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(Credit: Bent Rej)

Music

How a life-threatening illness made Ringo Starr learn drums

Ringo Starr’s childhood was full of challenges that the budding drummer was forced to overcome. The young Liverpudlian learnt early on that life would be laden with obstacles that he’d have to leap, and none were more significant than his battle with tuberculosis.

Starr contracted the deadly virus in 1953, the same year it was agreed by the relevant authority that secondary school pupils in Britain should be vaccinated. In the beginning, the uptake was low, and it wasn’t until 1956 that half of the pupils were vaccinated against tuberculosis. In 1948 alone, it was the cause of death for 20,000 people in England and Wales.

The Beatles drummer could have easily become another statistic. Fortunately, Starr fully recovered and discovered a new skill while being cooped up inside a sanatorium for two years. Harrowingly, Ringo had already suffered a chronic illness before his fight with tuberculosis.

Starr contracted peritonitis aged six following an appendectomy and spent several days in a coma. As a result, he had a twelve-month stay in Liverpool’s Myrtle Street children’s hospital, dramatically affecting his education.

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The drummer fell behind his peers at a pivotal age, making him feel like an outsider. When he recovered, Ringo had almost caught up academically thanks to being tutored by his neighbour, Marie Maguire Crawford, and travesty struck once more when he caught tuberculosis.

Thankfully, one good thing to come out of this ordeal was his exposure to the drums for the first time. Starr was part of the hospital band, which was created as an activity to relieve the children of boredom, and it didn’t take him long to become obsessed with the instrument.

Reflecting on this time with CBC, Starr remembered: “This woman would come in … and to keep us busy, she came in with percussive maracas, triangles, little drums and sticks, and she would point to the red dot, and you’d hit the drum, and she pointed the yellow dot, and you’d hit the triangle or the maraca.”

He continued: “That’s when I fell in love with drums, and I only wanted to be a drummer from then on. But of course, I had to work on the railways, I had to work on the boats, and I had to work in a factory for several years before it all came true.”

For the first time in his life, Starr felt like he had a purpose once he stepped behind the drum kit. After recovering from tuberculosis, he began playing with skiffle groups around Liverpool and began to make a name for himself on the circuit. While the virus nearly cost killed him, it also gifted Ringo with a passion that would sow the seed for the life he leads today.

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