The Beatles are accepted as the premier Merseybeat group, but it was the ‘King of Sciffle’ who made it possible for them to flourish. One talent, in particular, helped Ringo Starr fall in love with the art of drumming.
Ringo’s drumming aptitude is often unfairly the butt of jokes when, in reality, he is one of the most skilled sticksman of his generation. Starr refused to make the show about himself, which made him the perfect foil for The Fab Four, and he added a gleaming energy to their sound that you simply can’t teach.
Nirvana’s Dave Grohl shared his appreciation for Ringo’s style at large. When asked to pick the best drummer of all time, Grohl responded resolutely: “Define ‘best drummer in the world’,” Grohl said in a tribute video for Starr’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame presentation. “Is it someone that’s technically proficient? Or is it someone that sits in the song with their own feel? Ringo was the king of feel.”
Remarkably, Starr didn’t own the instrument until he received a kit for Christmas in 1957 when he was 17. Before receiving the second-hand drum kit, he was infatuated with percussion since falling ill with tuberculosis in 1953 and being introduced to the instrument while in hospital. “I was in the hospital band,” he later recalled. “That’s where I really started playing. I never wanted anything else from there on. My grandparents gave me a mandolin and a banjo, but I didn’t want them. My grandfather gave me a harmonica, we had a piano – nothing. Only the drums.”
After finally having a kit to call his own, Starr ploughed whatever time he could into polishing his craft. The former Beatle still fondly remembers Lonnie Donegan’s song ‘Rock Island Line’ being the first he learnt on the drums. “I was lucky because when I started, if you had the instrument, you were in the band,” he told NME. “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.”
It’s not only Starr who Donegan had a profound impact upon in The Beatles. Paul McCartney saw him in concert at the Liverpool Empire in 1956, and from that moment on, according to his brother Mike, all he wanted to do was play music.
Meanwhile, George Harrison once said, “Without Lead Belly, no Lonnie Donegan, without Lonnie Donegan, no Beatles.” Additionally, in his autobiography, I, Me, Mine, Harrison noted: “Lonnie Donegan was a much bigger influence on rock than he was ever given credit for. He was a big hero of mine.”
While the glamourous and exotic rock ‘n’ roll from the States is regarded as The Beatles primary influence, it was the magnetic way they blended their vast smorgasbord of influences that forged the trademark Fab Four sound. British heroes like Donegan gave them the encouragement they needed to believe they could make it, and he laid down the foundations that allowed them to go on to become the pride of Liverpool.