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The ageless Ringo Starr reflects on what keeps him going

Ringo Starr performs during the Ringo Starr and his All Starr Band concert at the Greek Theatre in 2019 in Los Angeles.  (Kevin Winter)
Ringo Starr performs during the Ringo Starr and his All Starr Band concert at the Greek Theatre in 2019 in Los Angeles. (Kevin Winter)
By Scott Mervis Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH – Strange to think about it now, but when Ringo Starr launched Ringo and His All-Starr Band in 1989, he hadn’t been a touring musician since 1966.

The drummer had been in this really good band that only toured for four years before deciding it wasn’t for them and that they were just going to make records.

They were called the Beatles, and it turned out to be a pretty good move because the very next year, they released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which some contend is the greatest album of all time.

After the breakup of the Beatles in April 1970, Ringo had about four good musical years during which he played on solo albums by John Lennon and George Harrison, performed at the Concert for Bangladesh, released two successful albums of his own – 1973’s “Ringo” and 1974’s “Goodnight Vienna” – and scored five top 20 singles: “It Don’t Come Easy,” “Back Off Boogaloo,” “Photograph,” “You’re Sixteen” and “Oh My My.

That he had any solo success at all was a bit of a surprise given that drummers rarely emerge from bands as hitmakers and that Ringo, although having sung such Beatles songs as “With a Little Help From My Friends” and “Yellow Submarine,” had only written two Beatles songs on his own – “Don’t Pass Me By” and “Octopus’s Garden” – and by his own admission was a vocalist of limited ability.

Music aside, his humble and happy-go-lucky personality led to acting roles in the post-Beatle years, including the movies “Son of Dracula” (1974) and “Caveman” (1981) and as narrator of the kids show “Thomas and Friends” in the ’80s.

With the shocking murder of John Lennon in 1980, the already rare shot of a Beatles reunion was out the window, so it was going to take something rather extraordinary to get Ringo back on the road as a touring drummer and singer.

Enter David Fishof, an Orthodox Jewish talent agent from New York who had created the 1984 Happy Together Tour for The Turtles and the 1986 Monkees 20th Anniversary Reunion, among other packages. Knowing that the former Beatle was at his best with about three ace singer-songwriters by his side, he flew to London in March 1989 to pitch Ringo on the idea of an All-Starr Band Tour with the drummer joined by a supergroup of legends, in some cases, just slightly past their prime.

Ringo and His All-Starr Band launched its maiden tour on July 23, 1989, in Dallas with the enviable lineup of Joe Walsh (James Gang, Eagles), Nils Lofgren (Crazy Horse, E Street Band), Rick Danko and Levon Helm (The Band), Dr. John, Billy Preston, Clarence Clemons (E Street Band), and Jim Keltner.

Helm and Keltner made it three drummers, giving Ringo freedom to grab the mic and shuffle around, as he does, at center stage. He took the lead on 10 songs in the two-hour show that featured hits from the other stars (although no Springsteen songs).

In a 1989 New York Times story, Ringo, less than a year removed from a stint in alcohol rehab, talked about overcoming serious jitters the first few nights. He also said, “It’s great being down front. I’ve never done that before. I’ve always been behind the kit. After the first show, I read some stuff about my voice. But I’m not Pavarotti. People know who I am, and I’m giving them my best shot on my songs.”

The Pittsburgh debut of the All-Starr Band, in 1992, stopped at Star Lake with Walsh, Lofgren, Todd Rundgren, Burton Cummings (The Guess Who), Dave Edmunds (Rockpile) and Timothy B. Schmit (Poco, Eagles).

The Amphitheater at Station Square shows in 1995 and 1997 featured the likes of Peter Frampton, Randy Bachman (BTO), Felix Cavaliere (Rascals), Jack Bruce (Cream), Mark Farner (Grand Funk Railroad), Dave Mason (Traffic) and John Entwistle (The Who).

Almost 20 years passed before his Pittsburgh return, at Heinz Hall, in 2015 and 2018 with a mix of Rundgren, Steve Lukather (Toto), Gregg Rolie (Santana, Journey), Richard Page (Mr. Mister) and Colin Hay (Men at Work).

