Once, when asked if Ringo Starr was the best drummer in rock ’n’ roll, John Lennon quipped with characteristic, cruel impudence that his band mate “wasn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles.”  Which of course is not true, as anyone who’s heard some of Paul McCartney’s clunky solo drum tracks can attest. What is true is that Ringo is sort of the Rodney Dangerfield of rock percussionists.  He hasn’t always gotten the respect he merits.

Ringo Starr in concert with his All-Star Band at Caesars Palace in Atlantic City on June 23, 2012
Ringo Starr in concert with his All-Star Band at Caesars Palace in Atlantic City on June 23, 2012 (Roger Barone/Talk Radio News Service)

Well, today is his birthday – he was born Richard Starkey 72 year ago in Liverpool  — and I’d like to say a few kind words about what he did with and for the Beatles, the twin keys to which are diversity and invention.

There were a bunch of memorable drummers in the first and second waves of the British invasion. Ginger Baker was treated like a drum deity in Cream’s heyday, though the once celebrated solos now seem self-indulgent and needlessly loooooong. The Who’s Keith Moon’s titanic lead drumming on recordings like “I Can See for Miles” still astounds, however. Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones keeps time more reliably than a fine Swiss watch. And musicians who know far more about this sort of thing than I do have persuaded me that Bobby Elliott’s propulsive drumming on Hollies hits like “Bus Stop” and “Look Through Any Window” is remarkable.

Still, I’ll go with Ringo. He may never have been technically rock’s best drummer, but he had a way of coming up with just the right little figure or fill, just the right approach, to make the recordings of John, Paul and George’s songs better. He was unselfish. He gave the songs what they needed, never more, never less. His drumming has more variety to it than that of any of his contemporaries, if only because none of them had such diverse material thrown at them. Who else had to figure out what to do with songs as wildly divergent as “She Loves You” and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Something” and “Helter Skelter,” “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Good Day Sunshine”?

I think I first fell under the spell of Ringo’s joyous power when I was just 17 and dancing at a girlfriend’s house party to “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Boys,” a girl-group cover on which he also sang lead. Man, did he hit solid and hard!

I love the way he approximates the ease of natural-born Nashville cats on country covers like “Matchbox” and “Act Naturally” and his own “What Goes On.” I love the little martial pattern that he does in the intro to “What You’re Doing,” the way his cymbal work dissolves  into and expands the overall wall of sound of “I Feel Fine,” the delicacy of his playing on “In My Life,” the ominous way he marches through “I Am the Walrus.”

His own estimation of his personal best, I’ve heard, is “Rain,” and I would not dream of arguing him over it. His dark, heavy, rumbling drumming conjures the encroaching, enveloping storm on which Lennon’s vocal rides. His playing on the flip side of side of that monster single, McCartney’s “Paperback Writer,” isn’t too shabby, either.

And then, of course, there’s “Birthday,” wherein Ringo romps, stomps and clomps with a ham-fisted happiness that perfectly matches the tune’s utter lack of subtlety.

Da-da-da-da-da-da-de-dum, whomp, whomp, whomp.

They say it’s your birthday, Ringo. Well, happy birthday to ya.

Image: Ringo Starr in concert with his All-Star Band at Caesars Palace in Atlantic City on June 23, 2012 by Roger Barone/Talk Radio News Service via their Flickr photostream and used under Creative Commons license.
Noel Holston

Noel Holston

Noel Holston, originally from Laurel, Miss., is a freelance journalist, songwriter, storyteller and actor who lives in Athens, Ga., with his wife, singer-songwriter Marty Winkler. In a previous life, he was the TV critic at Newsday in New York and, before that, a critic and feature writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and The Orlando Sentinel.