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Ringo Starr talks drums, The Beatles, bouncing back from COVID and rocking on in his 80s

Honoree Sir Ringo Starr attends the 14th Annual UNICEF Snowflake Ball 2018 on Nov. 27, 2018, in New York City. (Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images for UNICEF/TNS)

Ringo Starr is nearly 83.

“No, no, you’ve got that wrong — it’s 38!” said the legendary drummer, veteran solo star and former Beatle, adding one of his trademark “ha-ha-ha!” chortles for emphasis.

Perhaps, then, his age might better be stated as a raised-eyebrow question.

Ringo Starr is nearly 83?

There is ample evidence to confirm the man born Richard Starkey indeed came into this world on July 7, 1940. That was more than a year after England entered World War II — and 22 years before John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison invited Starr to replace Pete Best as the drummer in the soon-to-change-the-world Beatles.

But never mind all that.

The pace Starr has maintained over the past few years makes it seem as if he might really be 38 after all — as evidenced by his multiple recordings, multiple books, filmed drum tutorials, two post-pandemic lockdown tours, philanthropic work for his Lotus Foundation, and more.

The past week saw the announcement of his 2023 fall tour with his seven-man All-Starr Band, which features Toto guitarist Steve Lukather and 2023 Grammy Award-winner Edgar Winter.

Their previously announced 2023 spring tour opens Friday at Pechanga Resort Casino in Temecula. It also includes San Diego shows May 28 and 30 at Humphreys Concerts by the Bay. All three sold out soon after going on sale.

The group’s 2022 summer tour was suspended after Winter and Lukather both contracted COVID, leading to multiple dates being pushed back. Shows were rescheduled for the fall, when the tireless Starr led his band through six concerts in six days, a pace that would tire many musicians half his age.

But then Starr himself tested positive for COVID — twice — last October and had to cancel some Canadian tour stops. Fully vaccinated, then and now, he is eager to make up for lost time.

“We’re off and running!” Starr said, speaking in an early May Zoom interview from his Beverly Hills home. His voice, much like the man himself, exudes both warmth and a no-nonsense, taking-care-of-business attitude.

“I’m saying: ‘Let’s go on tour now,” he continued. “I’m feeling like we’ll get through it all. But who can tell? (COVID) is a little less vicious than it was in 2021 and especially, in 2020. It’s eased off a bit now and we all missed live gigs.”

The pandemic lockdown kept Starr off the road for two years. He did not sit by idly, as demonstrated by the fact he recorded and released three EP (short for extended play) records between 2020 and 2022, each filled with songs espousing hope and unity.

Doing so takes Starr, a great-grandfather, full circle. The Beatles released 16 EPs between 1963’s “My Bonnie” and 1968’s “Magical Mystery Tour,” usually with about four songs per EP.

With his last full album, 2019’s “What’s My Name,” now four years behind him, Starr regards EPs as a sounder move for him than the 10- or 12-song LPs of yore. Being able to record them in his home studio is a bonus.

“The good thing with an EP is that it looks like it’s a short journey,” he said. “And it gives me a chance to invite people I’ve never worked with, or worked with very seldom, and to use one of their songs. And I always write one, of course.

“Everyone was wearing masks, which we’re not now, and I thought: ‘OK, let’s make an EP.’ So, this year I’m going to be doing three EPs! We’ve done one and we’re very busy (doing) the next one now, and (former San Diego singer-songwriter) Linda Perry is on it.

“Then, just by chance T Bone Burnett sent me this beautiful country song. It didn’t fit with a rock EP, so I said: ‘OK, now we’ll do a country EP.’ It’s not like I plan everything. Life just happens and I have time right now.”

The guests on Starr’s “EP3” included San Diego bass great Nathan East, who is a longtime member of Eric Clapton’s band.

“It’s such a joy working with Ringo and just being in his presence,” East said via email from London.

