June 26, 2023

FTV: Ringo in Eugene – Part 1


     Can an 82 year-old take on 23 concert dates consisting of two and three night stands with a couple of days off in between?  After witnessing Ringo’s All Starr Band hit the stage in Eugene, Oregon on Friday June 2, 2023, I am going to guess the answer is, “Oh yeah!”  Ringo doesn’t do the entire show himself (that is why he totes along the All Starr lineup) as he alternates his time between fronting the band and healthy doses of him drumming.  We should all have the amount of zip in our step as Ringo showed as he closes in on 83.  Are you remembering to flash the peace sign and say ‘Peace and Love’ at noon every July 7 as per Richy’s instructions?  It is the only thing he has requested for his birthday for the past many years and it is right around the corner, so make an old Beatle happy and add it to your to do list on July 7.

     In honor of the WOAS-FM West Coast Bureau scoring tickets to see Ringo’s Eugene show, my wife picked me up a copy of Michael Seth Starr’s (no relation) unauthorized 2015 biography RINGO – With a Little Help (Hal Leonard Corp).  I cracked it open a couple of days ahead of the concert and only made it as far as Ringo’s tenure with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes before the concert.  Not having read the whole book did not impede my enjoyment of seeing one of the two remaining Beatles perform live.  I did not plan on writing a song by song review of the All Starr’s show as there are others who meticulously record and post this kind of material.  I also do not like to spend my time during a live show taking notes or looking at the screen of my phone when the live action is just in front of me.  We will get back to the particulars of the 2023 tour in a bit, but let us first go back and explore how Ringo got to this point in his long musical journey. 

     Born in1940 in the Dingle area of Liverpool, Richard Starkey, aka Richy, has some memories of WWII and his father, but not enough to scar him permanently.  His father was a baker who met his mother when they both worked at Cooper’s Bakery in Liverpool.  When his dad removed himself from their lives in 1943, his mother Elsie and her only child were left to fend for themselves, but not entirely.   Starkey’s paternal grandparents lived a few doors down on the same street and they took a keen interest in their son’s son even though ‘Big Richy’ wasn’t there. 

    ‘Little Richy’s’  childhood was pretty typical for boys of that age – a group of like minded lads who played in the ‘bombies’ (the bombed out buildings and cratered streets) and entertained themselves with good natured mischief.  Not long after starting school, Richy ended up being hospitalized with peritonitis and needed emergency surgery to remove his burst appendix.  The doctors told Elsie several times during the night they did not think he would pull through but the boy rallied by morning (though he was not out of the woods yet).  Complications and a prolonged healing period kept him away from school for a couple of years.  He was a smart boy, but he did not exactly enjoy his return to school after his illness put him perpetually behind his classmates.  

     Elsie tried to help the nine-year old Richy before he returned to school, but she had her hands full working multiple jobs to keep a roof over their heads.  She hired a neighbor girl to tutor him so he could at least read and write some.  Starkey found it hard as he was constantly  playing catch up when he did return to school.  Also, it was difficult for ‘Lazarus’ (a nickname bestowed upon him for essentially returning from the dead) to keep his mind on schooling when there were adventures to be had.  He and his best friend signed up for the church choir because they were paid a small sum to attend.  If there was a way to scratch up a little coin and entertain themselves, Richy and the boys were up for it and school was certainly placed on the back burner.  Friends from those days remembered him not being the athletic sort, but he was tough enough to hold his own.  Richy made it a point to befriend some bigger kids to act as his shield, but he also used his wit and charm to defuse many situations.  Dingle was a tough neighborhood.

     Chumming around with his best buds Davey Patterson and Brian Briscoe coincided with Richy’s first brush with drums, but it wasn’t exactly in a musical context.  They procured a wooden tom-tom from West Africa and planned to capture rabbits with it.  The idea was to have Richy bang it at one rabbit hole while Davey and Brian held a sack over another hole.  They failed to capture any rabbits, but this is perhaps the most believable tale floating out there to connect the young Starkey to drums (and yes, everybody and their brother wants to be remembered as the one who gave Richy the idea to play the drums).

    At the age of eleven, Elsie began dating Harry Graves.  Harry had moved to Liverpool from London and worked at a U.S. Military base thirty miles away at Burtonwood.  Harry loved big band music and took a shine to Elsie’s son.  Harry would purchase American comic books for Richy from the base store.  A move to a new school didn’t improve his fortunes, educationally speaking.  Richy’s attendance was still poor but he did get ‘As’ in punctuality, general appearance and conduct while his drama teacher noted he, “Takes a real interest and has done very well.”  While Richy showed no particular interest in musical pursuits, he did take a keen interest in a tom-tom he saw in a music store window each day when he walked to school.  It wasn’t in his reach priced at 26 Pounds, but perhaps the allure came from not being able to buy it at the time.

