“I’m shaking elbows because I’m getting ready to go on tour,” Ringo Starr says, taking the sanitary route to an introduction. We tap elbows, and I tell him I don’t want to go down in history as the guy who —
“Killed me?” he asks.
No, the guy who got you sick and caused a Beatle to cancel his tour, I clarify. We’ve only met, and I’ve had an immediate glimpse into Starr’s personality and playful sense of humor.
Starr, who’s 83 and a great-grandfather, is sitting outside a West Hollywood bungalow, a short walk from where he lives with actress Barbara Bach, to talk about Rewind Forward, a new four-song EP that includes a new song by Paul McCartney and one cowritten by Starr and the All Starr Band, the punningly named, mutable ensemble of rock pros he’s led and toured with since 1989.
In addition to anchoring the rock band to which all others have been compared, Starr has been making solo albums since 1970 and released seven consecutive top 10 hit singles in the first half of that decade, including “Photograph,” which he and George Harrison cowrote. His former bandmates took some experimental, deeply personal voyages on their solo albums, while Starr pushed on with the Fab Four’s mix of rock, country and R&B, carrying the mantle of a band he still clearly loves.
Before he was a Beatle, the former Richard Starkey was a Beatles fan. He was playing with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, one of the top bands in Liverpool, when he saw the Beatles for the first time in 1960, while both groups were playing dank Hamburg basements. When he was offered the drum chair in the Beatles, he accepted immediately, even though he was joining a less successful band — a choice that has worked out pretty well. Trim and lively, he’s precisely what he’s always seemed to be: an unpretentious, no-nonsense guy who doesn’t take himself seriously, except for his music.
“My name is Ringo, and I play drums,” he said in 2015 when he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist. But he’s also been a film and TV actor — a younger generation knows him mostly as Mr. Conductor from the PBS series Shining Time Station — and has written five books.
Years ago, he says, he was recording with producer Jeff Lynne, who wanted Starr to drum along to a click track, a prerecorded, metronomic beat drummers use to make sure they don’t speed up or slow down. Starr turned down the offer of assistance. “And in much more dramatic words,” he recalls, “I said to Jeff, ‘I am the click.’ ”
When did the new song “Rewind Forward” start to take shape?
One of my producers said, “We need a song with ‘rewind’ in it.” “Rewind” is a great word, but I don’t want to be in the past, so out of nowhere, I said “rewind forward.” My mouth is faster than my brain. All my life, strange things like that have come out, like the phrase “hard day’s night.” There were rumors John Lennon used to follow me around with his pen and pencil, waiting to hear what I’d say next. I said, “This is all people will talk about. They’ll keep asking me what it means.” And it means that you rewind to a space that was happy, and then you go forward. Which makes perfect sense now. [Laughs.]
There are very strong emotional and cognitive links between music and memory. Are there songs that bring back specific moments in your life?
Yeah, and on a daily basis, it could be this song or that one. I have great memories of my stepdad, who was a fan of big bands. When I hear big band music, I think of him. And when I drum, it always has a swing to it. That’s what he gave me, all those years ago. I was playing my music to him one day, and he said, “Have you heard this?” And he played me Sarah Vaughn. That’s a huge memory for me, because he didn’t say, “The music you’re listening to is crap, get it off.”
I did that with my children too — that’s how important that moment with my stepdad was to me. If my kids played me their music, I’d say, “Have you heard this?” We all learned a lot. When my son Zak [a drummer who now plays with the Who] was 9, he came running in with a vinyl record. “You’ve got to hear this, Dad. It’s this guy named Ray Charles!” And it was Ray Charles’ big band. I didn’t say, “Eh, I’ve heard hundreds of big band records.” I took the position, well, let’s hear it together.
Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones was also a big band fan, and there are some similarities in your styles.
We both swing, yeah. Charlie was even straighter than me. He played less than me, which isn’t easy to do. [Laughs.]
How did the new Paul song on your album, “Feeling the Sunlight,” come about?
Paul and I were in England, having dinner together [along with our wives]. I told him I was making an EP, and I said, “Why don’t you write me a song?” He wrote the song and put bass on it, he put piano, he put the drums on — and I had to take the drums off. [Laughs.]