A crash course in the most under-appreciated Beatle
Since the Beatles called it quits in 1970, the three men who stoodin front of the stage have had no problem building their legacies — John Lennon wrote the iconic “Imagine” and “Give Peace a Chance,” George Harrison released All Things Must Pass and spent time as a Traveling Wilbury, Paul McCartney headlines Super Bowl halftime shows and Olympic opening ceremonies.
Drummer Ringo Starr, alas, has not been afforded the same luxury: After a string of hit singles in the early Seventies, he’s mostly beenout of the musical spotlight, reappearing as a consummate session man(he’s drummed for Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Ben Harper among others) or as a voice actor.
Starr’s 2015 Award for Musical Excellence at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony gave the drummer some well-deserved, and long-overdue, props as both a sideman and a solo artist. In the latter role, he’s released 20 studio albums — including, Postcards From Paradise in 2015 and What’s My Name in 2019 — and several books. Catch up with the career of our cover star with these 20 songs.
[Editor’s Note: a version of this list was originally published in March 2015]
“Sentimental Journey” (1970)
Right after the Beatles' traumatic dissolution, Starr brieflyswervedaway from rock entirely,recording a batch of pre-rock standardslike"Night and Day," "Stardust" and his debut solo album's title track, "Sentimental Journey."Hardly the best fit for his modest vocal gifts, true, but charming regardless — plus, the recriminations and lawsuits that followed the band's split would make anyone long for a simpler time. This had been a back-burner idea of his for a while, and he selected the songs with input from his parents, particularly his mother.
“Beaucoups of Blues” (1970)
Country music has always suited Starr's wry warble best, and with the encouragement of legendary pedal-steel session man Pete Drake, he recorded his second solo album, Beaucoups of Blues, in Nashville, a city he'd somehow never visited before. The presence of Presley looms over this recording: Elvis's first guitarist, Scotty Moore, was the engineer at Music City Recorders, a studio he partly owned, and the King's backup boys, the Jordanaires, harmonize smartly behind Ringo.
“It Don’t Come Easy” (1971)
Partly a foretelling of the laid-back ease of Seventies soft rock ("you don't have to shout or leap about"), 1971's "It Don't Come Easy" is nonetheless deservedly Starr's most acclaimed hit. Greil Marcus included it in his "Treasure Island" discography appendix of Stranded, where Ringo's one-single entry tied him with solo John Lennon ("God") and beat solo George Harrison (zilch — Paul McCartney got all of Band on the Run). In I Wanna Be Sedated: Pop Music in the Seventies, Phil Dellio and Scott Woods called "It Don't Come Easy" and "Photograph" "probably the two best post-Beatles singles of all." Not bad for a casually ornate three-minute brass-and-cymbal-hooked semi-Phil Spector homage featuring gospel-ish choral backup by two guys in Badfinger.
“Early 1970” (1971)
“There’s nothing wrong with the Beatles,” Starr was supposedly still assuring people in March 1970. A month later, the breakup was official, and half a year after that, he recorded this hopeful but heart-breaking eulogy that wound up, at least initially, hidden on the B-side of “It Don’t Come Easy.” It’s a choogling sort of rap where he self-deprecates about his own instrumental skills (“I don’t play bass ’cause that’s too hard for me”) while wondering, verse by verse, which of his ex mates (or fellow “knights,” as an earlier version of the title had it) will play with him when they come to town. Paul maybe, John for sure, George already here —in fact that’s him on slide guitar and piano!
“Back Off Boogaloo” (1972)
In 1972, glam rock was the next big thing in Britain, and Starr was as susceptible to T-Rextasy as the next guy. He directed a documentary, Born to Boogie, commemorating a T. Rex Wembley Stadium performance, and Marc Bolan's influence is all over this playful stomp. Ringo dug the cut so much he re-recorded it almost a decade later with harmonies from Harry Nilsson and Beatles quotes interpolated into the lyrics.
While passing the time between Mick Jagger's wedding and the Cannes Film Festival on a yacht off the south of France (ah, the Seventies), Starr began collaborating with George Harrison on the song that would become his first Number One U.S. solo hit. Ringo allows a swelling chorale to envelop and buoy his voice, and Phil Spector's original studio accomplice, Jack Nitzsche, created the lush wall of sound arrangement, which the great studio saxman Bobby Keys bursts through with a typically mighty solo.
“I’m the Greatest” (1973)
Lennon, who wrote this song, realized that the boastful lyric would make him sound like a jerk (again). Ringo, however, could pull off its ironic swagger by resurrecting his Sgt. Pepper's alter ego, Billy Shears. It's theonly recording featuring all four members of the mythical post-Beatles group the Ladders, which was rumored to include John, George and Ringo, with artist Klaus Voorman taking Paul's place on bass.
“You’re Sixteen” (1973)
Even beyond the conspicuous age differential (Starr was 33 in 1973), why would an erstwhile teddy boy revive the dittythat rockabilly star Johnny Burnette of "Train Kept A-Rollin'" renown had used tosell out toteen-idol famein 1960? One clue might be that Burnette's original —almost a minute shorter —had shown up in American Graffiti just months before. Ringo's version, his second and last single to go Number Onein the U.S., has more ragtime-y piano, fewer rockabilly hiccups, doo-wop-ish backing vocals apparently courtesy of Harry Nilsson, Paul McCartney either playing a kazoo or imitating one and part of the antique sea chantey "What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor?"
