Find Ringo – The Fourth Beatle
Is Ringo just a lucky guy in the right place at the right time, or one of the greatest drummers ever?
How “Richy” Became “Billy Shears”
They said he was quiet, didn’t seem to fit in and looked unhappy behind his drums. He also had a different haircut than the other three Beatles. Pete Best, you say? No, Ringo Starr.
In December 1964, The Beatles Book Monthly first used the term “Fourth Beatle”. “Ringo is usually known as the 4th Beatle because he joined the group a mere two years ago. I think he is quieter than the others because of this fact.” They also observed that Ringo “tended to be the ‘odd man out’ as the boys returned from their highly successful tour of Scotland with Helen Shapiro. He still felt he was a new boy.” He rarely talked about the early days either. “Come off it, nobody’s interested in all that. It’s the other three who matter, not me.” (Beatles Book Monthly December 1964)
As for not looking happy, Ringo told Tony Barrow that “my face might not look too chuffed (happy), but the rest of me is.” (John Paul George Ringo and Me, Tony Barrow) They also observed that he was soon known as “the ‘silent’ Beatle”, though Ringo said he didn’t mind “not being drawn into the free-for-all discussion. It gives me that air of mystery, y’know. Sort of sets people wondering what is going on behind my bland, inexpressive, face.” (Beatles Book Monthly Jan 1965)
So being quiet, not quite fitting in, looking unhappy behind his drums and having a different haircut had no more bearing on Ringo’s presence in The Beatles than it did the dismissal of his predecessor. As John said, “Pete was a great drummer. Ringo was a great Beatle.” (John Paul George Ringo and Me, Tony Barrow)
In The Town Where I Was Born
Richard Starkey was born on 7th July 1940 and was the old man of the Fab Four, if only by three months. Restricted by ill health in his childhood, he missed more than a year of school when his appendix burst just before his seventh birthday. His Physical Training teacher from Dingle Vale Secondary Modern, Mr. Dawson, remembered one of his rare moments of sporting prowess: “He was always wanting to do the same things as the other boys,” he said, “and I remember one incident which typifies this. It was during the middle of a P.T. lesson. All the class were jumping over the vaulting-horse in the centre of the gym. When it came to Ringo’s turn, he was obviously pretty doubtful whether he would get over the obstacle because he had never done it before. He ran up to it, jumped, and just managed to clear it. When he found that he had succeeded and not fallen flat, his face burst into a really broad, satisfied grin.” Sad to say, this may very well be his only achievement from eleven years at school. In fact, when he returned from 18 months in hospital, the school couldn’t find his records. However, Dawson observed what happened once Ringo had become famous: “Recently the school put an old desk of Ringo’s up for sale. We had thousands of girls queuing up to try and buy it. He has certainly helped to make Dingle Vale School famous.” (Beatles Book Monthly 28)
Another 18 months were spent in hospital when Richy contracted tuberculosis at age 13. It was during this extended convalescence that he ignited his passion for drumming. To keep the children happy, the nurse came round with a cart of musical instruments. As Ringo recalled: “Because a lot of us stayed in bed a long time, they tried to keep us entertained. This woman came and she had a big board with yellow and red marks on it. If she hit the yellow, you’d hit the tambourine; if she hit the red, you’d hit the drum. That was when I got a drum for the first time, and then I wouldn’t be in the hospital class band unless I was given the drum after that.” (Photograph, by Ringo) His love of the drum was instant and it gripped him. “I knew immediately: ‘I want to play the drums. I don’t want to play piano, I don’t want to play guitar.’” Like the other children, he would get bored easily, as the hospital was in Heswall, on the west coast of the Wirral peninsula, more than twelve miles from the family home in the Dingle. Richy’s mum Elsie had to take two buses just to see her son once a week. (Rolling Stone April 9 2015)
His childhood friend Marie Maguire helped him cement this love for the drums. As she recalled, “Richy contracted tuberculosis (TB) which of course was serious. At the time, there was a terrible stigma attached to having TB, and so the family said it was pleurisy. He was at the convalescent home in Heswall on the Wirral. That is when I took him Eric Delaney’s record, ‘Bedtime for Drums’, which he loved.” (DB interview Liddypool 2009)
