Starr is brought to book
Apr 28 2004
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He is the least celebrated of The Beatles, but a new book will recognise the humour, talent and courage of Ringo Starr. David Charters reports
HE WAS such a sickly little fellow, who teetered on the edge of death so many times, that on the few occasions he did turn up at school, the other children called him "Lazarus".
But a few years later you could see the wide smile under the prominent hooter that became young Richie Starkey's hallmark.
The other boys and girls had entered apprenticeships, drifted into shops, or bowed into dead-end office jobs, the way you did.
And he was one of the most famous people on the planet, whose very presence in a place caused girls to swoon, scream, or rip at their hair because they liked him. In fact, they loved him and they kept his photograph clasped in their lockets. Nobody ever counted the millions of girls who fell asleep with his photograph over their beds.
By then, Richie Starkey, whose mum Elsie had worked in the Empress pub in Liverpool's Dingle district, was Ringo Starr, drummer with the Beatles.
Now a whole, 170,000-word encyclopaedia has been devoted to his life by Bill Harry.
He is the former editor of Mersey Beat, the newspaper which chronicled the rivalries, the friendships, the breakups and makeups, of the groups behind the Liverpool sound - the Beatles, the Searchers, Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Fourmost, the Big Three, the Swinging Blue Jeans etc.
In more recent times, Harry has become the unofficial historian of the Beatles, writing an encyclopaedia about each and another one about the group itself.
This opus, which runs over many millions of words, has finished, significantly enough, with Ringo.
It has always been this way. John, Paul and George, with Ringo being the little one at the back.
But Harry, now 64, and living in London with his wife Virginia and their son Sean, does not agree. For him, Ringo was not only only a marvellous drummer but the most likeable Beatle, whose sense of humour and reality, made him the most popular of the Fab Four in America.
Unlike Paul and George (Liverpool Collegiate) and John (Quarry Bank), Ringo did not go to grammar school. In so far as he had an education at all, it was at St Silas Infants, where Billy Fury was also a pupil, the Dingle Vale Secondary Modern and the school at the Heswall children's hospital, Wirral, where he was a patient between 1953 and 1955 being treated for lung complications arising from pleurisy.
He was born in Madryn Street, Dingle, and stayed there for about three years. But his father, Richard Starkey, left home, and his mother had to move to a smaller home in Admiral Grove, where she worked in the pub to bolster the family income.
In common with the others, though, Ringo was a fan of Lonnie Donegan and when, in about 1957, his stepfather, Harry Graves (or "the step-ladder" as Ringo preferred), bought him a drum kit, he began playing in skiffle combos.
His reputation grew and he joined Rory Storm (real name Alan Caldwell) and the Hurricanes, the most successful of the early groups on Merseyside, though the Beatles with their experiences in Hamburg would soon overtake them.
In 1962, John, Paul and George asked manager Brian Epstein to sack Pete Best, a handsome chap and a good drummer, who had a more conservative outlook than the others.
Richie Starkey (who had been renamed Ringo Starr by Rory after the Ringo Kid cowboy), was playing at Butlin's holiday camp in Pwllheli, but he joined the Beatles, a decision which some have said made him the luckiest man in the world.
Again, Harry disagrees. To him, Ringo deserved his success. After all, his presence on earth at all was a miracle, made possible by the determination of a little boy not to die.
"There are hundreds of entries in the book about Ringo on every aspect of his life, all the people knew from the early days, the early pubs, the early streets, the hospitals," says Harry. "He was the genuine working-class member of the Beatles, born in abject poverty.
"The father, Big Richie, left home when Ringo was only three. Elsie took a job in the Empress pub around the corner and then they had to move to the smaller property because the father said he couldn't afford to give them any more money.
"Ringo had so many illnesses that the kids used to call him Lazarus. At the age of six he had peritonitis and he was in a coma for 10 weeks. At the school, they didn't know who he was when he went back to get something signed, so he could get a job.
"He didn't even have good looks, he had virtually no education at all. The mother had to get a neighbour to come into the house for about threepence an hour to teach him how to read. Here's a guy with everything against him, who became a multi-millionaire and married a beautiful film star (the Bond girl, Barbara Bach), with houses in Monte Carlo and mixing with royalty and everything like that.
"Of all the Beatles, his is the biggest transformation. His first job was as a delivery boy for British Rail which only lasted a few months because he failed a medical."
Despite all this Ringo, all 5ft 4ins of him, had a good heart.
EVERYONE who knew him felt easy in his company because he was so good-natured," says Harry, who edited 110 Mersey Beats between 1961 and 1965.
"He had an amazing sense of humour, a deadpan wit, which wasn't like the acerbic wit of John Lennon. Ringo made people laugh a lot."
In the Beatles, George and Ringo were naturally drawn together, and they remained firm friends after the Beatles split.
"Ringo was the most likeable of the Beatles," says Harry. "John would try and put you down if you didn't stand up to him, Paul was nice and all the rest of it but he was the PR man, with George there was the seriousness, the intentness and the bizarre type humour. Ringo was open and funny.
"George said that he would always have Ringo in a group, but he would never have Paul again. Paul criticised George's guitar playing. Ringo would also be very embarrassed because he would play the drums on the Beatles' recording and then Paul could come in at night and put his drumming on."
This may have provoked John's cruel observation that Ringo wasn't the best drummer in the world, he wasn't even the best drummer in the Beatles.
"But Ringo is an excellent drummer and very influential on rock groups," says Harry. "He had been forced to play in a different way because he was left-handed.
"Most of all he is a lovely man."
Now Bill Harry is to write a Beatles' story of 2.5 million words.
* THE Ringo Starr Enclyclopedia is published by Virgin Books, on May 4, at £12.99.
Making a name for himself
RINGO'S solo hits include It Don't Come Easy (co-written with George), number four, 1971; Back Off Boogaloo, two, 1972;
Photograph (co-written with George), eight, 1973; You're Sixteen, four, 1974.
In addition to the Beatles' films in which his humour was acclaimed in the US, he appeared in Candy (1968), The Magic Christian (1969) and then the far more successful
That'll Be The Day (1973). He is also the much-loved narrator of many of TV's Thomas the Tank Engine stories.