“Oh My My” (1974)
By 1974, Starr had become just about as successful a solo star in the U.S as any of his former bandmates. “Oh My My,” the fifth of eight straight Top 10 hits, was a straightforward romp with Billy Preston on piano and soulful backup from Merry Clayton and Martha Reeves. Both Ike & Tina Turner and Bette Midler would later cover it.
“Only You (and You Alone)” (1974)
Lennon suggested that Starr cover this golden oldie, best known viathe monumentally smooth 1956 version by the Platters — and the spoken-word interlude is so wonderfully silly you'll wish Ringo had recorded an album of Barry White tunes. Lennon, who was in the studio recording several oldies himself at the time, plays acoustic guitar and sang a guide vocal; the Ringo-free version available on his 1998 Anthology box set is strikingly similar in style to the version of "Stand by Me" that later appeared on Rock 'n' Roll.
Written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin in tribute to Starr's own hardscrabble Merseyside youth, "Snookeroo" is of a piano-rolling piece with songs like "Social Disease" and "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting," which the pair had put on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road in 1973. Ringo burbles enthusiastically about being raised in a Northern England working town, breaking rules and shooting pool, yearning for a factory girl and watching Mum succumb to booze while their little house succumbs to a wrecking ball. It got to Number Three on Billboard in 1975 as part of a two-sided radio hit, the flip of "No No Song."
“No No Song” (1974)
Starr gets offered weed from Colombia, coke from Majorca (you even hear his nose sniff for that one) and bootleg hooch from Tennessee, but he turns them down because he's on the wagon and doesn't like floor-sleeping. Hoyt Axton, the folkie who also wrote the "Joy to the World" song about bullfrogs (i.e., not the Christmas one) and "Greenback Dollar" (which introduced the word "damn" to pop music), was the author; his more mariachified version didn't come out until a bit after Starr's, but at least it had Cheech & Chong on it. The music's real root, though, is apparently the Rhodesian number "Skokiaan," (first recorded in 1947), the title of which actually gets affixed to certain pressings of Ringo's records.
“(It’s All Down to) Goodnight Vienna” (1975)
This rousing New Orleans-style rock &roll number, written by Lennon, lifted its title from a British slang term for “it’s all over.” And after this minor hit, it was pretty much goodnight Vienna for Starr’s career as a hitmaker. Not even his charisma could enliven the slick studio rock of the two last albums he’d release in the Seventies.
“Wrack My Brain” (1981)
In 1980, Starr was hopeful for a comeback. Lennon had written two great songs for him and George Harrison offered up a third. But the former's tunes quickly becameoff-limits after his murder in December: A demo of "Nobody Told Me" was set aside to become a posthumous Lennon hit and the playful country tune "Life Begins at 40" was now gruesomely inappropriate. As for Harrison's contribution, he kept "All Those Years Ago," revamped as a tribute to his late bandmate, and offered Starr this uptempo bit of fun in exchange. The track, which peaked at Number 38, became his finalsingle to chart.
“Act Naturally” (Buck Owens With Ringo Starr) (1989)
Starr was a longtime fan of Owens, a pioneer of country's stripped-down Bakersfield sound, who scored a Number One country hit with "Act Naturally" in 1963. Of course,Starr firstrecorded thenumber for Help! in 1965, a little joke about his budding acting career. Fourteen years later, in 1989, the timing was right for them to do it together:Owens' career had just been revived by a duet with his young disciple Dwight Yoakam, and Ringo had just begun touring with his All-Starr band. The video, with these two expert hams playing bumbling gunfighters, is even more fun than the song.
“Weight of the World” (1992)
Back in the groove after touring with his All-Starr Band, Ringo recorded his first album in nearly a decade, 1992's Time Takes Time,and the lead single was his best song since the Seventies. As though taking a hint from Starr's buddy George Harrison, producer Don Was arranged shimmering 12-string guitars to take on an almost Wilbury-ish feel.
“Come On Christmas, Christmas Come On” (1999)
Starr’s 1999 Christmas album,I Wanna Be Santa Claus,contained the usual standards like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Winter Wonderland,” as well as “Christmas Time (Is Here Again),” a song the Beatles had recorded for their 1967 Christmas message. Butfor the promosingle, Starr got back to his glam roots with this football chant, featuring background vocals by Jeff Lynne.
“The Official BBC Children in Need Medley” (as Thomas the Tank Engine) (2009)
Many millennial tots are likely to have first encountered Ringo not as a Beatle, but as the voice of the original narrator of Thomas the Tank Engine or as Mr. Conductor on Shining Time Station. Here, he joined in with a number of other British kiddie show voice talents for a strange medley that starts out with the Jacksons' "Can You Feel It" and arrives at Elbow's "One Day Like This," with stopovers in "Jai Ho!" and "Hey Jude."
“Walk with You” (with Paul McCartney) (2009)
Starr had initially planned to pen a song about God, with something of a gospel flavor, but writing partner Van Dyke Parks took the tune in a more secular direction. The new topic was friendship and its power to endure over the years, which made it the ideal setting for a collaboration between the two surviving Beatles as they neared their seventies.
“I Wish I Was a Powerpuff Girl” (2014)
As adorable and animated in his way as the Powerpuff Girls themselves, Starr was just the Chemical X the Keane-eyed crime fighters’ 2014 comeback special needed. “‘Cause then I’d save the world, and afterward, cuddle up with a puppy or two,” he sings, proving that you’re never too old to dream of becoming a lab experiment gone awry.