     Harry asked Elsie to marry him in 1953.  Ringo wasn’t happy but he also did not want to stand in the way of his mother’s happiness.  Splitting the attention he got from his mum with Harry was acceptable because the union allowed her to stop working with Harry’s better income.  Things seemed to be settling down when Richy was again struck down by illness.  They called it ‘pleurisy’ because the true disease, tuberculosis, carried a certain stigma at the time.  Richy ended up in Heswall Children’s Hospital and he would spend the next two years battling TB.  Richy Starkey never returned to school but the hospital tried to supply some educational and recreational activities for their patients.  When the staff would bring in a variety of musical instruments, Richy would only participate if he was handed a drum.  He began using ‘cotton bobbins’ to beat on anything at hand and from that point on, drumming on things seemed to be the one activity he was always interested in pursuing.

     By the time he was discharged at the age of fifteen, Richy visited his former school to pick up the paperwork he would need to enter the workforce.  They were not much help and went so far as to suggest he had never been a student there.  The tune changed after he became famous and the school’s administrators would hold garden parties and charge admission for visitors to sit at ‘Ringo’s desk’.  Job hunting would be difficult because Richy’s new found passion for playing the drums was his only discernible skill.  Becoming a drummer would also be difficult as he had no drum kit to play.

     A variety of jobs would follow:  Messenger boy for British Railways (he lasted five weeks and failed the required medical exam) and tending bar on a pleasure steamer (this job lasted six weeks and he was let go when he came to work drunk).  Finally, Harry helped him land an apprentice job as a ‘joiner’ at Henry Hunt and Sons, a company that made school equipment. 

Richy deemed this an acceptable alternative to the ‘dreaded military service’.  Around the same time he began his career as a joiner, the Skiffle craze in England began in earnest.  Interest in Skiffle would eventually wane as the bands began shifting their sound more toward early rock ‘n’ roll but it got the attention of a lot of young wanna be musicians.  

     One of Richy’s fellow workers at Henry Hunt, Roy Trafford, would bring his guitar to work and entertain the other workers during their lunch breaks.  When Richy discovered both he and Roy shared a passion for skiffle music, he began joining in.  According to Trafford, “I played guitar and Richy just made a noise on a box.  Sometimes, he just slapped a biscuit tin with some keys, or banged on the backs of chairs.”  Having worked up a few songs at Henry Hunt, they invited Starkey’s neighbor Eddie Myles to join them, first calling themselves The Eddie Myles Band.  They  later changed the name to The Eddie Clayton Skiffle Group (‘Clayton’ coming from Eddie’s American GI father).  While interested in drumming, Richy was still without a kit – that is until Harry returned from London and, on boxing day 1957, presented him with a set of drums he had bought in London.

     The whole kit seemed enormous to Richy (it included a snare drum, bass drum, hi-hat, tom-tom, cymbal, and a bass drum pedal).  It was exciting, but Richy didn’t exactly know what to do with it.  Elsie encouraged him to attend a rehearsal with a neighbor’s jazz band but he didn’t hang around too long.  He tried a few lessons (probably from Red Carter who owned a studio), but Richy did not want the monotonous regime it would take to learn how to read music.  For a time he simply set up the drums in his bedroom and proceeded to teach himself.  When the neighbors complained about the noise, it became obvious he needed to join a band and practice elsewhere.  (My note:  Like Ringo, I started with the drums in my bedroom and was soon asked to move them to the basement rec room.  Unlike Ringo, my parents were happy to let me keep playing the drums there through nine years of woodshedding and rehearsals with three different bands.  I later asked my mother why she put up with the racket all those years and she said, “Well, we always knew where you were!”).

     Roy became Richy’s new running partner.   Davey had joined the Navy at 15 so it was Roy and Richy who went to the dance halls looking for girls and listened to the newest hits on Radio Luxembourg.  Trafford and Starkey also paid a visit to a club that would play a large part in Richy’s future;  Liverpool’s famed Cavern Club.  With his apprenticeship working out, he was sent for three-months training at Riversdale Technical College.  Harry and Elsie never pressured him and were more than happy to have him living with them while he learned his trade.

