In PART 1 of a special two-night conversation, the legendary Beatles drummer discusses his remarkable career, and his new book of never-before-seen images, Photograph.
Ringo Starr – Part 1
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, part one of a special two-night conversation with the legendary Ringo Starr. The drummer who gave the Beatles their heartbeat has, of course, enjoyed an immensely successful and dynamic solo career as well and continues to play an essential role in modern music.
The rock and roll icon joins us to talk about his remarkable life and career and his new autobiographical book of images and writings titled “Photograph”.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Ringo Starr coming up right now.
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Tavis: Ringo Starr is, of course, one of the most iconic figures in all of music. The man who provided the drum beat for one of the most successful musical groups of all times sat down with me at one of my favorite L.A. bookstores, Book Soup, to talk about his remarkable life and career.
First, though, a look back at when America first met the Beatles when they appeared, of course, on the Ed Sullivan Show back in 1964. Here they are playing their classic song, “I Want To Hold Your Hand”.
Tavis: Ringo, first, thanks for the opportunity, man. I really appreciate this.
Ringo Starr: Hey, it’s my pleasure.
Tavis: I want to start here because you have said repeatedly over your career, most recently on the occasion of your 75th birthday–by the way, happy belated birthday.
Starr: Where’s the gift? Oh, another mug [laugh]?
Tavis: Yeah, the mug, yeah. Here’s your gift. Have a Smiley mug.
Starr: All right.
Tavis: You’ll send me a Ringo mug, though?
Starr: Yeah, I will.
Tavis: Okay [laugh]. You’ve said repeatedly that “I will never write a book” and you said…
Starr: No, I’d never write an autobiography, yeah.
Tavis: Exactly. And you said that because you know that what they really want to hear is just about those eight years…
Starr: That’s all they want to know.
Tavis: When you were with the Beatles. So how does this book tell the story that you do want to tell?
Starr: Well, it tells it with photographs and it’s the early Ringo. I wasn’t called Ringo then, of course, you know. You know, it’s like an autobiography in pictures, but just for certain sections of your life. And I love it being with the photos because, you know, they jog your memory.
It’s no good asking me like, oh, yeah, are you with the Beatles now? Remember in 1964? No, I don’t remember. Oh, there’s a picture. Oh, yeah, we were in this place or we were in Chicago, wherever. So photos are really a help for me.
And I found these photos out of the blue. I mean, emptying a storage facility and I didn’t know I had them. I thought they’d all gone over the years. And I thought, well, let’s put some use to it, and it’s all for charity. So it makes it a win-win situation. You get to see me in my photos and the charity gets a helping hand.
Tavis: We’re going to spend the most of our time, the majority of it, talking about the text. Can I just say at the outset, though–not because I’m here. I said it when I opened it–this is a beautiful book and Genesis–I mean, artists can be particular and peculiar. I assume you’re happy with this because it’s a gorgeous piece of work.
Starr: It is, and I do.
Tavis: It’s a piece of art.
Starr: You know, Genesis, I have a relationship with. I did the first book with them, “Postcards From the Boys”, another find. You know, I did it with Nick [inaudible], so when I found this, I thought let’s do something with it. Let’s be positive, not just put them in another folder, and put the book out. And I called Nick and he came over. Between us, we picked a great selection and then he sits there with his mic and asked me questions.
Tavis: We’re going to go through some of this in the time we have today. You mentioned this. I want to follow you in. You have not always been a Ringo, Mr. Starkey. So who in your life calls you something other than Ringo? Who calls you?
Starr: All my family.
Tavis: They do?
Starr: Especially my children.
Tavis: What do they call you?
Starr: Dad [laugh].
Tavis: Okay. But-ump-ump. I got it. Walked into that one chin up, booty out, okay. Who calls you something other than Dad?
Starr: Well, my grandchildren call me Granddad.
Tavis: Okay, Ringo.
Starr: And my mother used to call me Darling. So it’s mainly the family. Even my old friends call me Ringo because that’s how we met, you know. So not many don’t call me Ringo.
Tavis: So nobody calls you Richard?
Starr: No. Barbara does if she’s angry [laugh]. I get the whole name.
Tavis: We won’t talk about that [laugh]. I think it’s true. As a matter of fact, I know it’s true that we are all the sum total of our life experiences. It is impossible to talk about any of us without talking about our genesis–pardon the pun–without talking about our beginnings. But your beginnings are so instructive and informative, I think, when one talks about your career.
Your dad leaves when you’re three. You were a very sickly child. I want to ask two questions about that. The first question is, given where you started, being so sick during your formative years, why do you think you have been blessed–that’s my word. You can use another word–why do you think…
Starr: No, I love the word blessed.
