Ringo: With A Little Help (Backbeat Press, 2015) is an unauthorized treasure by author Michael Seth Starr. The tome is filled with a multitude of facts that may surprise even the most avid fan of the Beatles, not to mention all of the jaw-dropping anecdotes and photographs.
Ringo Starr’s story is an interesting one, to say the least. Although John Lennon was the Beatle most known for parental strife, Ringo was abandoned by his own father as a child. The lad got by thanks to his mom Elsie, his ‘stepladder’ Harry, and the propinquity of loving grandparents. Unlike Lennon, Starr’s birth father never returned for more than one chance meeting, even after the Beatles conquered the world as leaders of the British invasion.
Michael Seth Starr takes us from Ringo’s youth, through the Beatles years and beyond, filling in gaps that many fans will not even knew existed. Ringo plays as an enigma whose personality eased tensions within the group, yet whose ego spiraled out of control after the dissolution of the band. Ringo’s marriages, acting career, substance abuse and recovery, and career with his All Starr Band make for a fascinating read. Long time fans and those new to the Beatles story will want to scour these pages, and relive a riveting rock and roll story that winds up behind the doors of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Michael Seth Starr graciously set aside some time to chat with L4LM’s Bob Wilson, and we’re certainly grateful that he didn’t pass us by. His answers act as an appetizer and enticement for a full reading. If fans of the drummer even think of missing this work, uh-oh, honey don’t.
L4LM: John Lennon was known as the Beatle singing ‘Mother’, and working out family childhood issues. Will you tell us about Ringo’s youth in Liverpool?
MSS: He had a relatively happy childhood growing up in Liverpool as Richy Starkey. Although he was a sickly child — and though his father left the family when Richy was 3 — he grew up in a loving household, thanks in large part to his mother, Elsie. She idolized her son, was always supportive of him and worked several jobs (barmaid, cleaning lady) to make sure Richy had a roof over his head and clothes on his back. It helped that the Starkey grandparents lived just a few doors down (or a block away, after Richy and Elsie moved to 10 Admiral Grove), and that Richy got along famously with his stepfather, Harry Graves. Richy/Ringo also had a extended family of aunts, uncles (and his grandmother on Elsie’s side) who were supportive of him and provided a loving atmosphere. I think that’s why Ringo evolved into the person he became.
L4LM: Ringo went by ‘Richy’ in a spelling new to many fans. Can you tell us about that, and how he arrived at Ringo? And please tell us about Maureen Cox’s name change (which I had never heard of before your work)?
MSS: Ringo spelled his name Richy (without the “e”), thought I’m not sure why he chose that particular spelling. He was renamed “Ringo Starr” after he joined Rory Storm and the Hurricanes — “Ringo” had a double significance: Rory (and Ringo) were big fans of U.S. Westerns including “Stagecoach” (in which John Wayne played “The Ringo Kid”) and the 1957 movie “Johnny Ringo.” And Richy wore several rings on his fingers, so “Ringo” was appropriate. “Starr” just seemed to fit perfectly (and was a lot more “show-biz” than Starkey — and Rory Storm was very attuned to that sort of thing. His real name, after all, was Alan Caldwell!)
Maureen Cox was born Mary Cox, but she later changed her first name to “Maureen” because she thought it sounded more worldly and sophisticated — particularly to a young girl from Liverpool who had dreams of becoming a hairdresser.
L4LM: When Ringo became ill on the eve of the Beatles first world tour, Jimmie Nicol stepped into Ringo’s role and suit. What was that like for Ringo, and what was it like for Jimmie Nicol?
MSS: Ringo was very upset when that happened, because he felt he would be forgotten — by his fellow Beatles and their fans — particularly when the decision was made (against George Harrison’s wishes) to continue part of the tour with Jimmie Nicol subbing for Ringo. Jimmie Nicol later said he loved the experience but never felt he quite fit in. And he was unceremoniously dismissed when it was time for Ringo to return — and never quite recovered from the experience.
As far as I know, he’s totally dropped out of sight and is a recluse these days.
L4LM: How did Ringo’s role change when the Beatles stopped touring, and their work was now so focused on the studio?
MSS: Once The Beatles stopped touring and devoted all their recording time to the studio, Ringo had to evolve to a new style of drumming vis a vis more technically complicated songs. He acquitted himself nicely and “rolled with the punches,” so to speak, even though some later songs didn’t require very much in terms of drumming.
L4LM: Many have said that The White Album was like 3 musicians with sidemen. In your book, Ringo says that they felt like a unit again, which is a new account of the period. What was going on with the group at this time?