Ringo, then known simply as Richy Starkey, remembered how he was obsessed with drumming. “Ever since I was 12, I’ve drummed around on anything handy. I used to play on tin cans – even played that way at a party once. There was a music shop I used to pass on the way to school, which had a tom-tom in the window. It cost six pounds. I used to look at it every morning, but we could never afford it. But one Christmas, Elsie and Harry bought me a full drum set, and I knew they couldn’t spare the money. Around the end of 1957, my best friend Roy Trafford and I started going to the Cavern Club. I used to admire the groups who played there and wished I could join one.” (Elvis meets The Beatles)
Roy Trafford lived at 7, Paulton Street, also in the Dingle, and his family had a small shop. Though the area has often been described as a poor, run-down neighbourhood, Roy disagrees. “It was a great place to live,” he says. “It was such a great community. You could play out in the streets, and then go into your mate’s house and his mother would look after you and then you’d go home. The houses were immaculate. Even though we had no toilets or bathrooms in our houses, the women had pride in their homes. The curtains were perfect, they would polish the window ledges and scrub the front step. Don’t let anyone say it was a bad place to live because it wasn’t.” (DB Interview 2015)
It was while working at H. Hunt & Son, a school equipment firm, that Richy and Roy, along with Richy’s next door neighbour Eddie Myles, formed their first group. “One day, Eddie brought a guitar to work and we started playing in the cellar at lunchtime, among the sawdust, so Richy started banging a rhythm on anything he could find, like biscuit tins, chairs or boxes. I got a tea-chest bass and that is how we started. I used to have to carry it on the bus, and the conductor let me stand there in the aisle with it.” (DB Interview 2015)
Now that they had a group, Richy made the transition from tins to a small drum kit. “Richy started off with a basic kit,” Roy recalled, “just a stand-up drum (floor tom), a snare and a cymbal. As he got better and better, his kit grew. Like all of us, we learned as we went along, and he became a great drummer with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes and then, of course, The Beatles. When we started to play, although Richy had a good sense of rhythm, I showed him how to make a noise like a train with his brushes on the snare because we were doing a lot of railroad songs. Of course, at the start, you couldn’t tell what a great drummer he would become because we were just having fun.” (DB interview 2015)
Ringo remembered the excitement of getting his first drum, which he said “came on the scene about this time. I bought a drum for thirty shillings. It was a huge, one-sided bass drum. There used to be lots of parties then. An uncle would play banjo or harmonica, my grandparents played mandolin and banjo. There was always someone playing something. So I would bang my big drum with two pieces of firewood and drive them mad, but because I was a kid they would let me do it.” (Anthology)
With drumming becoming Richy’s life focus, his stepfather, Harry Graves, promised to buy him a better kit after he came out of hospital. And true to his word, Harry did just that. “When someone in Harry’s family died,” Ringo remembered, “he’d gone down to Romford and there was a drum kit for sale for £12. The whole family collected together and he brought this drum set to Liverpool. I was given it for Christmas.” (Anthology) Harry remembered the trip well. “I brought them up from London in the guard’s van,” he said. “I was waiting for a taxi home at Lime Street when I saw Joe Loss walking over. I thought, if he asks me if I can play them, I’ll have to say no. But he walked right past me.” (Hunter Davies)
The new kit was Richy’s greatest ever Christmas present, and although it was was a lot of money to the family, it was an investment in a career that would make him one of the most famous faces on the planet and one of the most respected drummers in the history of popular music. As he remembered: “I got the drum kit on Boxing Day and was in a group by February, so there wasn’t a chance in hell that I could play by then. But neither could anyone else, except the guitarist, who knew a couple of chords.” (Anthology)
Elsie also told Bill Harry about those early days. “When he was very, very young he always wanted to make a noise on something – empty boxes and suchlike. The first kit of drums he had we bought from some friends of ours. He used it for a little bit then went on to better things. He used to practice in the back room – but only for half an hour a night. That was all he was allowed because of the noise!” (Mersey Beat)
It wasn’t long before Ringo decided it was time for a full drum kit, so he asked his Grandad Starkey to lend him the money for the deposit – £11 – which he would pay back at £1 per week. “If his grandad even refused him a shilling, he’d do a war dance,” said Elsie. “This time his grandad came to see me. ‘Hey, do you know what that bloody noddler of yours wants?’ He always called him ‘noddler’. But he gave him the money.” Even though Richy was only 3 years old when his father left the family home, he had a very close relationship with his paternal grandfather.
