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'Fresh Air' marks Ringo Starr's 83rd birthday

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University, in for Terry Gross. Ringo Starr, as the drummer for The Beatles, released his first recordings with that group more than 60 years ago. Yet there's still at least one more new recording to come, featuring contributions from demo tapes or existing studio recordings by all four Beatles. Ringo is still releasing records as a solo artist and recently wrapped up his spring concert tour with Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band. The man who was born as Richard Starkey in Liverpool in 1940 turns 83 years old today. He plans to be in Beverly Hills celebrating his birthday the way he has for the past 15 years - asking fans to say, think or post peace and love at precisely noon in their respective time zones. So in honor of his birthday and because The Beatles are still dipping into their recorded archives, we thought we'd do the same. Here's a conversation between Ringo Starr and Terry Gross recorded in 1995, the year of the ABC documentary miniseries "The Beatles Anthology."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Can we talk a little bit about life before The Beatles?

RINGO STARR: Sure, sure.

GROSS: You grew up in Liverpool. What was your neighborhood like?

STARR: Well, I was born at a very early age.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah, right.

STARR: My neighborhood was real working-class. I remember being conscious from a very early age that I wanted to get out of there because it was dark.

GROSS: Dark from...

STARR: It was just dark. It was just a dark neighborhood, you know? It was like they needed more streetlights at night. But, of course, it was my neighborhood as a child, and I have, you know, wonderful memories of it. And the thrilling thing is that, you know, my memory of it - because I'd left it for years - was like, you know, this childhood memory that I had all these big avenues that we used to walk down. And then I went back, and there's all these really narrow streets.

(LAUGHTER)

STARR: Well, the memory plays games, but it was a loving neighborhood. I mean, the school was three minutes' walk away. So, you know, it was a real neighborhood. There was a pub on nearly every corner, which I got to a little later.

(LAUGHTER)

STARR: You know, and there was a park I used to walk to. One of my ambitions, which my mother used to tell me often, was I wanted to be a tramp. And so we used to walk everywhere. One of the reasons was, of course, because we couldn't afford to take a car or take a limo in those days or a bus even. So we used to walk a lot. I used to love that. And there was parks around us. So it was a very poor neighborhood, but childhood memories make it quite romantic.

GROSS: I know your father left the family, I think, when you were 3.

STARR: Yeah. He'd had enough.

GROSS: So did your mother have a way of making money?

STARR: Yeah. She worked any job she could find. You know, I mean, I come from a working-class family, but they call it lower working-class when you've only got one parent (laughter). And - but my mother - God bless her - she did anything from scrubbing steps to working in a fruit shop to working in pubs - anything she could to support us 'cause he forgot that part of the bargain.

GROSS: Right. Now, I know when you were young, you had two long hospital stays. When you were 6, your appendix burst, and...

STARR: Yeah.

GROSS: You ended up getting an internal infection.

STARR: Peritonitis, it's called. Yeah.

GROSS: And so...

STARR: And that was pretty dangerous. It's still dangerous today, but in 1947, it was very dangerous.

GROSS: So you were in the hospital for about a year.

STARR: I was in a year because, six months in, I was getting rather well. And I got excited, and I fell out the bed...

GROSS: Oh, no.

STARR: ...And ripped open all these stitches in my stomach. So they had to dive in again and sew me up.

GROSS: Oh, gosh.

STARR: So we're lucky to be here, Terry.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, then you got sick again when you were 13.

STARR: I know.

GROSS: Tuberculosis, was it?

STARR: Yeah. But that was from the area I lived in.

GROSS: Industrial stuff?

STARR: Yeah. Where I lived, like, not every other home, but it was like, you know, six or seven cases in every street where people were just in the living room dying of TB because they didn't have a cure, of course. And again, God, you know, shone his light on me in 1953 or '54 when they discovered streptomycin. And that's what saved me. So they shipped me off to a greenhouse in the country.

GROSS: A greenhouse. That's, like, a sanitarium.

STARR: Yeah, just this huge greenhouse where, instead of flowers, they put all these kids in there and let us breathe some decent air for a change and gave us streptomycin. And a year later, I came out of there.

GROSS: Did you, when you were a kid, think that you were going to die as a child?

STARR: I don't know if that really crossed my mind about I'm going to die. I really knew I was ill, and the doctors felt I was going to die three times, but we proved them wrong. So I was pretty ill, but I don't think I was thinking, oh, I'm going to die. You know, I don't think that came into my mind.

GROSS: So how did you keep busy while you were sick? Had music entered your life yet? Were you...

