The Beatles Apart: Ringo Starr

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. But he was the funny one, the odd man out, the tone-deaf musician who depended upon the other three.  Stephen Colbert once 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 was the least successful as a solo artist. But realizing this, he made up for it in other areas, adding such jobs to his resume as actor and entrepreneur. 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.

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 – an album of standards and a country-western album. But in 1973, he asked his former bandmates to contribute songs and play on a new album, Ringo.

It was payback time. Ringo always wanted to lend a hand to musicians., and 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. 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” (He said 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 on 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 wrote. Produced by George, it proved to be a huge hit – probably the only song from his catalogue that most people recognize. Punctuated by horns and George’s trademark slide guitar, the simple melody lended itself well for Ringo’s voice.

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

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 (e.g., “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-Starr Band – a revolving group of famous musicians ranging from Joe Walsh and Peter Frampton to Howard Jones and Ringo’s son, Zak Starkey.

Ringo 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.