Tavis: Why do you think you’ve been blessed to be here for these 75 years when you could have been taken out by any one of those illnesses as a child?
Starr: Well, they told my mother three times, “He’ll be dead in the morning.” So God has great plans for me. I don’t know. It’s like you live your life, that’s what you do. Because of an illness, I wanted to be a musician.
That’s how I started playing, and I only wanted to play drums. You know, I’m blessed because I’m still playing. And I’ve played with two of the greatest bands in the world, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes and the Beatles.
Tavis: That All-Starr Band wasn’t bad either. That All-Starr Band, that’s pretty amazing.
Starr: The one I got right now is good. You know, people can tell you’re still playing? Yeah, I’m playing. That’s what I do. I mean, that is the love of my life. I love–we get up night after night. We play, we perform, we entertain. You know, we do what we love to do. You know, no one gets it better than that.
Tavis: Your book starts out, Ringo, with some great photos of your early childhood, some just poignant and powerful photos of you and your mother. And the irony hit me on the very first page of this book, the ultimate irony hit me when I saw that, as a child, you and your mother sang songs to each other, and her favorite song was “Little Drummer Boy”.
Starr: Yeah, “Little Drummer Boy”, and I would make her cry and sing “I’m Nobody’s Child” [laugh]. No, that was not just me and my mum. That was our whole…
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, your whole family, exactly.
Starr: They had lots of parties and they loved and everybody had their songs. You had to sing a song. That’s how it was.
Tavis: But what do you make of the fact that your mother’s favorite song that she’d sing all the time was “Little Drummer Boy” and you end up being…
Starr: Well, that’s your mother, and I became one, you know. I don’t know. Maybe she knew something.
Tavis: I mentioned earlier, your father leaves at three. You got some great father figures in your life, great stepdad.
Starr: I had a great stepdad.
Tavis: Have you ever thought about whether or not that’s in any way impacted you that your father did leave when you were three?
Starr: No. I think it really impacted me.
Tavis: In what ways?
Starr: Well, I think in the ways I could only look at many years later. You know, one of the things that nobody really mentions is that, you know, I had no protection. And, as a child, my only dream was to have an older brother, the impossible dream. Because where I came from, it was good to have a brother who was big because, you know, we were kids.
We’d have a little fight. The next minute, you’d be coming around. You know what I mean? Someone your size. So you had all those dreams and I also felt that, you know, my mother who loved me every second of my life. She loved me and I was very ill, so she really loved me.
You know, I didn’t remember this at three, but I look back now and it was the same, but I felt I needed a man in the house. I don’t know. I just felt I needed a man in the house like someone strong because I knew when I was being a spoiled brat.
You know, I’m an only child also, and when you’re being a brat, you know it. So I knew when I would just be like this, the worst kid in hell. Me! Me! I want that, you know, and she’d go, “All right, son.” You’d say, “God, I wish I’d–just give me a slap. Just stop that!” You know?
Tavis: It’s fascinating to hear you say that because I believe that, even when kids rebel, oftentimes what they’re rebelling against is they don’t have that authority figure in their life. They don’t have that discipline.
Starr: No, no, I believe it. You know, it’s something I felt I needed. But, you know, this is just how I felt that I needed this because I didn’t have it. So if I’d have had it, who knows what would have happened?
Tavis: But your prayers were answered in the sense that you had a stepdad and there are other father figures–I’ll let you talk about that in a second–in your life. But you can’t read this book without seeing the absolute adoration that you have for and the affirmation you receive from your stepdad and these other father figures in your life. Tell me about some of the men who…
Starr: Well, my grandfather was great, you know. I was brought up with my mother who had to work every hour to support us after my dad left. I was brought up in the maddest situation by my mother and the dad who’d left his parents, my grandparents.
And if I was ever ill, they would just wrap me in a blanket and take me to my grandmother. She had all the cures you needed. You didn’t go to the doctors or the hospital…
Tavis: Grandmothers always do, don’t they?
Starr: They do. She was like the voodoo queen of Liverpool [laugh]. You know what I mean? And she had two great remedies if you had cold, flu or anything like that. She’d give you a hot toddy, whiskey and hot water and sugar, and I loved that. And if it was growing on you, it was a bread poultice. She would like do the bread magic and put it on to suck out the poison.
So, you know, this is who I was brought up by and loved by the three of them. So I was not lost for love. You know, I well up a bit even now that these people, these three people, just loved me. It was so great, you know. So that saved me.
Tavis: Let me ask–I don’t want to be overly philosophical, but I want to follow you in this door. What have you learned then from such an early age about the power of love in your life?
