as good, and critics were cool. Then came a host of bad albums, each failing worse than the previous, with singles amounting to nothing more than novelty songs (“Oh My My,” “No No Song,” “Oo-Wee” and “Snookeroo”). He went from record label to record label and battled alcoholism before finding new support in 1989 in the form of his All-Star Band – a revolving group of famous musicians ranging from Joe Walsh and Peter Frampton to Howard Jones and Ringo’s son, Zak.

Ringo Starr seemed to handle being on his own a lot better than the other three ex-Beatles. Having stolen the show in the Beatles’ big-screen debut, “A Hard Day’s Night,” he found limited success in B-movies such as “Blindman,” “Son of Dracula” and “Caveman.” He narrated the children’s show “Thomas the Tank Engine” and appeared in numerous commercials, from Pizza Hut to Oldsmobile. He even started his own furniture company in 1971.

His last few albums have seen a return to the Beatlesque sound that his bandmates perfected, and he has used such Beatle wannabees as Jeff Lynne and the members of Jellyfish on his recordings. He is one of only two surviving members of the greatest band of all time. It’s rare company, and he seems to enjoy the role more than ever.

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5 Comments

  1. Ringo’s last 5 albums were produced with Mark Hudson (Hudson Bros.) who is also the uncle of actress Kate Hudson. Although he tries with each of these albums to come up with something good, they are all pretty dissapointing re-treads of the Beatlesque sound. I feel his last “good” effort was in 1992 with “Time Takes Time” and the “hit” song “Weight of The World.”

  2. I have maintained for years that Ringo should write a book about how it really was. I suspect that given his personality (as it seems to be) and a far lesser need to protect a legacy than Sir Paul has, it would be pretty interesting, and close to the truth.

  3. @Aaron: That makes sense. Starting with Time Takes Time, the quality of all albums has been dramatically better, with a Jeff Lynne/Traveling Wilburys vibe. He seems to be crafting his albums a bit more seriously.

    @jb: You know, no one has written a good biography of Ringo himself. A biography by Ringo would probably be the most objective view into the inner circle. As much as I like Paul, he would certainly give his own, um, perspective to the whole saga.

  4. You’re Sixteen was not written by Paul. It was a hit in 1960 for Johnny Burnette.

    I’m glad Ringo was able to maintain his dignity all these years. Although a Beatle, he didn’t have those songwriting royalties that the others had, and didn’t make a fortune in movies or on tour.

    How ironic that the oldest and least healthy may well be the last survivor

  5. Correct – I may have worded it awkwardly, but I was trying to say that Paul wrote “Six O’Clock” and sang backup on that song and sang backup on “You’re Sixteen.”

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