His new kit – an “Ajax Edgware Drum Kit (Black Elegance)” – was obtained from Hessy’s on 23rd April 1958, on Hire-Purchase. Although Grandad Starkey paid the deposit, it was good old stepfather Harry Graves who signed the hire-purchase agreement as witness Elsie stood by. The cash price offer was £57 2 shillings and 6 pence, with a hire-purchase price of £68. After the deposit of £11, Richy would have to make payments of 16 shillings monthly until it was paid off. Somehow, that young “noddler” had involved his whole family in the drum purchase.
According to Ringo, it was “amazing” and, for the first time, he had a complete drum kit comprised of a snare, bass drum, hi-hat, one small tom-tom, a top cymbal and a bass drum pedal, which meant he “didn’t have to kick it anymore”. He set it up in his bedroom, but then the shout would come from downstairs: “Keep the noise down, the neighbours are complaining!” (Hunter)
He very quickly stopped and never practiced at home again. This first full kit stayed with him through the Eddie Clayton Skiffle Group and into his tenure with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes.
The Eddie Clayton Skiffle Group
The Eddie Clayton Skiffle Group was founded by guitarist Eddie Myles, Richy’s neighbour and workmate, a talented musician who was the driving force. “We played at the Embassy Club in New Brighton, just the three of us,” Roy Trafford recalled, “and the guy was good to us. He said, ‘come back when you’ve built yourselves up’. So we then added Micky McGrellis who played washboard. He was a great washboard player and had a fantastic sense of rhythm. But, of course, Eddie was the star. He could play anything. As well as guitar, he could play the mandolin, banjo, piano and he even played the violin in a country group. He made the pick-ups for our guitars once we had moved on from the skiffle instruments. We both bought Hofner guitars, and he filed down the bridge on the guitar to make the strings closer to the neck of the guitar, so we had to apply less pressure on the strings. He then attached the pickups that he had made. I remember him playing ‘Guitar Boogie’ with the guitar behind his head. He was incredible. He even made his own steel guitar.” (DB interview 2015)
By now, Richy had the drumming bug, and just as George Harrison was obsessed with guitars, Richy Starkey was obsessed with his drums. “He was always musically inclined you know, especially with drums,” Elsie later said. “I think he’s been drumming since he was about 17. He started in a skiffle group with two friends. There was Eddie Myles and Roy Trafford and Richard. Those were in the tea-chest days, of course. Then Eddie got married and they broke up. Richard then joined the Dark Town Skiffle Group. He finished with them and joined Rory Storm and was with him for three or four years until he joined The Beatles.” (Liverpool Weekly News 1964)
Richy was never one for playing on his own. “I’ll play with any other musician all night, but I can’t do it on my own. I don’t find any joy sitting there by myself.” Neither was he a fan of drummers in general. “I was never really into drummers. I loved seeing Gene Krupa in the movies, but I did not go out and buy his records. The one drum record I bought was ‘Topsy Part Two’ by Cozy Cole. I always loved country and western. A lot of it was around from the guys in the navy. I’d go to parties and they’d be putting on Hank Williams, Hank Snow and all those country acts. I still love country music. Skiffle was also coming through, and I was a big fan of Johnnie Ray. Frankie Laine was probably my biggest hero around 1956 – and I also liked Bill Haley.” (Rolling Stone April 9 2015)
He had a few drum lessons from tutor Ernie “Red” Carter. “I had about three lessons. Once I got interested in drums I said, ‘Right, I’ll go read music and learn how to play’ but I went to this little man in a house and he played drums and he got a manuscript and wrote it all down. I never went back – I just couldn’t be bothered. It was too routine for me, y’know, all those paradiddles and that – I couldn’t stand it.” (DB Fab104)
The Best Group in Liverpool
The Eddie Clayton Skiffle Group quickly became one of the best skiffle groups in Liverpool. “I don’t know why,” explained Roy, “but we just kept winning the cups. I remember us winning the cup for the best group in the area at the Locarno Ballroom. We played many places, some competitions, and if we got paid it was only 10 bob (50 pence), not much.” They also played at a show at the Empire Theatre, the largest theatre in Liverpool. “I don’t know where I got the bottle from to do that, to get up on stage in front of all those people. Where did we get the guts to do it? Maybe we had a couple of pints first? We were friends playing together, working together, having fun, so we probably helped each other. We were just having a laugh.”