Starr: Well, it’s always been big, you know. And with my own children, though, I could have done it better, but they did a great job with their children. I feel I could have done it better. We always end, “Love you, Dad”. Love you, whichever kid it is.
You know, love has always been part of our regular daily dialog. So, yeah, but it seems natural to me now. You know what I mean? It’s been so long that, you know, peace and love, brother.
Tavis: I want to talk about love and…
Starr: I just keep spreading that. I truly believe that, you know, the world would be a better place with peace and love. And my dream, and on my birthday, we have the peace and love moment at noon. Wherever you are, go peace and love, that one day everyone will do it. It’s like a sci-fi movie. Everyone will go “peace and love”.
Even if you don’t say it loud, the thought’s great. You know, the action of even thinking peace and love, and I was taught that your actions even when you’re thinking are very strong. And I was taught that by Maharishi in India. Then if you think, swat a fly, you might as well swat it because that is so powerful, that action in the brain, so I try and back off from that.
Tavis: I’m glad you went there because I want to talk about that because, again, you can’t get to the book without talking about how you were exposed to this notion of peace and love. Tell me how that happened…
Starr: Well, it happened, I was in the hospital with my wife at the time. We were having our second son. I got back home and there was a message from John and a message from George. They’d gone to the lecture by Maharishi. “We’ve just been to this lecture by Maharishi. It’s great. We’re all going to Wales on Saturday because he was having a seminar.”
So I decided, okay, I’m going with them. And we went and that’s how it started with Maharishi. Of course, while we’re with Maharishi, of course, Brian Epstein dies, so we cut it short.
You know, life happens. You know, you’d like to think it’s all really smooth, but there’s a lot of fences you have to get over. So then we went to India and to learn to meditate, to learn to just try and quiet the brain really. That’s really what you’re trying to do and realize that there is other spaces in this world of ours that you can live in, that you can be in.
So that’s why I still meditate to this day. Every morning, I meditate to start off my day with sort of a refreshed way of–getting a little in the meditation, of course, trying to get a little deeper to see that, oh, is that important? Is that so important? In my case, I truly believe that, you know, there’s a power greater than myself in my life, and to try and connect to that as well.
Tavis: To what extent, then–I want to jump forward, then I want to go back to your childhood again. To what extent, then, since we’re talking about it, did your faith–again, my word, not yours–your faith, your spirituality, pull you through the dark moments of your life like addiction, etc., etc.?
Starr: Yeah. I didn’t feel that as a kid. I was ill. I felt ill. I was ill, I felt better. So I didn’t put any of that to use really at all.
Tavis: There’s some great photos here of your neighborhood. You referenced it earlier in this conversation. Give me some sense of your neighborhood and that building with that “V” on it.
Starr: Yeah, well, that was V for Victory after the Second World War. And that was our second home because we lived in another house and it was all very lower working class. But anyway, we’re in this house essentially and my grandparents, who I talked about.
And then my father left and my mother had to work every day of her life. We couldn’t afford that house, so we moved across the street to this other house with the “V”, Admiral Grove. And it was actually classified derelict when we moved in and we stayed there for 17 years.
But that’s how it was. You know, I wasn’t there like sitting around saying, yes, it’s derelict. It was home. That’s how you live as a kid. And the school was just up the road, St. Silas, and all my friends, the kid friends, were there. You know, if you’re in it, you’re just in it.
I did have like at 13, 14, I wanted to go and live in a house that had a garden, you know, and I remember that so strongly. I wasn’t talking about where I did end up with a lot of acres. I was talking about houses just in another area that had little gardens. I thought, oh, wow, a little lawn, man. Look at that flower, you know.
Tavis: Here’s this word Genesis coming up again—again, pardon the pun. But I’m curious as to…
Starr: I’m not Phil Collins. You don’t have to worry about Genesis [laugh].
Tavis: Okay, I won’t say that again in this conversation. I’m wondering, though, what’s been the greatest takeaway for you? Given all the massive success you’ve had, what’s the great takeaway from those humble beginnings? Because you grew up quite…
Starr: Yeah, we were poor…
Tavis: How poor were you, exactly?
Starr: Well, you see, you’ll always meet someone else who was poorer.
Tavis: Absolutely. But what’s your takeaway from those humble beginnings?
Starr: Well, I think I had a moment and, you know, all the moments didn’t come suddenly we’re making money, I’m in the Beatles, blah, blah, blah. Yeah, I moved into a very nice house. We had kids. I put my mother in a nice house and my stepdad, I did things…
Tavis: With a garden?
