May 18, 2024

From the Vaults: Beats and Threads


     Near the one year anniversary of getting to see Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band in Eugene, Oregon for the first show of their 2023 summer tour, it occurred to me that some of you probably don’t have enough Ringo memorabilia in your lives.  Disclaimer:  I am not promoting or suggesting you patronize the concern that is marketing this product.  The limited edition run was announced in November of 2023 so they may not be available at the $80 per volume price anyway.  There were also exclusive limited editions signed by Ringo ($500) and specially designed slip case covered versions featuring a video of Ringo (also signed) ($750).  Of course, if the ‘limited’ edition part has run its course, then some of them will be appearing on the nearest internet selling app for highly inflated prices.

     What on earth am I talking about?  The book Beats and Threads – a 312 page book originally available for purchase from the company that produced them.  According to the announcement, “All proceeds of the book sales will benefit The Lotus Foundation whose mission funds supports, participates in, and promotes charitable projects aimed at advancing social welfare in diverse areas including, but not limited to, substance abuse, cerebral palsy, brain tumors, cancer, battered women and their children, homelessness, and animals in need.”  Even for an organization that touts itself as, “the industry’s leading rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia auction house,” that seems to be a lofty set of goals.  The goals seem less surprising, however, when we note The Lotus Foundation was started by Ringo and his wife Barbara Bach after they overcame their own alcohol addiction problems.  There is more to Ringo than just his annual ‘Peace and Love’ birthday celebration.

     If you have a yen (and the ‘yen’) to purchase one of these sets, more power to you.  The book  is a waltz through Ringo’s 70 year career featuring, “His legendary sonic and sartorial style [with] 300 shimmering images capturing iconic and many never-before-seen intimate moments of Ringo’s illustrious life and career, along with the drum icon’s warm memories told in his own words.”  Long story short, it is a volume dedicated to Ringo Starr’s drum kits and fashion history during his time as a Beatle.  I am sure it would be an interesting coffee table book to flip through, but what caught my eye six months after the release announcement was a posting I found from The Charlotte Observer written by Adam Bell.  Bell sat down with drummer / historian Gary Astridge to find out more about the whole project (sans Ringo who was obviously busy elsewhere).  Astridge has done his homework and knows a lot of stuff about Ringo.

     Like a lot of wannabe rock stars, Gary Astridge first heard the Beatles on the famous Ed Sullivan Show broadcast on February 9, 1964.  The audience of 73 million nationwide watching this historic CBS broadcast included the ten year old me (in Marquette, MI) and seven year old Astridge (who lived in Buffalo, NY at the time).  I was already a half year into my training to become a drummer in the school band and seeing Ringo (and those other guys) broadened my focus to include perhaps playing drums in a combo someday.  I was already a little, shall we say, ‘drum crazy’ at the time, and The Beatles appearing on TV threw a little more fuel on the fire.  Astridge recalled, “It changed me.  He was my guy.  That moment in time made me a Beatles fan and I wanted to be a drummer.” I may have been drum crazy, but for Gary Astridge, drums (and Ringo’s drums) became even more of an obsession.

      I believe Aldridge and I heard the screaming that accompanied The Beatles performance, but perched on a four foot high circular platform slightly larger than his drum kit’s footprint, Ringo was hard to miss.  Three things stood out to me:  1) Ringo was seated on a drum throne that elevated him above his kit which made him kind of lean into it for some of his fills, 2) The oyster pearl finish was very distinctive, even in black and white, and 3) the Ludwig logo was clearly visible on the bass drum – just above what is now known as the ‘drop ‘T’ version of The Beatles logo.  I wasn’t a ‘Ludwig drummer’ yet and this was my first contact with the company.

     At the time, Ludwig drums were manufactured in Chicago, Illinois by the William F. Ludwig company.  There is an anecdotal story that says Ringo wanted to show everyone he was doing well enough that he could afford ‘American’ drums.  Many upcoming rock drummers in England played the Premier brand.  As the story goes, Ringo put the Ludwig logo on his bass drum to make the point more obvious.  After appearing on national TV, William F. supposedly avoided meeting The Beatle in person for fear that he would want something in return for the free advertising.  I am not so sure of this old story after hearing Adridge’s take on Ringo and his 70 year love affair with Ludwig drums.

     The national exposure certainly did spark wider interest in Ludwig drums.  Before February 1964, their factory ran a typical five day / eight hour per day production schedule.  Following the Ed Sullivan broadcast, demand surged enough to make them expand to a six-day / 24 hour per day schedule.  Only eight months after their appearance on Sullivan, Ludwig’s leaders met The Beatles before a September 5, 1964 gig in Chicago.  In appreciation for what he had done for them, they presented Ringo with a gold-plated Super Sensitive snare drum.  This doesn’t sound like Ludwig was trying to duck meeting Ringo in person.  Even though I have reported the ‘Ludwig avoids Ringo’ story myself in the past, I am now inclined to believe it is another one of those rock ‘n’ roll urban legends.