MSS: It was time of turmoil. Ringo became the first Beatle to walk out on the group during The White Album. He was unhappy with his drumming and thought the other three Beatles were turning on him. (Ironically, the other three felt the same way about each other). He spent two weeks on his pal Peter Sellers’ yacht with his family and wrote “Octopus’s Garden” while John, Paul and particularly George bombarded him with telegrams pleading for Ringo to return. When he did — I think he realized he had a good thing going, regardless of the ill feelings — George had the entire studio, including Ringo’s drum set, covered in flowers. All four Beatles really did love each other through all the bad times — Ringo, who was an only child — often refers to them as his “three brothers.”
L4LM: What was Ringo’s relationship like with Yoko Ono?
MSS: Ringo thought Yoko was strange (who wouldn’t?), but I don’t think he harbored quite the same hostility towards her as Paul McCartney and George Harrison, who really resented her presence (particularly in the studio). And, remember, it was Ringo — and not Paul or George — who rushed to Yoko’s side after John Lennon’s assassination. I think that speaks volumes.
L4LM: After the break-up, Ringo scored some impressive hits. That said, for much of his solo work, it sounds as if he just came in to sing on tracks already prepared for him. What caused Ringo to have such a “hands-off” approach?
MSS: You need to keep in mind that Ringo was not a songwriter, and that several of his early solo hits were written (or co-written) by George Harrison. I think that, once his early solo success began to peter out, Ringo was searching for some meaning to his life and trying to deal with being an “ex-Beatle” — and that manifested itself in his jet-setting lifestyle and alcoholism. And that, in effect, affected his solo musical output, which eventually dwindled into insignificance until he got clean and sober in 1988 and started touring with the All Starr Band. One thing fed off another.
L4LM: Ringo seemed to think that the Beatles may have lasted if Paul did not quit the group in the public eye with the release of McCartney. What went on as these events transpired?
MSS: That’s probably wishful thinking on Ringo’s part. There was too much bad blood between all four Beatles, at that point, to carry on — and isn’t it poetic that they broke up in 1970 after having such a huge impact on the ’60s? They never could have replicated that era: John was now with Yoko, Paul, George and Ringo were pursuing solo careers (George, in particular, felt liberated after being under the Lennon/McCartney yoke for all those years) and heavy metal was about to explode onto the scene.
L4LM: The account of George and Maureen having an affair will be shocking to some that this is new to. How did this affect Ringo’s marriage, and George and Ringo’s relationship?
MSS: Ringo and Maureen’s relationship was already on the rocks when George and Maureen had their fling — and I think it was the final “nail in the coffin” of their marriage, so to speak. I don’t think Ringo ever recovered from that in terms of trying to make his marriage to Maureen work. And he was fooling around with other women, too, so…
Ringo and George eventually got past that blip in their friendship (though it was a pretty big blip) and remained good friends. And don’t forget that Ringo was at Maureen’s bedside when she died in 1994 — so they, too, eventually reconciled that part of their relationship. After all, Maureen was the mother of Ringo’s three children (Zak, Jason and daughter Lee), so that also linked them together.
L4LM: What do you see as the high and low points of Ringo’s acting career? Did his rock star success affect how this acting road may have gone?
MSS: High points: “A Hard Day’s Night,” “The Magic Christian,” “That’ll Be the Day.”
Low points: “200 Motels,” “Lisztomania,” “Candy,” his drunken scene with Keith Moon in “The Kids Are Alright.”
And, yes, I do think Ringo’s rock-star career affected his decision-making when it came to big-screen roles. He admitted as much later on — that, almost always, he was wanted as “a Beatle” rather than for the acting chops he brought to the table. His name recognition made it easy to snare movie roles — often to his detriment. He had a tough time saying no.
L4LM: The album Ringo is in many ways the closest fans have gotten to a reunion of all four Beatles. Can you describe how Ringo could bring the four together to do this project?
MSS: One of the reasons I subtitled my book “With a Little Help” is that Ringo was so beloved, not only by his ex-band-mates but by fellow musicians who later contributed to the All Starr Band (Peter Frampton, John Entwistle et al.) So it’s not too surprising that he corralled John, Paul and George to contribute to the “Ringo” album. And keep in mind that was 1972-73 — and The Beatles had broken up only a couple of years before.
L4LM: Today what is the daily life of Ringo like?
MSS: As far as I can tell, Ringo, at 75, is happy, healthy, devoted to his wife, Barbara Bach, and still enjoys touring with the All Starr Band. I’m a little surprised with some of his choices as a spokesman (Skechers and John Varvatos, for instance) but, then again, if you look back at his post-Beatles career, he did lots of TV commercials (Pizza Hut, wine coolers and even some commercials with Harry Nilsson for a Japanese suit company). So I guess it’s not that surprising, in retrospect.
RINGO: With A Little Help (Backbeat Books, 2015) can be found on Amazon!