In PART 2 of our special conversation, the Rock-and-Roll icon reflects on his life and career.
Ringo Starr – Part 2
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, the conclusion of our two-night conversation with rock and roll icon, Ringo Starr. The legendary musician and Beatles drummer sat down with us for an in-depth conversation about his life and music. Also a talented photographer, he recently published a collection of never-before seen images from his early life, times with the Beatles and beyond, compiled in this new text titled “Photograph”.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. The conclusion of our two-night conversation with Ringo Starr coming up right now.
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Tavis: Ringo was kind enough to join us for a second night of conversation. The legendary Beatle recently published an autobiographical book of images and writings titled “Photograph” in which he shares memories of his childhood, the Beatles’ years and beyond.
We begin tonight’s conversation discussing his pre-Beatles musical experience. But before that, a taste of the mass hysteria surrounding the group when they first broke here back in the 60s.
Tavis: Let’s talk about The Hurricanes.
Tavis: Tell me.
Starr: Rory and The Hurricanes?
Tavis: About The Hurricanes.
Starr: All right.
Tavis: There are a lot of photos in this book about that period of your life.
Starr: There is because I must have had a camera by then. The two things with Rory, they were like the biggest band in Liverpool at the time, and I was working in the factory. Everyone was working and playing at night and we had an offer of a three-month gig in a holiday camp in Britain.
And they gave me the incredible opportunity to make a decision to leave the factory and just go and call myself a professional musician, yeah. And I got paid regular for playing. I was a professional.
Tavis: When you became a professional and you could use that title, professional musician, how’d that make you feel?
Starr: It made me feel great. I was doing what I loved. I did not like getting up at seven in the morning, getting on the bus, half an hour to the factory, being in the factory, getting on the bus, coming home. You know, I feel my soul was a musician’s soul. I loved to play and that’s what I ended up with the great opportunity, but that was an incredible decision I had to make that all my family were against.
Leave the factory? Drums all right as a hobby, son. All those lines I got and it wasn’t like just my mum and my stepdad. My uncles and aunts, they came out the woodwork to try and convince me, you know, the factory is pretty solid.
Tavis: You made the right decision in hindsight, obviously, but where did you find the courage…
Starr: Well, yeah, but who knew where it was gonna go? That’s what you don’t know.
Tavis: That’s my question, yeah.
Starr: You have to make decisions in life.
Tavis: How’d you find the courage to make that decision, though, when everybody in your family says don’t do it, Ringo?
Starr: I wanted it so bad in my heart. This is what I wanted to do and I thought I’m prepared to lose whatever it was gonna be, and who knew this was gonna be that big, and I want to just go and play, and that’s what I did.
Tavis: You said earlier in this conversation that you got better over the years as a drummer just by playing and by practicing.
Starr: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: What was your artistic takeaway from being in The Hurricanes? What’d you learn from experience?
Starr: We played regular. That’s what we learned. You know, we had a reputation, but we played. And you know, the guitarist, Johnny Guitar, was so incredible. He was the best musician in the band. He was so great. But it gave me the life that I could just–that’s what I did. I played and, you know, it wasn’t always busy. We had like down time.
But one of those down times, I’m in bed and there’s a knock on the door and it’s Brian Epstein saying, “The Beatles are playing this cabin club at 1:00. Will you come down and play with them?” Okay, okay, I’ll get up and come down, and I went down and played. That was the first time I played with the boys, though I knew them from Germany.
Tavis: By the time you get to joining the Beatles…
Starr: We had another three-month gig [laugh].
Tavis: You did, exactly. By the time you end up joining the Beatles, though, how good did you feel you were on your instrument at that time?
Tavis: You were…
Starr: No, no, I was a drummer. Any band would ask me to play with them. No, I felt good about my playing, you know, and I knew the style I wanted to play. You have to realize we’re all like growing up there and, you know, those coffee bars. We’d sit there and there’d be other drummers I knew from the same Liverpool area. You know, I was moaning like, “You’re playing jazz! That’s not rock!” We’d have our discussions.
You know, I learned one of the great lessons with the Beatles of making records when we finally got to make a record, one of the biggest days of my life, that you don’t have to really do a solo while a singer’s singing [laugh]. So I play around the song. It’s just a style, and people have picked up on that. So if you’re singing away, you don’t need me.