     The Eddie Clayton Skiffle group added some new members and continued to improve.  They would go on to play dates at a variety of halls and by late 1957 into early 1958, they appeared at the Cavern Club.  Eddie Myles was the band’s biggest draw, playing a bird’s-eye maple Hofner cutaway guitar with homemade pickups.  They played a lot of gigs for free, but you could not put a price on the experience they gained from playing out a lot.  By the summer of 1958, Richy was ready to take a step up and he borrowed 49 Pounds from his paternal grandfather to use as a deposit for a 100 Pound Ajax drum set.  His grandfather was notoriously tight fisted, but the loan showed he had faith that Richy would pay him back (which he did, at a Pound per week).

     The more professional looking Ajax kit upped the band’s look.  Richy may not have taken to any other instruments in prior years, but his path was now set.  He recalled, “It was in my soul, I just wanted to be a drummer.  I didn’t want to be a guitarist.  I didn’t want to play bass.  I wanted to be a drummer.”  With his new drum set, Richy also transformed his personal appearance by sporting slicked back hair and ‘Teddy Boy’ outfits that made him look tough.  The new look also helped him survive the rough and tumble neighborhood he lived in near Liverpool’s docks.  It was noted Richy wasn’t a great fighter but, “He was quick on his feet and a good sprinter.”  Richy’s gang activity never occupied a huge part of his life and soon took a back seat to drumming.  He played with virtually every and any group in town, gaining a reputation as the best drummer in Liverpool.  If a drummer missed a gig, Richy was likely there to take his place.

     The Eddie Clayton group ran its course and disbanded when Eddie got married.  Richy continued to work at Henry Hunt by day and play music by night.  His next band, the Darktown Skiffle Group, is remembered as one of the best when Starkey joined them in November of 1959.

The group eventually moved their repertoire to rock ‘n’ roll and changed their name to The Cadillacs.  Unfortunately, the other members had no ambition to be more than a hobby band.  Richy was ready to move up to something bigger and better.

     Rory Storm and the Hurricanes started out as a skiffle group called Al Caldwell’s Texans.  Their tall, stuttering lead singer, Alan Caldwell, had begun a career as a cotton salesman before  he was bitten by the skiffle bug.  By the time the band had gone through a trunk full of names to arrive at the ‘Rory Storm’ handle, they were moving into rock ‘n’ roll full time, but they needed a drummer.  They were aware of Richy Starkey and sent word they wanted him to audition.  Richy was interested, knew their songs (most of the local bands played the same tunes), and even figured he would need to change his ‘Teddy Boy’ look if he joined them.  He passed the tryout and debuted with them at the end of March 1959.

     The band would not actually change their name to Rory Storm and the Hurricanes until later in the year, but Richy was now confident enough in his path.  He decided to leave his job as a joiner and pursue music full time.  Harry and Elsie were not happy but they were supportive.  Starkey’s boss at Henry Hunt told him he would be back in three months regretting he did not finish his apprenticeship.  Going pro, however, freed Richy to go with the band for a three month engagement in Butlin’s (Resort) at Skegness.  He told his mum and ‘stepladder’ (as he referred to Harry) it would pay 16 Pounds per week and be steady employment, not just an afternoon here or an evening gig there.  The die was cast and Richy would never need to look back.  He had an ace show band (Rory Storm was putting on the kind of show artists like Rod Stewart would adopt later), a steady paycheck, and a new name.  Rory had a flair for being flambouyant and had already bestowed nicknames on the members of his band (like Johnny ‘Guitar’ Byrne).  Richy was already being called ‘Rings’ for his finger jewelry, so that morphed into ‘Ringo’ and ‘Starr’ became a suitable replacement for Starkey.

     Unlike his previous band, all of the Hurricanes were full time musicians by 1960 and their bookings increased.  Ironically, their first appearance at the Cavern Club was met by a hail of coins tossed from the audience.  The Cavern was a ‘jazz’ club and when they began playing rock songs (after a lighter jazz introduction), they were pelted with coins and fined six shillings by the owner.  They paid the fine (with change to spare) after gathering up the ammunition and began what would become a total transformation of the music heard at the Cavern Club.

     In Part Two of Ringo In Eugene, we will complete the story of how ‘Little Richy’ Starkey became a member of The Beatles and then jump into what Ringo is up to today. 


Top Piece Video:  A little history about Rory Storm and the Hurricanes set at the Cavern Club in 1960