     When asked about this topic during an interview with the Rock ‘n’ Roll Museum in 2015, Ringo said it all started when they walked by a music store in London:  “I was playing Cameo drums at the time, and in the window I saw this kit.  I loved anything American, and they had the black oyster finish and I said, ‘It’s American, I love that.  I want to buy those’ which Brian (Epstein) arranged.   The clerk at the store went to peel the Ludwig logo off the bass drum and I said ‘No, you gotta leave that on – it’s American,’ and that is how it became famous (ed. note – drum companies continue to display their names on bass drum heads).  And that is how it started – it was American, they sounded great, and I play them to this day.  I am the best advertisement Ludwig ever had and a lot of people bought the drums because I played them…and the rest is history.”

     Ludwig has always used high profile drummers to help sell their drums.  Vanilla Fudge stickman Carmine Appice was an early endorser.  Appice was playing a beautiful maple finish double bass Ludwig kit when I saw the Fudge play at Northern Michigan University in the late 1960s.  Led Zeppelin opened for Vanilla Fudge when the Brits first came to North America.   Carmine has taken credit for introducing drummer John Bonham to the Ludwig brand, which LZ’s monster skin pounder used throughout his career.  Bonham was certainly a big selling point for the many, many Ludwig Vistalite (drums with a see through acrylic shell) kits sold.  For a time, they would sell out as fast as they could be produced.  Today, the Vistalite Bonham kit sells for more than $4,000 (and this is the cost for just the drums, not the stands, hardware or cymbals).  By the time I had seen Appice perform with Vanilla Fudge, I was already the proud owner of a silver sparkle Ludwig Super Classic drum set, commonly called ‘the Ringo set’.

      According to Astridge, Ringo played five of these Ludwig kits as The Fab Four ascended to rock stardom.  Ringo’s first and possibly the most iconic drum kit was the aforementioned Super Classic set with the Black Oyster Pearl finish.  The 1963 set was auctioned off in 2015 and the owner of the Indianapolis Colts NFL franchise, Jim Irsay, shelled out a princely $2.2 million for it.  This leaves Ringo in possession of four other sets from those days.  

     By the time they got to the rooftop concert filmed for the original Let It Be movie, Starr had graduated to a maple finish double mounted tom tom Ludwig Hollywood set.  This was the configuration he used for both the Let It Be and Abbey Road albums.  Astridge told Bell that there had been some storage issues with these maple finished drums:  “It was an unfortunate situation and the maple kit (used from 1968-1970) suffered a lot of damage from the weather,  If the timing wasn’t what it was to retrieve and restore it, the kit would have been beyond repair,  We’re talking about historical artifacts that were poorly kept.  But everything’s in the States now, in a highly secure location and well protected.”   Astridge should know as he has spent years researching Ringo’s drums.  He had mulled a book project about their history as he gathered information and posted it on the site which he started in 2006.  

     Astridge did become a drummer himself and currently plays a replica of the Oyster Shell Pearl Ludwig Super Classic kit in a Beatles tribute band known as the BBC Band.  Before seeing the All-Starr Band in Niagara Falls, Ontario in 2008, Gary made a T-Shirt featuring all of Ringo’s Beatles era drum kits and the caption, ‘Old Tools of Mine’.  After the show, he gave the shirt to a band member and asked them to give it to Starr.  Starr’s drum technician, Jeff Chonis, came out and, according to Astridge, “We had a great talk.  Jeff gave me a set of Ringo’s drumsticks, signed by Ringo, and I started crying.  I thought, ‘This is as good as it gets!’”  Chonis became a fan of Gary’s website and they began to communicate by email and phone.

     Asked by the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles to help with the 2012 exhibit “Ringo:  Peace & Love”, Gary offered to refit missing parts for two drum kits that were going on display:  “I told them I could bring the kits back to life for history by providing what was needed from my private collection.  They agreed, and it was very much appreciated.”  It would take until 2015 until Gary finally got to meet the Ringed One face to face.

     Astridge found himself backstage after another All-Starr concert, this time in Toronto.  Out of the blue, Starr approached him and said, “Gary, thank you, thank you, thank you.  Because of your research, I learned thing that I didn’t know, and you brought back fond memories of things I’d forgotten.”  A friendship developed and Astridge has traveled to L.A. several times to attend Ringo’s annual ‘Peace and Love’ birthday celebrations.  He has helped with other projects and served as the curator of his Beatle days drum kits and has also assisted with fundraising for The Lotus Foundation.  Astridge has literally traveled the world to speak at various events covering Beatles history, Starr’s drumming, and his kits.  