Tavis: What’s your definition? How do you define the role that Ringo as a drummer plays in the Beatles? I mean, the instrument itself, how do you define what that mission is?
Starr: Well, besides, you know, I have great timing that God gave me. You know, it’s something that came…
Tavis: Great timing, yeah.
Starr: And the sensibility to drums and I really listen to the song. I think it’s part of my being. You know, the drums you are the madmen or solid people, and I feel I’m a solid person behind that kit. You know, if the discussion was heavy between the other boys, there’s always be something solid behind them. That’s how I feel was my part.
Tavis: You’re being a little modest, which I expect of you. You weren’t just solid, and there are photos in the book that testify to this. But from John Lennon on down, you’ve been called the soul of the Beatles, the most vulnerable, the most sensitive, the peacemaker. How is your personality–why do you think your personality was…
Starr: How do you know? I mean, you can’t answer that.
Tavis: But somebody’s got to be that in the band, you know.
Starr: Yeah, yeah, but there’s all the personalities of four people. You don’t even have to be in a band, you know. There would be like, you know, absolute love and then a bit of niggly, you know, that goes on. That’s a family thing.
But when we played, none of that came in. We were like psychic. We played the best we could. That was just how it was. No one would say, “Oh, are you talking?” Well, what’s that, you know, to anybody. Not looking at me, “What’s that?”, you know.
I think, as guys, we gave each other everything and we did become–I’m an only child. I had three brothers. I had three solid brothers who loved me, I felt it, protected me in many ways and supported me in a lot of other ways. You know, that’s the story when it wasn’t working in the studio.
It was just not working and I was looking at myself and I thought, “This is just not happening”, and I went to John’s house. Well, my house. He was living in my house [laugh]. I banged on the door, he said come in and I said, “You know, you three are all so close. I feel like left out here.” And he said, “I thought it was you three.”
All right, I’ll go to Paul. So I would do that and knocked on his door and said, “You know, it’s not really happening. You three are so close, I just feel like I’m not part of it.” He said, “I thought it was you three.” So I thought, well, I’m leaving the band and I went to Sardinia.
You know, it was too mad, so I just left and then telegrams in those days from the boys. Come on back, blah, blah, blah. And I got back and George had had the whole studio decorated in flowers. There were so many beautiful moments in my life that, you know, you need more film, but you’ve got film these days [laugh].
Tavis: A lot of those beautiful moments are captured in this book, some beautiful photos here. You make the point repeatedly in the book, and you’re right about the fact that all four of you had cameras, but you used yours differently than the others did. What was it about that camera that…
Starr: Well, I don’t if I used them differently. Have you seen a lot of their photos?
Tavis: I have not, but…
Starr: No. Well, I’m with Paul last weekend and I have this other idea. You’ve seen my photos and, in many of them, they’ve got cameras. I said, “Why don’t you look through your photos and I’ll ask Yoko to do the same…now if she’ll understand [laugh]…and Olivia to look through George’s photos, and maybe we can put another book together with the four of us of our photos.” And it’s another charity. This is all for charity. I only get paid if I do this. Everything else goes somewhere else.
Tavis: When you were taking photos, though, you were taking photos for what purpose? I don’t know that you thought at the time I’m going to chronicle this…
Starr: No. I just love to take pictures and I got very lucky on a lot of photos in that book. I mean, the one that’s outstanding and everybody understands is that, you know, we got off the plane in New York, most incredible moment of our lives. We’re in this motorcade and there’s like 80 policemen protecting us. And this car with these load of kids, it was like surreal.
Tavis: Looking back at you, yeah.
Starr: They’re all looking in. And I’m lucky. I got a camera and, oh, man, I gotta take this. Oh, there’s an American policeman or there’s a toll booth. I’m in America. No one will understand unless you come from where I come from. We are in America. The music of our lives came from America and here we are.
Tavis: All these years later–and I see it in the photos in the book–you still regard that first visit to America–you used the word incredible–what do these pictures tell us about that first visit to America?
Starr: Well, they help me remember it. You know what I mean? I remember the emotion. I remember even before the plane landed, it was the most exciting moment and you just felt it’s America. You know, it’s New York!
