While some accused Ringo Starr of being a clumsy drummer, many more agreed with George Harrison's assessment: "Ringo's the best backbeat in the business." And while many in the wake of the Beatles' breakup predicted that Starr would be the one without a solo career, he proved them wrong. Not only has he released several LPs (the first came out before the Beatles disbanded) and hit singles, but he's also the only Beatle to establish a film-acting career for himself outside of the band's mid-'60s movies.
Young Richard Starkey's parents had divorced when he was three, and he was raised by his mother and stepfather, a Liverpool house painter his mother married eight years later. By the time he was 13, he'd been in and out of the hospital several times with pleurisy, and once, at age six, with appendicitis. After leaving the hospital in 1955, too old to return to school, he became a messenger boy for British Railways. In 1959, while working as an apprentice engineer, he got his first drum set as a Christmas present, and he joined the Ed Clayton Skiffle Group soon after. By 1961, he was playing drums in Rory Storme's Hurricanes. It was while on tour with that band in Hamburg, Germany, in 1961 that he met John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison. A year later, when drummer Pete Best was ousted from the Beatles, Starr agreed to join them. The Ringo stage name came from his penchant for wearing lots of rings.
Beginning with "Boys" on the Beatles' first British album, Starr was given the occasional lead vocal, usually on covers of country tunes such as Carl Perkins' "Honey Don't" and "Matchbox" and Buck Owens' "Act Naturally." Later he sang the lead on "Yellow Submarine" and "With a Little Help From My Friends," songs written for him by Lennon and McCartney. The Beatles (the so-called White Album) in 1968 featured Starr's first songwriting credit, "Don't Pass Me By." After appearing in three films with the Beatles, in 1967 Starr made his solo film debut playing a Mexican gardener in the film of Terry Southern's Candy. He appeared in The Magic Christian (1969, also from a Southern book); in 1970 he costarred with David Essex in That'll Be the Day; in 1973 he documented the success of glitter-rock star T. Rex by directing Born to Boogie; in 1975 he costarred again with Essex in Stardust; and in 1981 he starred in the moderately successful U.S. feature Caveman (in April of that year he married his Caveman costar Barbara Bach; it was his second marriage).
Starr's solo recording career began in 1970, just prior to the Beatles' breakup, with Sentimental Journey (#22, 1970) a collection of Tin Pan Alley standards (allegedly to please his mother) produced by George Martin, with a different arranger for each track. Beaucoups of Blues (#65, 1970), released later that year, was a country-music collaboration with guitarist Pete Drake and other Nashville sessionmen. It fared better than its predecessor, but failed to yield a hit. In 1971 Starr appeared on Lennon's Plastic Ono Band and Harrison's All Things Must Pass LPs, and recorded two hit singles, the hard-rocking "It Don't Come Easy" (#4) and "Back Off Boogaloo" (#9). (Starr later acknowledged that Harrison had cowritten these two songs without being credited.)
Starr appeared at Harrison's Concerts for Bangladesh and in 1972 sat in on Peter Frampton's Wind of Change LP. In 1973 he recorded Ringo (#2, 1973), with Richard Perry producing. The LP included three Top 10 singles —"Photograph" (#1), "You're Sixteen" (#1), and "Oh My My" (#5) —and featured songs and playing by the other Beatles; Lennon contributed "I'm the Greatest," McCartney "Six O'Clock," and "Only You" (#6). Blast From Your Past, a greatest-hits package, went to #30 in 1975. While comanaging a furniture-designing business with his brother in London, Starr in 1975 started his own label, Ring O' Records, and signed to Atlantic. Compared to his previous solo success, his albums for his new label made little impression; Ringo's Rotogravure, despite guest appearances by Lennon, McCartney, Eric Clapton, and Peter Frampton, stopped at #28 with one Top 30 single, "Dose of Rock 'n' Roll," and Ringo the 4th, at #162, was a flop. Bad Boy (#129, 1978) continued the downward spiral.
Starr remained a familiar presence, though. In 1976 he played at the Band's San Francisco farewell concert and appeared in the film of the event, The Last Waltz. In 1977 he contributed to an LP by British skiffle pioneer Lonnie Donegan. In late 1981 Starr had a Top 40 hit with "Wrack My Brain," from Stop and Smell the Roses (#98, 1981), a tune written and produced by George Harrison. None of his subsequent albums has come near the Top 100.
Old Wave was not released in the U.S. or the U.K., and during this time Starr suffered from myriad problems, foremost among them alcoholism and drug abuse, for which both he and his wife Barbara sought treatment at the Betty Ford Center in 1988. At one point earlier, Starr's drinking had gotten so bad that he went to court to block the release of material he recorded in 1987. In the meantime, Starr became a star of the kiddie set in his portrayal of the miniature conductor and narrator of the acclaimed PBS series Shining Time Station, between 1989 and 1991. (Starr had first narrated the British series Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends back in 1984.)
Starr has since formed several celebrity configurations of his All-Starr band. The first, in 1989, featured Levon Helm, Joe Walsh, Clarence Clemons, Rick Danko, Billy Preston, and Dr. John. A 1992 lineup included Ringo's son Zak on drums, Walsh, Timothy B. Schmit, Dave Edmunds, Nils Lofgren, and Todd Rundgren. Later editions have included the Who's John Entwistle, Procol Harum's Gary Brooker, Jack Bruce, Peter Frampton, and Bachman-Turner Overdrive's Randy Bachman. The 1992 release of Time Takes Time, coinciding with the silver anniversary of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, brought a new flush of publicity for Starr, who often made it amply clear to interviewers that he did not wish to talk about the Beatles.
Though Starr has had little success as a recording artist in the '80s and '90s, he is never long out of view. He appeared in Paul McCartney's Give My Regards to Broad Street (1984), a television production of Alice in Wonderland (1985), with Zak on the Artists Against Apartheid album and video (1985), with ex-band mate Harrison in the video for "When We Was Fab" (1988) and as himself on The Simpsons (1990). In 1994 Starr's first wife, Maureen Cox Starkey Tigrett, died of cancer.
Starr returned to the studio in the late '90s. First he reunited with the other surviving Beatles to record two tracks for the Anthology 1 in 1995; he then released Vertical Man (#61, 1998), his most successful album in 20 years. Guests ranged from familiar faces like McCartney and Harrison to newcomers Alanis Morissette and Stone Temple Pilots' Scott Weiland, and the songs included a cover of the Beatles' "Love Me Do." The following year Starr recorded his first seasonal album, I Wanna Be Santa Claus. In 2001 he hit the road with a new All Starr Band that included Ian Hunter, Sheila E., Greg Lake, Howard Jones, and Roger Hodgson (Supertramp).
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).