“He always has some amazing Beatles stories and seems to enjoy sharing them. You know it’s a good day when you answer your phone and it’s Ringo on the other end, asking if you’d like to come up to the house and play! Wow. And he calls me directly himself!

“I love playing with Ringo… it’s almost like his drum grooves are a part of our collective DNA. Most of all, he’s just one of the nicest people I’ve ever known. And he is all about peace and love!”

Starr’s latest book, “Ringo Starr: Lifted — Fab Images and Memories In My Life with The Beatles From Across The Universe,” was published in 2022. It followed, by barely 12 months, the 2021 publication of “Ringo Rocks: 30 Years of the All Starrs 1989-2019.” (The latter book includes a 2019 photo of him and his band taken in San Diego at Humphreys.)

He was also featured in the 2022 film documentary, “Let There Be Drums!” Its title could serve as the name of his autobiography, should he ever choose to write one.

To celebrate his 80th birthday in 2020, he was the main attraction in the YouTube special, “Ringo’s Big Birthday Show.”

A benefit for the Black Lives Matter Global Network, the David Lynch Foundation, MusiCares and WaterAid, it featured such guests as McCartney, Ben Harper, Sheila E and Gary Clark, Jr. (Starr and McCartney more recently reunited to perform on a new version of the classic Beatles’ song, “Let It Be,” which will be featured on Dolly Parton’s next album, “Rockstar,” due out Nov, 17.)

In 2021, Starr was showcased in the 12-part video tutorial, “Masterclass: Ringo Starr Teaches Drumming & Creative Collaboration.” The same year saw the two-time Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee spearhead a charity fund-raising recording for WhyHunger of The Beatles’ “Come Together.” Renamed “Drum Together,” the 10-minute video features more than 100 other drummers.

They include Cindy Blackman Santana, E Street Band mainstay Max Weinberg, Chad Smith of Red Hot Chili Peppers, San Diego native Matt Cameron of Pearl Jam, Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters and then-11-year-old YouTube sensation Nandi Bushell. Also featured is Gregg Bissonette, who — since 2008 — has been the second drummer on the All-Starr Band’s tours.

Starr chuckled when asked who he would select to drum alongside him onstage if Bissonette suddenly had to temporarily bow out. Grohl? Bushell?

“I’d probably call Sheila E!” he said, citing the Bay Area drum dynamo who was in the 2001, 2003 and 2006 editions of the All-Starr Band.

Given his seemingly nonstop activities, has Starr ever considered putting together a fitness book?

“Not really,” he said, “(but) I do my own fitness guide.

“I watch what I eat. I’ve been vegetarian for the last 25 years. I was ‘veggie’ before, then I got off it and back on, and I’ve been vegetarian since 1992. I think it’s important and I’m always promoting proper eating.

“And I go to the gym. I have a trainer who comes to my home three times a week. And I (work out) myself. On tour, usually I go at least four mornings a week to the gym. So, I think you’ve just got to keep moving and eat right. I do the best I can.”

Life was full of challenges for Starr growing up in the English port city of Liverpool.

Born into a working-class family that had an outhouse for a bathroom, he was in poor health for much of his childhood. His appendix burst when he was 6. He was nearly comatose for 10 weeks and remained in the hospital for nearly a year to recover.

Starr contracted tuberculosis shortly after becoming a teenager and spent two years in a sanatorium. It was there his love for drumming was born.

“That’s what I’ve done from when I was 13,” he affirmed.

“I remember it like it was yesterday. It’s all I wanted to do. I only wanted to be a drummer — and I’m still a drummer.”

Starr was just 17 when he became a member of the Liverpool band Rory Storm & The Hurricanes in 1959. They performed in France and Germany, most famously at the Star Club in Hamburg, where Starr would sometimes fill in on drums with The Beatles.

In 1962, he accepted the invitation to join what would soon become the most influential rock band in history. By the end of 1964, he was the best-known rock drummer on the planet.

