A Special Expanded Edition of the May 26 "Music To My Ears" Column by Billboard's Editor In Chief, Exclusively for Billboard.com.
"A million people can play rock'n'roll on the offbeat," says Ringo Starr, relaxing with actress Barbara Bach, his wife of 20 years, in a private lounge at New York's Kennedy Airport during a two-hour stopover between flights from L.A. to Nice, France. "But what you put in the fill -- and what you don't put in sometimes -- is the true expression of the drummer."
The former Beatle couldn't encapsulate his past and future any better. Bronzed, bearded, and ever-boyish, Starr is headed home to Monte Carlo, Monaco, for a few weeks before he kicks off his seventh annual All Starr Band summer tour July 26 in Toronto. The tour coincides with the U.S. release of "The Anthology ... So Far" (Koch, due July 24), a three-CD live collection including such Starr and Beatles standards as "Photograph" and "Yellow Submarine," plus hits by such guest band members as Dr. John, Joe Walsh, Todd Rundgren, and Eric Carmen.
How did the All Starr Band first come together?
It came together in 1989. I was sitting in England thinking, "What will I do? I should go on the road, but how will I do that?" I didn't know [promoter] David [Fishof] from a hole in my shoe, and out of the blue, I got a message through my lawyer from him, saying a sponsor would like to know if I'd be interested in putting a band together. I thought, "It must be a message from God!"
After I moved back to Monte Carlo again from England, in '89, I thought, "Let's give it a shot." So I had a friend in L.A. who was helping me find musicians I knew and I'd played with, like Dr. John and Joe Walsh -- and, of course, Levon [Helm] and others from the Band [Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson] were on the Ringo album. Nils [Lofgren] had become a friend, so I just phoned and said, "I've been offered this tour. Would you like to have fun in the summer?" And that's how it started.
You're the bandmaster but also a great host, and you let other people shine. The All Starrs this year consist of Howard Jones, Sheila E., Roger Hodgson from Supertramp, Mott the Hoople's Ian Hunter, and Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
[Grins] I love to play with people who shine -- that's what it's always been about for me. We're all playing together, but the fact that you're singing the song is a bonus.
What's also important is that it's kept your solo work alive, and the live versions collected on the new record are wonderful.
We'd recorded most of the shows, then it turned into "The Anthology ... So Far." We picked the ones we thought were representative. It's so great that we got all the various players on the three CDs.
And they got the chance to play with the most expressive drummer in rock'n'roll history.
Well, I hope you write that in big letters! [Laughs] I've always played with the singer, with the songs.
I mean, yes, I have to keep the beat and I have to play in time but I felt that if the singer singing I don't have to be too busy. My job is to bring the song up, and bring it down if that's where I feel it's going. The fills are the drummer's only expression, because he gets all these mini-solos as he goes through.
Being born in 1940, who were your drumming heroes as a kid?
I started with big band drummers like Gene Krupa, of course. He had a great smile and was as mad as a hatter. I only saw him in movies, never saw him live. Cozy Cole's were the only drum records I ever bought, "Topsy Parts I and Part II" [a No. 3 double-sided Billboard Hot 100 single hit in1958]. It was just dynamite.
And then I saw at the Cavern [Club] when I was a teenager a traditional jazz band led by a [New Orleans] clarinet player called George Lewis, and his drummer [Joe Watkins] was the most incredible one I ever saw, because he only had two drums -- a snare and a bass drum -- and a high-hat and ride cymbal. And for any tom-tom work, he just ducked down and played the bass drum. It was just like, "Wow!" I watched other musicians, too. Sister Rosetta Tharpe blew me away as a guitarist.
Did you ever take formal musical lessons?
I took one lesson. My mother met some guy in 1958 in the Empress pub who was in a band, and she said, "My boy wants to play the drums," and he said, "Well, send him along, we're rehearsing in this hall on Thursday night." I went down, and he was playing the big bass drum in a silver band -- a marching band [laughs] -- and it wasn't quite what I wanted to take up!
"Sentimental Journey," your first solo album in 1970, was a collection of standards and vintage film tunes. But you got unique people to do the arrangements, like Maurice Gibb of the Bee Gees for "Bye Bye Blackbird" and Quincy Jones for "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing."
These are songs I'd heard sung in that very pub -- the Empress, which was on the top of our street, Admiral Grove -- and in our home. My stepfather, Harry, was a big-band nut. Billy Daniels, Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan -- he introduced me to all those people in the most incredible way. He'd never say, "Oh, rock'n'roll, that's not music -- this is." He'd say, "Have you heard Sarah Vaughan?" He introduced me to music that I was ready to back off from just because I was pimply and a teenager.
Many of your musical influences and those of the other Beatles as kids would have predated Chuck Berry and other early rock.
Right, and we all came from families that appreciated music. Paul [McCartney]'s dad played trumpet and cornet. My grandparents by my stepfather Harry -- John and Ann Graves -- played mandolin and banjo
"Beaucoups of Blues," also in 1970, was an early country-rock album. Most of those top Nashville songwriters, such as Bobby Pierce, who came up with "Loser's Lounge," wrote those songs just for you. The album rose as high as No. 35 on the country albums chart -- the same spot where Linda Ronstadt's self-titled, Eagles-backed Capitol solo debut peaked.