The All-Starr Band was set to return in 2020, and then 2021, for PPG Paints Arena shows, but the pandemic pushed it to 2022. On board are Lukather, Hay, Edgar Winter, Hamish Stuart (Average White Band), Gregg Bissonette and Warren Ham. Due to Winter and Lukather testing positive for COVID-19 last week, the PPG Paints Arena show, scheduled for Saturday, June 18, will be pushed to a date in September.

In a recent All-Starr Band Zoom call with the media from a casino near Toronto, the former Beatle expressed his excitement to get back on stage.

“Two and a half years …,” he said. “It’s been a really difficult period for me. I love to play. I put the All-Starrs together 32 years ago. I was in a couple of other bands before that. For me, that’s what it’s all about, playing in front of an audience. A long time ago we’d play weddings, we’d play anywhere we could just so we could play together as a band.”

“I wouldn’t be a musician if it weren’t for Ringo and the Beatles,” said Bissonette, a 62-year-old drummer with a long resume of studio work along with tours backing David Lee Roth. “My dad was a jazz drummer in Detroit. We went to the Olympia hockey arena where the Red Wings played, and he said, ‘Kids, we’re going to see the Beatles tomorrow night.’ My brother and I just flipped out.

“That started me going, being in the same room and hearing that music and hearing Ringo’s groove. I would come home every day after school and put on the headphones with my record player and just want to play along with him and try to get in that pocket. Now every night, 5 feet away, I get to look at his bass drum pedal and his snare, and I try to get in that Ringo pocket, that swing that he’s given drummers, There’s nothing like it, and what an honor, greatest gig of my life ever, and I hope it goes a long, long, long, long time.”

The 75-year-old Winter, who had his biggest success in 1972 with the Edgar Winter Group hits “Frankenstein” and “Free Ride,” is on his third trip with the All-Starr Band since joining in 2006 and his first since 2011.

“I never dreamed that I would even get to meet these people,” he said, “much less share the stage with so many incredible, talented musicians.

While the plan for the media call was to keep the focus on the current tour, Ringo, 81, was kind enough to field questions about that old band he joined, as the successor to Pete Best, in 1962, when he was 22. He had been around the Liverpool scene, playing in skiffle bands since 1957, and being a few months older than Lennon, he would become the oldest Beatle.

Running through some quick Beatles history, he said, “We were lads when we started, and as it went on, we had wives and children. And we stopped touring and made great records. But we didn’t make good records while we were touring. We played well together, and we got on with each other. That’s just how it was. We came to a point, eight years later – it blows me away that we did all that in eight years – that it was time to leave.”

Last winter, along with Beatles fans across the world, the drummer watched with interest “The Beatles: Get Back,” the Disney+ documentary directed by Peter Jackson that used footage caught during the making of Michael Lindsay Hogg’s 1970 film “Let It Be.”

“The original documentary, I never liked it,” he said. “It was so narrow. It was on one point of an argument and all these down parts. We were laughing and we were having fun as well, and we played great and we did all this in a month. Michael Lindsay Hogg’s, I felt, was just too down. I spoke to Peter (and said), ‘I was there. It was lots of fun as well.’ He certainly brought that up. I’m ever grateful to Peter for doing such a great job.”

The one thing missing for him in “The Beatles: Get Back” was the evolution of the title track of the documentary.

“The only thing I was grasping and desperate for is, when we did ‘Get Back,’ if you look at the early sort of getting it together, (the drumming) is just like straight rock. I wanted to know how I got to that rock shuffle thing, just playing the snare drum. Because I have no idea why I changed that. I thought, ‘I’ll see it on film.’ But it just happened the cameras were off when we did that.”

Reflecting on how far this long and winding road out of Liverpool has taken him, he went to his early teen years and getting turned on to music.

“I was inspired at age 13, and that has never left me, the dream and the joy,” he said. “I only ever wanted to be a drummer. I got a kit of drums, and I was in a couple of really good bands. When I was in those Liverpool bands, my mother had this great line. She said, ‘Son, I always feel you’re at your happiest when you’re playing.’ And deep inside, I am. I just love it.

“People ask about retirement. Well, I’m a musician, I don’t have to retire. As long as I can pick up those sticks, I’ve got a gig.”

Winter echoed that sentiment, saying, “If it’s Madison Square Garden or the club down the street on the corner, I’m gonna be playing for me.”

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