His impact, like that of the Fab Four — as the group was also fondly known by fans — was enormous.

So enormous that, in 2015, Jim Irsay — the owner of the Indianapolis Colts NFL football team — put in the winning bid of $2.2 million to buy Starr’s iconic Ludwig drum set. Starr had played it at more than 200 of The Beatles’ live performances and on 180 of the band’s studio recordings.

The money raised at the auction went to the Lotus Foundation, the charity that Starr and his wife, Barbara Bach, founded to aid economically challenged families, children and the elderly.

Now, as in the 1960s, Starr’s drumming remains a marvel of taste and concision.

Eschewing flashy pyrotechnics, his tenure in The Beatles found him consistently playing to — and for — each song written by his band mates, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison. As a result of being a left-handed drummer playing on a right-handed kit, Starr’s drum fills were uniquely constructed and executed.

His innate groove and rock-solid sense of time were strikingly illustrated anew in Peter Jackson’s 2021 Beatles film documentary, “Get Back,” which captured the then-volatile band recording and feuding in London in early 1969.

No matter how tense the mood in the studio was, there does not seem to be a single filmed take of any song — even when it was just an initial idea for a song — on which Starr didn’t sound perfectly in sync with the music and his band mates. His drumming demonstrated an uncanny combination of skill, intuition and attentive listening.

“Write that down. That’s good!” Starr said.

“You’re talking about ‘Get Back,’ and I went through madness (during that time). But I always kept time. If they had only two lines (of a song), I kept time. I’d play along with anything. Then, when the song (was) finished, that’s where I might change something.”

The durability and ingenuity of his drumming has remained evident throughout a career that is now approaching its seventh decade.

Or as Toto guitarist Steve Lukather — a longtime members of the All-Starr Band — put it in a 2014 Union-Tribune interview: “Ringo’s brilliant, man, very soulful, and a bad-ass drummer. Ringo is the chicken that laid the first egg for all the rest of the drummers in the world. There would not be any of these other rock drummers, if not for him … The grooves he plays are such an important thing. And he’s never played to a click track. He said: ‘I am the click track’!”

Starr laughed appreciatively when told of Lukather’s comments.

“I can’t play drums to a click track because I believe that we (musicians) are not all perfect,” he said.

“There’s a millisecond (that speeds up or slows down), forward or backwards, that four guys playing go to — and that’s what I believe in. The way I play is, if you’re singing, I don’t really do anything but keep time. Or I lift it up, bring it down or get it galloping along.

“I always feel, if I’m playing on a track, (that) the choruses are always a micro-second faster, because it all comes from the heart. That’s how I play. I just play …

“I’ve said it over and over — I just hit them!”

After The Beatles imploded in 1970, Starr scored eight consecutive Top 10 singles in the U.S. between 1971 and 1975, beginning with “It Don’t Come Easy” and “Back Off Boogaloo.”

He put out seven solo albums in the 1970s. But Starr made only two in the 1980s, a decade that saw him nearly drink himself into oblivion.

Fed up with the dissipation that at one point led him to consume a staggering 16 bottles of wine a day, he checked into an Arizona rehabilitation center with Bach, his wife.

A then-newly sober Starr candidly recounted his near-permanent downward spiral in a 1989 Union-Tribune interview with this writer. It took place in the penthouse of the Four Seasons hotel in Toronto, during his debut All-Starr Band tour.

“It’s a very funny thing with alcohol,” Starr told me then. “When you’re a drunkard, you know you’re in trouble, but you procrastinate such a lot. You just put everything off ’til tomorrow. And ‘tomorrow’ ends up to be years.

“It just got so bad, the state we were both in, that we had to do something. We felt like, ‘This can’t go on anymore; this is impossible to live (like this).’ I think God stepped in. I think a light went on, a dim light, that said, ‘Are you crazy?’ Then … it just got so crazy, so down and dumb, that three days later we were both in a clinic.”