And we landed and everybody–well, not everybody loved us because we found out on the train that a lot of the press came to shout at us and [bleep] on us because we’re from England. Who do they think they are? That attitude was still around in those days.
And we found out on the train when we were with all the photographers and the press that they actually came to dump on us. They shouted in that New York way, but we’re from Liverpool, so we just shouted back, and they couldn’t believe that.
This is what they told us. You know, we were giving as good as we got. You know, if you’re gonna pick on me, brother, I’ll pick on you! You know what I mean? That’s where we come from, that neighborhood. You know, the Compton, I call it, of England [laugh].
Tavis: The Compton of England.
Starr: I used that on my Twitter there. Straight outta Compton. I put Straight Outta Liverpool [laugh]. So anyway, that’s what it was. You know, our attitude of being ourselves actually won us through. We weren’t apologetic for anything.
Tavis: Since you went there, what does this book tell us about your comfort level with being in the skin you’re in, with being yourself?
Starr: Well, you know, you have to be honest that you’re not comfortable every moment of your life. There are many days, months and years that you were just not comfortable. Things are happening. It’s going wrong, blah, blah, blah. You just get back on your path and then it gets good again.
So, you know, it’s a difficult thing to talk about your life or life in general because it has twists and turns. And some of the turns I’ve made really were incredible for a young person that I was. You know, I used to be young, those decisions to make.
You know, the one big one was to leave the factory and be a musician. That’s what I am. And then there’s several decisions, you know, since then you’ve made and you’ve actually changed your life around. So that’s what it’s about.
Tavis: You mentioned earlier that, when you first got to America, the press were ready to pounce on you. So you weren’t beloved when you first arrived. After Ed Sullivan, you were beloved by everybody by this time. No doubt about that. But there’s a funny exception in the book to me. Made me laugh when I saw the photos. I believe it was in the Philippines. You all got there and did something to upset the Marcos family.
Starr: Well, yeah. They’d set up this huge reception dinner after the gig. Didn’t tell us, so suddenly we were–we did the gig. It was great. The audience was fine, and we landed with, you know, 800 cops, motorbikes and, wow, there they come. We get to the hotel, we do the show and then they said, “Well, you’re coming for dinner.”
No, we’re not coming for dinner. We’d just flown in. We were jet-lagged, whatever. We’ve done our gig and we decided we’re not coming to your damn dinner. But on the TV, they had the TV cameras there and there were like little kids crying and, you know, it was like the saddest situation they’d made it out to be.
So John and I were sharing a room. You know, the Beatles always shared. We only ever had two rooms. Any two of us will be in any two rooms. So John and I just happened to be there and we were waking up. We liked to order some breakfast, you know, oatmeal, whatever we had, egg and bacon in those days, and the newspapers. We wanted to see how they reacted to us.
Like an hour went by, nothing. Excuse me, we ordered a while back. Could we have the breakfast and that? Anyway, Neal came in–he used to look after us–and said, “There’s a bit of trouble, lads.” [laugh]. Then we found out, put on the TV on this other thing, and they showed this terrible footage of us like dumping on these kids, like they didn’t turn up.
Well, we didn’t know anything about it. Anyway, we left. After coming in with a lot of protection, we left with one cop [laugh] and people spitting at us and attacking us at the airport while we’re waiting for the plane.
And in our wisdom, John and I went and stood by these nuns thinking they’re not gonna beat us up with the nuns here [laugh]. You know, things that go through your head. Anyway, we got on the plane and we flew away. It was hell, though. It was dangerous. We felt danger, yeah.
Tavis: At that moment, yeah. With all the success that you all had, to your earlier point–and I’m glad you raised it because I wanted to ask about this–with all the success you all had, you all continued to room together, two Beatles to a room.
Tavis: Why was that, and what does that say about the brotherhood?
Starr: Well, I think it’s all about the brotherhood. You know, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I was trying to mention to new bands, you know, get in the band. You’re all in the band. We were in the band together. You know, we always traveled together.
We had one car and four of us were always in whatever car it was. And the cars did get better [laugh] as it went on. And it was just like we shared rooms. That’s what it was. We were together and it was also good to get to know each other really well, you know, when you’re in the next bed.