With so many skiffle groups in Liverpool, the competition was fierce. Each one had to stand out from the rest, and that usually achieved by selecting songs no one else was performing. “We were doing old folk songs and railroad songs from America,” Roy said. “We listened to blues records, and went to watch people like the blues duo Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. We sang ‘Frankie and Johnny’ and one of our favourites was ‘The Titanic (It Was Sad When The Ship Went Down)’. It was one of our ‘biggies’ and not many others did it.” The group played at as many venues as it could, with the hope of a small fee or winning a competition; they certainly weren’t in it for more than
just the fun. “We played at various clubs, especially Wilson Hall in Garston a number of times, as well playing the Cavern ten times. We would play in the interval between the jazz groups. We also played at the ‘21 Club’ in Croxteth Road,” which was run by Cavern owner Alan Sytner, “and the Railway Club on Ullet Road.” (DB interview 2015)
Sometime in the spring of 1957, The Eddie Clayton Skiffle Group made its official playing debut at the Labour Club, Peel Hall, on the corner of Peel Street and Park Road in the Dingle. “We had no idea you had to keep the same tempo all the way through,” Ringo recollected. “We used to start off performing ‘Maggie May’ at the right tempo and end up like an express train, we were all so excited. People had to dance to this.” (TuneIn) When Eddie Myles quit music to get married, the group folded. For Roy, skiffle was just fun. He played a couple of times with Ringo in Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, but a music career wasn’t for him. For Ringo, however, it was a springboard to becoming one of the greatest drummers in history.
The Darktown Skiffle Group
In 1958, Richy joined The Darktown Skiffle Group, widely regarded at the time as one of Liverpool’s top groups. The ensemble boasted several members in its short history, including Dave McKew, bass player Keith Draper, guitarists Alan Robinson, Kenny Irwin and David Smith, and vocalist Gladys Jill Martin. They had other drummers, such as Brian Redman and Kenny Hardin, but for a brief period they had Richy Starkey in the drum seat. Soon, as was the case with most skiffle groups, the transition to rock ‘n’ roll also meant a name change.
The Darktown Skiffle Group
soon became The Cadillacs. “I joined the Cadillacs in November of 1958,” Ringo recalled in a November 1962 interview. “The leader had a car and used to pick me up, so for the first time I was able to take out the full kit. I still dressed like a Ted and I was going to dances and always getting into fights. So, when I got to join Rory Storm’s group, I jumped at it. After all, I was fed up getting beaten up and it was a better way of meeting girls.” (When Elvis met The Beatles)
From Texans to a Storm and Hurricanes
Somehow, Richy always ended up in Liverpool’s top group. From the Cadillacs, he was recruited by Alan Caldwell to join his group, the Raving Texans, having auditioned in March 1959. After a couple of name changes, they settled on Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. Their love for cowboy films inspired each of them to assume a western alias. Alan Caldwell became Rory Storm; Johnny Byrne took the name Johnny Guitar after the 1954 film of that name; Charles O’Brien, who was now on lead guitar, became Ty Brian after the star of the Bronco TV series; Wally Eymond, the group’s bass player, was given the name Lou Walters and, as we know, Richy Starkey became Ringo Starr.
When the Gene Vincent show came to the Liverpool Stadium in May 1960, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes were on the stage, while John, Paul, George and Stuart could only look on from the audience with envy. When the Cavern Club held its first Beat Night in May 1960, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes was the first beat band to play there. With Rory celebrated as one of the top showmen in the city, the group’s reputation was second to none. The Silver Beatles at that time didn’t even have a regular drummer.