Yup, and [Elvis Presley's guitarist] Scotty Moore engineered, and [pedal-steel legend] Pete Drake worked on it, and the Jordanaires sang. We had the cream of Nashville, actually. Everybody was in town! [Laughs]
See, it was another accident. I was playing on "All Things Must Pass," and George [Harrison] had Pete Drake over, so I sent my car to pick up Pete, and it was full of country-western tapes. He said, "Hey, I see you like country music." I said, "I love country music!" Pete Drake said, "Come to Nashville and make a record." I said, "I'm not gonna spend six months in Nashville," because with the Beatles by now we were taking four to six months to make a record. He said, "Are you crazy? We'll do it in a couple of days! Dylan's  'Nashville Skyline' only took a day." And we did it in two days.
Did any U.S. country acts ever tour through Liverpool?
Liverpool is the capital of country music in England; we'd heard lots of it -- Jimmy Rodgers, Hank Williams -- and they were my heroes too. But I never saw anybody play there. I saw Johnny Ray [whose "Cry" as a No. 1, Best-Selling Pop Singles hit in1951], and I saw "Nudes On Ice." [Big laugh].
Is is true you recorded enough with 'Beaucoups' with for two albums?
No, that's a myth. We did do a track called "Coochy Coochy," which I wrote, and I play guitar on that [which is now a bonus on the 1995 Capitol CD edition]. I do love that album; I love the sound Pete got on my voice, and the keys we were keeping it in.
Your own roots in recording country date back to the Beatles version in 1965 of Buck Owens' "Act Naturally" on the Beatles' U.K. "Help!" album. Did you ever meet Buck Owens?
Not back then. Buck and I re-recorded "Act Naturally" in '89 [on Capitol], and we were up for a Grammy that year as a duet. But I used to find my one track for the Beatles albums, like "Honey Don't" [1964, on the U.K. "Beatles for Sale"] and "Matchbox" ['64, on the U.K. "Long Tall Sally" EP], and I found this Buck Owens track, and I said, "I'm gonna do this on this album" -- and no one put up any fight.
When it came time to write and issue your first proper solo single, "It Don't Come Easy," on Apple in 1971, was it true it was about the Beatles' breakup?
Yes. It's semi-true, if you know what I mean. It was where I was at the time. With the Beatles, the song where I tried to put all that into perspective was the B-side [of "Easy"], called "Early 1970."
As you sang on that track, when they "come to town, I know" they're "gonna play with me."
Yeah, but one of them wasn't gonna play [nervous chuckle]. At that point, I felt that when John [Lennon] comes to town, I know he's gonna play with me, and if George comes to town, I know he'll play with me, and if Paul comes to town, I "wonder" if he's gonna play.
We were going through that Apple nonsense, where Paul was suing the three of us. And he was angry, and we were angry, and I was wondering when that would stop.
Meantime, George played on both sides of that hit.
See, George did the singles on me [at Apple]; he did "Back Off Boogaloo" [a No. 9 hit in 1972]. I would write two verses and a chorus, and there I'd get lost, and so I'd take them over to George's and he'd usually write the last verse and put the first two verses and the chorus into a better shape. And then produce them.
What was the inspiration for "Back Off Boogaloo"?
Marc Bolan from T. Rex. I got to know Marc really well. I did a movie on him [the 1973 documentary "Born to Boogie"], and he came to the house, and that's all he spoke: "Oh, back off! It's a boogaloo."
I went to bed one night and just as I was drifting off in my head I was going [croons] "Back off boogaloo, back off boogaloo" and I thought, "I've got a song going!" It was like an early movie [laughs] -- I ran downstairs looking for some tape recorder that would work to get the melody down, and it was one of those days when every damn tape in the house was broken. Meanwhile, the song was turning, in some strange way, into "Mack The Knife." It just the weirdest! And I thought, "No, no!"
You were trying to hold your melody in your head!
Right, and I don't know how the other got in there! [Laughter]
"Blindman" was the B-side of that single.
I did that movie and they wanted a song. And then I wrote the song and recorded it. Then they didn't want it. So that was the end of that.
1973's "Ringo" was one of the best Beatles solo records and could even have been a Beatles record.
[Nods] Because they are all on it.
The music was a commentary on stardom, what you each went through, and how the end of a band is like the end of a romance.
Well, it was exactly that -- because that's what happened. But the thing about it that everyone thinks was worked out was that when I got to L.A., John [Lennon] was there, and he had a song ["I'm the Greatest"], and he came over [to Sunset Sound studios] and joined in!
And with George, that wasn't like that was planned either [when he subsequently co-wrote "Photograph" with Ringo and contributed "Sunshine Life For Me (Sail Away Raymond)," and "You And Me (Babe)," co-authored with Beatles road manager Mal Evans.] The one thing that was planned in the end was that [producer] Richard Perry and I decided -- with this incredible gift of fate that we've got these two [ex-Beatles] on it -- let's call Paul and see if he wants to get on it. And he said yeah!
But I should also add that, when we were talking about the friendships leading up to the All Starr "Anthology," Dr. John was on "Ringo," and members of the Band were on it. I first heard the Band in 1968 when George and I were staying at the Plaza, Jimi Hendrix was staying there, and so was Eric Clapton -- and he had an acetate, and he said "You've gotta listen to this band called the Band!" It was the "Music From Big Pink" album, and can you imagine the Plaza being Rock and Roll Heaven, with Jimi, a couple of Fabs, and Eric! [Laughter]
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Peace, ;heart; and Beatles,
Beatle Me This, Beatle Me That
"After all is said and done, you can't go pleasing everyone, so screw it"