Tavis: Some of the best photos in this book, to my mind or at least to my eye, are these photos in the down moments, the rare down moments, in those hotels.
Starr: There was a lot of down time, a lot of down moments. That’s why I got a lot of pictures there.
Tavis: But the flip side of that, though, Ringo, is that you guys–and the pictures tell this story as well. There was a lot of down time, but you all worked really hard. Not that any good band can get away with not working hard, but you guys worked really hard.
Starr: No, we worked really hard and, you know, you had to let people know like I’m letting you know. I got this book. You have to let people know you’re on the road. You’re playing clubs. Then it got a bit busier because then you were doing photograph sessions. Then you were doing TV shows.
You know, we would get up, do a photo shoot, drive to [inaudible], do a track, drive 200 miles, do a show, come back, go out to a club or whatever. I mean, it was busy.
Tavis: There are two pages in this book that I was fascinated to look at, to your point about the busyness of the schedule. There are two pages that you put in this book that show your itinerary and you guys were on the move.
Starr: Yeah, I know [laugh].
Tavis: It was fascinating…
Starr: You don’t care. I mean, you’ve got the energy and lock it. And it’s building, you know, so you work for that. You know, the one thing I do want to mention and I always mention this is that we had one day off a month. And on that day, Paul would judge a beauty contest [laugh].
Tavis: Yeah, that’s in the book. I saw that.
Starr: I know. I keep telling him that.
Tavis: Two more questions, and I’m out of your hair.
Starr: More than yours [laugh].
Tavis: But-ump-ump. Ringo strikes again!
Starr: I can’t help it. I’m on, brother.
Tavis: Ringo strikes again [laugh]! He’s on now! Ringo does comedy. He’ll be here all weekend. Two shows nightly, two-drink minimum, yeah.
Starr: Five shows [laugh].
Tavis: Yeah. He’s a hard worker. Since you are not in most of these photos because you were taking the photos, what does this book tell us about Ringo’s eye, about what he sees, what fascinates him?
Starr: You know, I’d like to think I have this great eye in seeing things, but a lot of it’s luck. You know, a lot of the eye at the camera, I pressed the trigger and got the photo. But I was interested in just taking photographs. The camera and what it did interested me and I had three models posing for me a lot of the time.
Tavis: What kind of cameras were you using then?
Starr: I’d like to say…
Tavis: For these camera buffs, they want to know what you were shooting with.
Starr: Olympus, Nikon, that sort. And I know from my early 60s to now, really, I’ve got a lot of Nikon cameras. lenses. I love the lenses. I liked the odd it could do with prism lenses, the fish eye lens. You know, it wasn’t enough just to take the shot. I liked to see what tricks I could do as well.
Tavis: Are you still taking photos to this day?
Starr: I am to this day, yeah.
Tavis: And, finally, you’ve said a couple of times over these two nights that this book is really about raising money for charity. You want to say a word about that?
Starr: It’s the Lotus Foundation. You know, it’s all for a good cause and…
Tavis: The Lotus Foundation does what?
Starr: Well, we are the Lotus Foundation. Barbara and I are the Lotus Foundation. We started it 10 years ago. You know, we help several situations. We’re not just narrowed down. Music we help because it’s a relationship. Addictive personalities we help because we have them too. You know, battered women, children.
So, you know, it can be anything from–in England, we put in a bench in the village we used to live in so people could sit on the bench. You know, we did that. And then the other way, we would get a wheelchair for a handicapped kid or whatever. You know, it can go the whole spectrum.
And what we have found is better what we do if we–and I always support water aid. Everybody should have water. If we can help you on your start, then you’re doing something really cool, that we will support you for three years so you’ll have a chance to get it off the ground.
Tavis: Some seed money.
Starr: Yeah, but it’ll keep you, and next year you’re gonna get the same. And we found that was really great and we’ve, you know, helped a lot of start-up charities in England and here. So the people who are actually doing the work, it gives them the encouragement and the security that they can carry on.
Tavis: For my entire career, I’ve closed my show every night by saying “keep the faith”, but since I’m talking to you tonight, I’m going to close by saying “peace and love”.
Starr: Peace and love, and I’ll say keep the faith [laugh].
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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