     No doubt a drum geek from Tonawanda, NY never dreamed of getting to know Ringo Starr personally, let alone become a friend.  Though he had thought about a book project before, he did not want to press the bonds of friendship by inserting himself in the equation.  It was Ringo’s personal assistant, Scott Ritchie, who approached Astridge to see if he would be interested in working with Starr on the book and video.  He wasn’t about to say ‘no’.  When they were filming the video included in the super deluxe Beats & Threads set, Gary found himself thinking, “I might be one of the last people to ever hear Ringo play on these kits.”

     I laughed when I read this phrase.  Bun E. Carlos from the Rockford, Illinois based band Cheap Trick is also an avid collector of Ludwig Drums.  He has, in fact, a small warehouse with shelves stacked floor to ceiling with just about every model Wm. F. rolled off the production line.  Carlos tells a story about being in a studio where they found one of Ringo’s kits that had been stored there.  They hatched a plan to set them up and use them during their recording session.  After several attempts, they gave up because he recalled, “They sounded like crap.”  In the end he came to the conclusion that perhaps the missing ingredient was Ringo himself.  Carlos also credits seeing The Beatles in concert with his brother in Chicago when he was first learning to play the drums.  Watching Ringo get a ‘wash’ of sound by keeping his hi-hat cymbals slightly apart unlocked a technique for him that most drummers use today.  Ringo himself has a more modest drum collection including a 1940 kit he obtained – he wanted one from the year of his birth.

     One of the photos I saw from the book included Ringo behind his 1963 era kit wearing the pink silk military style uniform (and flat hat) from the Hello Goodbye music film.  Gary said they all had a great time doing the ‘threads’ photo shoot for the book.  Starr was amazed when he found the long lost outfit in the same storage compartment as Bach’s wedding dress.  Ringo was even more amazed that it still fit him like a glove. 

      I don’t mean to short the ‘thread’ part of the book by focusing on the drum content.  I should acknowledge the book was a coin with two sides (or should we say a suit with two tails?) that would resonate with a wider audience and not just us ‘drum nuts’.  The promotional materials announcing the release said, perhaps a little cheekily, “As for his threads?  Well, they’ve been going in and out of style, but their guaranteed to raise a smile.  And while his clothes wore many different labels, the only name on Starr’s drums – then and now – is Ludwig.”

      The William F. Ludwig Co was formed in Chicago in 1909.  Forty years ago (1984) the whole operation relocated to Monroe, North Carolina, just east of Charlotte.  The 75th anniversary of the business’ being founded was marked by the move south.  William F. Ludwig II retired in 1981 and he had sold the company to The Selmer Company at that time.  Change being the only constant, the company merged with Steinway Pianos after 90 years in the game and went public on the NYSE.  Even in today’s competitive market, the Ludwig brand still attracts a great deal of attention.  Questlove (the band leader of the Roots, Jimmy Fallon’s house band on the Tonight Show) is just one of their high profile artists.  Both of Questlove’s signature kits (the 2013 BackBeats Kit and 2016 Pocket Kit) were produced as a way to induce drummers of any skill level and age to pick up sticks.  In fact, the Pocket Kit is a downsized version aimed at the 4-10 year-old children’s market and comes with video lessons by Questlove and his friends.

     If one takes a few moments to look up Ringo’s drum kits online, one will note his touring and home studio drums all carry the Ludwig logo.  Each All-Starr band tour seems to feature a new Ludwig drum set with Ringo’s ‘star’ on the bass drum head and/or on the drum shells.  The current second drummer on recent tours, Greg Bissonette, is a Michigan native who plays Dixon Drums.  

     When I got my own Super Classic Ludwig drum kit in April of 1966, it had a silver sparkle finish and not Ringo’s Oyster Pearl.  The salesman had even made a comment about me being disappointed that it wasn’t the same finish as Ringo’s, but it didn’t matter to me.  The important thing was these were mine (and still are, I might add) and after two and a half years of dreaming about owning a drum set, I was beside myself.  What I didn’t know was the joyful journey I was beginning and how it would affect me for the next 48 years.

     Thank you to Greg Astridge and Ringo Starr for sharing another side of The Beatles’ history.


Top Piece Video:  No, this is NOT one of Ringo’s regular sets – but the suit still fits him today!  If you are a sharp eyed viewer, at 1:17 of the video, you will a silver sparkle tom tom magically appear . . . not sure how this happened, but that is the size and finish of my Ludwig set.  Go figure.