Richard Starkey was born to a couple of swing dancers in a small walkup in a place called Dingle. His parents quickly took to calling him “Little Ritchie.” (His father subsequently took the cognomen “Big Ritchie” to differentiate him from his son who became quite the fixation of his mother’s love, which in turn drove “Big Ritchie” — who felt ignored and unloved because of this — to stay out into the wee hours dancing in bars, sometimes for days at a time.)
Soon his parents were divorced, and his mom took a job as a barmaid. Then, when Little Ritchie was all of 6, the boy developed appendicitis. After a routine appendectomy he contracted peritonitis and fell into a coma for three days. He spent the next year recovering in a Children’s Hospital.
After being discharged he returned home where his mother kept him under her thumb and diligent watch, not even allowing the little guy to return to school. Little Ritchie was illiterate at age eight when he finally did return to school. He played hooky a lot, as he didn’t fit in much with the other kids, and would hang out at a park by himself, watching birds and banging on objects with a stick. Luckily one of his neighbors took pity on him and tutored him twice weekly, greatly improving his academic standing.
At age 13 he caught tuberculosis. He spent the next two years in a sanatorium. The staff there encouraged him to join the sanatorium band. His first exposure to a percussion instrument was a makeshift mallet made from a cotton bobbin that he used to strike the cabinets next to his bed. Soon he was drumming on everything: oxygen tanks, window casings, iron lungs, crates and walls and even the spokes of wheelchairs. He rattled the copper bars on his bed’s headboard while spending long hours listening to Alyn Ainsworth’s Bedtime For Drums, which was a convalescing gift from his former tutor. To curtail this irksome pounding on all inanimate objects, he was asked to play drums in the sanatorium band, which he did all the way up until his recovery was complete, at which time he departed the sanatorium for good at age 15.
By this point his mother had remarried a guy named Harry Graves, an ex-Londoner who had moved to Liverpool following the failure of his first marriage. Graves — an impassioned aficionado of big band music and their vocalists — introduced the kid to recordings by Dinah Shore, Sarah Vaughan and Billy Daniels. They got along like gangbusters, with hardly a single bad time ever had between the two. Little Ritchie soon went back to school, but was far behind his peers academically. Because of his illness he’d not received enough education to enroll in a grammar school, and so attended a Church Of England primary school near his house. The other students called him Lazarus, and Little Ritchie didn’t enjoy going there, and so instead spent more days at home where he’d listen to his stepfather’s massive record collection and play along with the tunes by pounding on biscuit tins with sticks.
The neighborhood where the family lived was extremely poor and riddled with violent crime. Wanting to escape the sooty air and squalor, Little Ritchie attempted to secure some gainful employment. He worked for short stints as porter at British Rail (which was mostly just an attempt to secure some warm clothes, as he’d heard they offered all of their employees suits; but he was only given a hat, no suit, and so he didn’t last long on the job), and as a waiter on a day boat (which was a good gig, but his fear of conscription into military service led him to quit the job, not wanting to give the Royal Navy the impression that he was suitable for seafaring work.)
By age 17 he’d finally landed an apprenticeship with a machinist, and had befriended a fellow apprentice named Roy Trafford who introduced the young lad to skiffle, which Ritchie (who was no longer so little) soon became rather obsessed with. Soon after Trafford piqued Ritchie’s interest in skiffle, the two began rehearsing songs in the manufacturing plant’s cellar during their lunch breaks. Trafford played a guitar, and Ritchie just made noise. Sometimes he slapped a biscuit tin with some keys, or banged on the backs of chairs. The pair were joined by Ritchie’s neighbor and co-worker, the guitarist Eddie Miles, forming the Eddie Miles Band, later renamed Eddie Clayton and the Clayton Squares after a Liverpool landmark. The band performed popular skiffle songs such as Rock Island Line and Walking Cane, with Ritchie raking a thimble across a washboard, creating primitive, driving rhythms.
Ritchie had a blast dancing, just as his parents did years earlier, and he and Trafford briefly took dance lessons. Though the lessons were short-lived, they provided the two dudes with an introduction that allowed them to dance well enough to catch the eyes of the ladies while enjoying nights out on the town. Ritchie had a special talent for bowing and bobbing without weaving too much as his arms went akimbo sort of like a lobotomized mourner attempting to slowly do some deranged version of The Twist.