Now, 34 years later, Starr continues to regard each day as a blessing. And his tenacity in the face of adversity has made him an inspiration to other musicians.

“Ringo is unaffected by success, really down to earth, a pleasure to be around and a good influence,” Joe Walsh, Starr’s brother-in-law, said in a 2016 Union-Tribune interview.

“He’s well-grounded, and if something happens that I can’t really figure out, or don’t know what do, he’s a great friend to ask and receive advice from. He’s been through it all, so chances are he knows what to do — or at least knows what he did.”

Did Starr, as a young rock musician, have someone he turned to for advice and guidance?

“Well, as The Beatles, we had each other,” he replied.

“I mean, I’m an only child and I had three brothers (in the band). They were crazy days in the beginning, because we were from Liverpool. And, suddenly, we were from the world. And, then, we weren’t playing at the (Liverpool club) The Cavern, we were playing stadiums, and it was huge.

“Each time one of us went a little off the rails, the others would say: ‘Excuse me?’ and we’d point it out. I know I went off (the rails) myself. Suddenly, I’d buy everything, suits, shirts and five sets of shoes at a time. I was like: ‘Oh, look at this!’ And they’d be like: ‘Are you kidding me?’

“So, for me, it was great to have these three brothers that we laughed with, cried with and had a few arguments with — like, I suppose, real brothers do. I got looked after as I was breaking up, breaking down, breaking out (and) any other word with ‘breaking’ in front of it.”


Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band 2023 tour dates

May 19: Temecula, CA Pechanga Resort Casino

May 20: Phoenix, AZ Celebrity Theatre

May 21: Phoenix, AZ Celebrity Theatre

May 23: Long Beach CA Terrace Theater

May 24: Las Vegas, NV Venetian Theatre

May 26: Las Vegas, NV Venetian Theatre

May 27: Las Vegas, NV Venetian Theatre

May 28: San Diego, CA Humphreys Concerts

May 30: Prescott Valley, AZ Findlay Toyota Center

May 31: San Diego, CA Humphreys Concerts

June 2: Eugene, OR Cuthbert Amphitheater

June 3: Bend, OR Hayden Homes Amphitheater

June 4: Woodinville, WA Saint Michelle Winery

June 6: Denver, CO Bellco Theater – Denver Convention Center

June 7: Colorado Springs, CO Pikes Peak Center

June 9: Lincoln, CA Thunder Valley Casino

June 10: Jacksonville, OR Britt Festival

June 11: San Francisco, CA The Masonic

June 13: Salt Lake City, UT Eccles Theater

June 15: Los Angeles, CA Greek Theatre

June 16: Paso Robles, CA Vina Robles Amphitheatre

June 17: San Jose, CA San Jose Civic

Sept. 17: Ontario, CA Toyota Arena

Sept. 19: Tucson, AZ Linda Ronstadt Music Hall

Sept. 20: Albuquerque, NM Rio Rancho Center

Sept. 22: Kansas City, MO The Uptown

Sept. 23: St Louis, MO The Fox

Sept. 24: Nashville, TN Ryman Auditorium

Sept. 26: Clearwater, FL Coachmen Park

Sept. 27: Atlanta, GA The Fox

Sept. 29: Indianapolis, IN The Murat Theatre at Old National Centre

Sept. 30: Milwaukee, WI Miller High Life Theatre

Oct. 1: Minneapolis, MN Mystic Lake

Oct. 3: Grand Rapids, MI DeVos Performance Hall

Oct. 5: Chicago, IL Chicago Theatre

Oct. 6: New Buffalo, MI Four Winds Casino

Oct. 7: Detroit, MI Masonic Temple

Oct. 9: Charleston, WV Charleston Coliseum

Oct. 10: Columbus, OH Mershon Auditorium

Oct. 12: Little Rock, AK Simmons Bank Arena

Oct. 13: Thackerville, OK Winstar Casino


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