As one of the most celebrated and widely-known drummers of all time, Ringo Starr, I think it’s fair to say, is something of a legend. With The Beatles, he helped to define the sound, look and attitude of British pop music, all while keeping up an affable demeanour that saw him labelled the ‘clown’ of the era-defining group. While it’s easy to think of the drummer as having emerging fully-formed, everyone has to start somewhere, even the greats. Here, Starr opens up about the first-ever song he learned to play on the drums.
Born Richard Starkey in a working-class area of Liverpool, Starr’s youth was not easy. His parents, both of whom worked in bakeries, divorced when he was just a child. As a primary schooler, he got appendicitis and spent a year in hospital following complications, and then spent an additional two years in a sanatarium after acquiring pleurisy at the age of 13.
Around this time, he was introduced to the drums by a health worker who taught the children musical instruments. After leaving the sanatorium, Starr chose not to return to formal education but to work odd jobs around Liverpool, eventually landing a position as an apprentice joiner at an engineering company, where he formed a skiffle band with some of his colleagues. One of the earliest songs Starr learned with the group was ‘Rock Island Line’ by UK skiffle pioneer Lonnie Donegan.
Starr was probably convinced to start his own skiffle group after hearing ‘Rock Island Line’ on the radio. The track – a reworking of an American folk song – was one of the first skiffle tunes to reach a mainstream audience, helping Donegan spark the skiffle craze that soon spread like wildfire around the UK. Opening up about his experiences with his first proper group, Starr said: “I was lucky because when I started if you had the instrument, you were in the band. I worked in the same factory as Eddie Clayton, who played guitar, and we’d play in the basement – I had a snare drum, my best friend Roy Chaplin played tea-chest bass, and we were a skiffle band. We played weddings for the beer.”
By 1959, Starr was the drummer for Rory Storm and The Hurricanes, one of the most beloved skiffle groups in Liverpool at the time and contemporaries of The Quarrymen (later the Beatles) Indeed, they were so popular that they were invited to perform in Hamberg in the early 1960s, an engagement that would lead to Starr leaving The Hurricanes and joining The Beatles. And with that history was made.