“I met Ringo during the old skiffle days,” Lou Walters would recall in 1963. “He was appearing at the Mardi Gras with Rory Storm and was dressed in a long black Teddy Boy suit. Later, I joined the group which was then known as the Raving Texans and we played numerous dates around the Liverpool area. Ringo was not an exceptional drummer at the time, but as the group progressed he improved to such an extent that we realized he would be a very good drummer. We had some good times when we made our first appearance at Butlin’s holiday camp. Ringo was the lazy one of the group. In the mornings he used to sleep late, and if woken would be very bad tempered. The first signs of him waking took the form of one open eye which was staring round the chalet. Then it would be between one hour and 1-1/2 hours before he’d stir properly. Then he wouldn’t speak for an hour or so. After that, he’d revert to his normal self. He was the life and soul of any party we went to and was well liked because of his sense of humour. At that time, he started to show some of his exceptional talent on drums and he also started singing. One of the numbers was ‘Alley Oop’ and the girls started to scream their applause. Ringo was a born singer!” (Mersey Beat in 1963)
What did Rory Storm think of Ringo? In the January 1964 edition of Mersey Beat under the heading of “The Ghost of Ringo Haunts this Group”, Rory revealed what it was like with, and without, Ringo. “Ringo was with us for more than four years. When the group started, only ourselves and The Blue Jeans were known on the Mersey Scene – we were the first rock group to do the rounds. During the four or five years Ringo was with us he really played drums – he drove them. He sweated and swung and sung. Ringo sang about five numbers a night, he even had his own spot – it was called ‘Ringo Starr time’. Now he’s only a backing drummer, The Beatles’ front line is so good he doesn’t have to do much. This is not the Ringo Starr who played with us.” The Hurricanes went through several drummers and never really recovered from losing Ringo. (Mersey Beat January 1964)
Iris Caldwell, Rory’s sister, recalled when the boys were booked to appear at Butlin’s Holiday Camp at Pwllheli and they “decided that they would look more professional if they wore makeup. All except Ringo. He refused point blank to ‘put that muck on my face’. In the end, however, he gave in to stop the argument and smeared his face with a thin layer.” Ringo was very popular with the girls at the camp, who loved “the grey streaks in his hair, even though Ringo hated them.” She was clear that Rory “thought a lot of Ringo and gave him his own spot in the act calling it ‘Ringo Starr Time’” where he regularly sang “Matchbox” and “Boys”. Then came the beard, which appeared during their “second session at the camp in Pwllheli. I think it was to try and draw attention away from the streaks in his hair,” said Iris.
Back in Liverpool, after gigs, Ringo would often find himself at the Caldwell’s house, and got to know the family well. Vi Caldwell, Iris’ mother, remembered an incident when Ringo again tried some physical exercise – his first swimming lesson. “Rory found out that Ringo could not swim a stroke so he decided to try and teach him,” recalled Vi. “It was fine at first, but then they became more ambitious and decided to go underwater swimming which almost caused a tragedy. Rory told me that suddenly a pair of hands appeared from beneath the waves, desperately searching for something to grab onto. Ringo’s swimming obviously wasn’t good enough for underwater yet. Luckily, Rory saw what was happening and pulled him out.” (Beatles Book Monthly 28)
By 1960, and on the back of their success at Butlin’s, it was time for Ringo to upgrade his drum kit again, and so, in September, he purchased a four-piece Premier “Mahogany Duroplastic” set. This new gear consisted of a 20×14-inch bass drum, a 16×16-inch floor tom, a shallow 14×4-inch Premier Royal Ace wood-shell snare drum, and an 8×12-inch rack tom, along with a non-standard Rogers Swiv-O-matic tom-tom holder. This would be the kit that Ringo used for the Hurricanes’ first trip to Hamburg in October 1960, that he used on the first recording with John, Paul and George on 15th October 1960, and was still using when he joined The Beatles in August 1962. He nearly lost his kit on that first trip to Hamburg. “He travelled alone on the train and had to change in Paris,” Iris Caldwell recounted. “During the usual scramble he lost track of his drum-kit.” Unable to speak French, he did what most British people do abroad and tried to talk with his hands. “The French people thought he was mad and called the Gendarmes. Fortunately, one of them did understand English, and realized what had happened. He still had to stay in Paris overnight, but his drums were found by next morning.” Not quite as bad as stealing a harmonica on the way to Hamburg as John Lennon had done.
By the end of 1961, Ringo was feeling frustrated at not progressing past holiday camp bookings. In December, with the promise of a good fee, an apartment and the use of a car, he left the Hurricanes to return to Hamburg as drummer for Tony Sheridan. On the surface, it sounded like a good deal, but with Sheridan’s erratic performances on stage, Ringo decided he was better off with the Hurricanes. He returned to Liverpool and reclaimed the drummer’s seat behind Rory Storm.
Ringo and The Beatles crossed paths many times over the years, in both Hamburg and Liverpool, until he was finally offered the drummer’s seat in the group in August 1962. His future as the world’s most famous drummer could have ended suddenly after a frightening incident on the way home from a Little Richard concert at the Tower Ballroom. Driving through the tunnel with Roy Trafford in the passenger seat, Ringo’s car suddenly skidded on the wet pavement and spun around. Thankfully, he regained control and they arrived at home safely.
Maybe that was the only luck Ringo needed?
Read the full story in Finding the Fourth Beatle, the story of 23 drummers and the search to find THE permanent fourth member of the Fab Four. What a journey!