Starr: With a garden, oh, yeah. You know, when we first moved, Zak was our only kid then. Maureen and I, we moved to the so-called country. It wasn’t really the country, but it had land. And we had five acres and we grew potatoes and I dug up a potato and it was like how great is this! Because we’d planted them.
We had a garden and we didn’t know how to do it. I just found myself like so full of joy that I dug up this potato and I’ve got to tell you, those potatoes, nothing has tasted so good, nothing ever [laugh]. I mean, you know, it’s like mad when you’re talking about it. But that’s what it was.
Then we got beans and flowers. I mean, it was just growing things and you could walk, you know. And as kids from neighborhood, we would walk through the park in Liverpool to the school, to the second school when we were 11.
But being lads and it snowed, we would walk to the park and forget to go to school [laugh]. We would like be so excited with the snow. We’d be making snowballs and treading on it, you know. So green and land is a huge thing for me in my whole psyche and my spirit.
Those days with three or four 11-year-olds and that was it. School was over. I wasn’t very good in school. I don’t recommend it, but I wasn’t very good. I missed a lot of school, so I was always at the back of the class because of the illness.
Tavis: To your point, because you were sick, because you were ill, you couldn’t go to school all the time. Obviously, you’ve become a great artist. How have you over your life educated yourself if not in the formal classroom, reading? Travel? What’s your education…
Starr: Everything you said. You know, I can read anything. I still can’t spell, but I never wrote anything really. And it was in the Beatles, John said, “Well, just do it phonetically.” And I’ve done it ever since like that. You know, there are two t’s in cat [laugh]. You know what I mean?
It’s just like that fear went away. I just wrote it down. You know, how many words are there? Is it that word or that word? Is it the o-u or is it the o-o? You know, it’s so confusing. You know what I mean? I should write my book about how to read [laugh].
Tavis: Back to this childhood again. So when you decided that you were going to be the little drummer boy, your family couldn’t afford a set of drums.
Tavis: So you had to make your own. Tell me about that first drum set.
Starr: Well, the first drums I made were out of biscuit tins and I put little bits of metal on top on the snare one, and I made the sticks out of firewood. So that was that and a couple of other little tins. Then I don’t know how.
I ended up with a concert bass drum with one skin on it, which these parties where everybody sang and that you had to come with a banjo or the piano in your auntie’s house or someone would play something they always played. So I’d have my opportunity just to hit this drum. Drove them mad, you know. “Oh, God, he’s not playing that drum again, is he?” It was just a noise.
And then it came to an incredible moment where, out of the blue, my stepfather, one of his relations died 200 miles away down in London.
And he went down there and the guy, the dead guy, had a kit of drums and he bought it off the family for 12 pound, $20, you know, and brought it back. So, oh, my God, I got a kit. And within days, I was in a band because I had the instruments. You only had to have the instrument when I was starting, and you’re in the band [laugh].
It didn’t matter if you played because the boy next door, Eddie Clayton, who worked in the same factory–I was working in the factory then–he was one of those who could just play guitar. Give him a trumpet, he could do that. You know what I mean? He was one of those crazy guys who could play things.
And we formed a skiffle band, thanks to Lonnie Donegan and a lot of, you know, American house music, “Hey Liley, Liley”, “Rock Island Line”, Leadbelly stuff, bluesy, but a shuffle. So my friend, Roy, he made a teach-us bass, you know, a pole and a piece of string, and we went and played. That’s how we started.
Tavis: How did you become not just proficient at this time, but the world’s most famous drummer? How did you get good at your craft?
Tavis: Just playing, just playing?
Starr: And I found it very difficult to go, you know, like you see it in movies, the kid goes in the back room to play his drums or in the garage in this day and age. I never enjoyed playing alone, never ever. So I learned with you. I learned with, you know, bands who were learning like I was.
Tavis: Always in collaboration, yeah.
Starr: So we always learned. Even now, you know, “Yesterday”, because I’m starting rehearsals on Sunday, I have to listen to the band tracks and I’m in my own little studio. Oh, God, I hate this, just on my own. You play piano, you play–anyone plays and I’ll play all night. I love to play with people.
Tavis: What’s that say about your spirit? It sounds to me like a spirit of collaboration.
Starr: It is, it is. You know, especially for a drummer, it’s no good me going out alone. You know, “I Did It My Way” [laugh]. You need something in your hand. Now I’d like to play, you know, just drums [laugh]. I’m afraid not.
Tavis: Ringo Starr was gracious to agree to stick around for one more night of conversation, so join us tomorrow night for the second part of our talk with the legendary musician and Beatles drummer. Ringo’s new book, once again, is called “Photographs” available now.
We’ll leave you with more footage from the Beatles’ historic ’64 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show performing “Till There Was You”. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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