On Christmas Day 1957, Ritchie’s stepfather gave him a second-hand drum kit consisting of a snare drum, bass drum and a makeshift cymbal fashioned from an old rubbish-bin lid. Although basic and crude, the kit facilitated his progression as a percussionist while increasing the commercial potential of the Eddie Clayton band, who went on to book several prestigious local gigs before the skiffle craze faded in early 1958.
In November 1959, Ritchie joined Al Caldwell’s Texans, a skiffle group who were looking for someone with a proper drum kit so that the group could transition from one of Liverpool’s best-known skiffle acts to full-fledged Rock and Rollers. They had begun playing local clubs as the Raging Texans, then Jet Storm & The Raging Texans before settling on Rory Storm & The Hurricanes. This is when Ritchie adopted the stage name Ringo Starr. Some say it was because of all the rings he wore, and also because it imbued him with a savvy country-western flair— which a neo-stylish Ringo, nee Ritchie, would’ve done little to dispel. Whatever the reason for the name change, he’d become quite the rising star of drummers, and his ever-popular drum solos were billed as “Starr Time.”
By early 1960 the Hurricanes had become one of Liverpool’s topnotch bands. They became so successful that when initially offered a highly coveted residency in Hamburg, they turned it down due to a prior commitment. But the group eventually accepted, joining an upstart band called the Beatles at Bruno Koschmider’s Kaiserkeller on October 1, 1960, where Starr first met these future Mop Tops. Storm’s Hurricanes were given top-billing over the Beatles, who also received less pay. When their drummer Pete Best failed to show a few times, Ringo performed with the Beatles during a few stand-in engagements while they were in Hamburg, getting along famously with the trio. On October 15, 1960, he drummed with John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison, recording with them for the first time while backing Hurricanes singer Lu Walters on the George Gershwin aria Summertime. Afterwards Paul McCartney nailed a condom to their apartment’s wall and lit it on fire, causing a hasty evacuation of the premises and the landlord to remove them from their dwelling. Ringo thought it, “An abnormal act done for no reason, and probably not too wise, but it was fun to watch it burn.” They found new digs soon, and Ringo made sure to hide the matches from that budding pyro, Paul.
During Starr’s first stay in Hamburg he also met Tony Sheridan, who valued his drumming abilities to the point of asking Starr to leave the Hurricanes and join his band. But on August 14, 1962, Lennon asked Starr to join the Beatles; he accepted. On August 16, Beatles manager Brian Epstein fired Pete Best. Starr first performed as a member of the band on August 18, 1962, at a Horticultural Society dance at Port Sunlight. After his appearance at the Cavern Club the following day, Best fans, upset by his firing, held vigils outside his house and at the club shouting, “Pete forever! Ringo never!” Harrison received a black eye from one of the upset fans, and Epstein, whose car tires they had flattened in anger, temporarily hired a bodyguard to ensure his safety.
Ringo first recorded with The Beatles on September 4, 1962. The Beatles’ producer George Martin thought Ringo was a nut and couldn’t play well enough to back the group, and replaced him with a studio drummer for the next recording session a week later. Martin proclaimed, “That odd-looking goofy fellow with no sense of timing or rhythm? He wears a suit like an orangutan would. No. I do not think that he will do.”
Ringo believed this was the end for him with The Beatles. He wandered off into a pub, ordered a beer, and thought, ‘This is it. Those bastards are pulling a Pete Best on me. I’m through.’ He proceeded to get stinking drunk, and began pounding on the bar as if in mid drum solo while thrashing about and shouting various threats to anyone within shouting distance. He was soon tossed out and dumped into an alley where he passed out between a few trashcans. Just before falling into a black dreamless sleep, he screamed and rattled on, “Fuck these tomatoes! I’d rather be! Under the sea! In an oct’a’plush’s gaaaarden…in the shade, in the shaaaade! Double fuck all’a this pussyfootin’ ‘round. In an..oct…eee..pusher’s garbage bin. Sing. No! Dance! This ain’t all at all, fuulks! Yule ‘a never meet a’notha’ fella quite likes ‘a me. Sing and feruuuucking dance, musherfuckers! I’m so god damn deranged…and un-famous! One. Two. Three. One, two…Dance! Dance!”