STARR: Well, that's where...

GROSS: ...Listening to a lot of it?

STARR: That's where it entered my life - was because to keep us busy, besides letting us knit - they used to let us knit dishcloths.

GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, wow.

STARR: It was really exciting.

GROSS: Yeah.

STARR: And then - so some teacher would come in with musical instruments, being drums, tambourines, maracas, triangles - all percussive stuff. And she'd put up this big screen - I'm trying to let you visualize it out there, radio land - big white paper with red notes for the drums and yellow notes for the tambourines and green notes for the triangles. And so she would point to these different colored symbols, and we would either hit whatever instrument we had. Well, I had a drum the first time, the first session. And I really loved it. And so they came back, like, a couple of weeks later, and they tried to give me another instrument, but I only wanted the drum. And that's where I really fell in love with drums.

GROSS: Was that supposed to be physical therapy for you also since it's such a physical instrument?

STARR: Well, we weren't - we couldn't get out of bed too often. You know, it was a big deal after six months in hospital when they said, you can get out of bed now and sit on a chair. So that was the big move. But - so it was just to keep us entertained. They never really came in giving us maths and geography or things like that. They gave us knitting and making things, you know, papier-mache stuff and things like that.

GROSS: So what was it like for you after you were sick to - or while you were sick, even, to be playing an instrument that's so physically taxing?

STARR: Well, I didn't have an instrument for years later. I made my first kit, when I came out of hospital, out of biscuit tins and firewood. And then when I was about 16, I got a bass drum. That's all I had - was a big bass drum. And then when I was 18, I got my first kit. So I'd strengthened up by then.

GROSS: And how old were you when you were actually playing in a band?

STARR: One month later.

GROSS: After you got the kit?

STARR: Yeah (laughter), because I was really lucky because in those days if you had the instrument, you were in the band.

BIANCULLI: Ringo Starr speaking to Terry Gross in 1995. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OCTOPUS’S GARDEN")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) We would shout and swim about the coral that lies...

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1995 interview with Ringo Starr. Today is Ringo's 83rd birthday.

GROSS: So how did the Beatles ask you to join the band after they asked Pete Best to leave it?

STARR: Well, they didn't do it that way. You see, Pete Best was still in the band and I was with Rory. And one day, Pete couldn't make the session, so they asked me to play. And we'd got to know each other in Germany because we were the two bands playing there, the Beatles and Rory Storm. So you know, we really became friends there. And then we get back to Liverpool and Pete couldn't make it one day. And Brian Epstein came and said, would you play the lunchtime session? And I said, sure. And that was it. And then we went for a drink and that was the end of the story. And then a couple of weeks later, he asked me again to play a couple of sessions, a couple of gigs. And I said, sure, you know, because I just happened to have the time.

And then I went away to play with Rory to - it's a holiday comp in England, Butlin's holiday camp, where you go for three months. You play the summer there in the Rock 'n' Calypso hall. And we were the rock band. And Brian called me on the phone. And he said, you know, would you like to join the Beatles? And I said, sure, I'd love to join the Beatles. And I said, when? And he said, today. And I said, well, I can't join today. That was a Wednesday in 1962. And I said, I can't play today because, you know, the band would be out of a job. We'd have to wait until Saturday because by then we could get another drummer. And that's what happened. And, you know, everybody knows the story from then on.

GROSS: Well, an interesting part of the story is that you showed up for the first recording session...

STARR: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...Of the Beatles. And the producer...

STARR: George Martin.

GROSS: Yeah, had another drummer all picked out because I guess he didn't know that you had been chosen to be in the band.

STARR: No, he didn't know. Well, he listened to the band with Pete Best and didn't think Pete was going to be on the session. And so he didn't know about me at all. And so he'd got this drummer, Andy White, ready, you know, a professional drummer, a session drummer.

GROSS: (Laughter).

STARR: You know, and I came down and I was just mortified. And he said, oh, we've got this real drummer here (laughter). I said, well, what am I? And he didn't want to take a chance because in those days, it wasn't like you could go in the studio and just spend your time there, you know? The session was three hours. You were in and out and that was it. So Andy played on the single. And of course, then we rerecorded it and I played on the album. And I sort of defy anyone to tell the difference. And that was it. But George Martin has apologized over and over again, because I've made him, for doing this to me.

GROSS: Well, what did you think the Beatles' chances were of really making it? What was your assessment of the band when you joined it?

STARR: I joined the band because they were the best band I'd heard. And that was how I played. I moved my career, through Liverpool, of course, to, you know - if I could get into a better band, I would. And that's how I did it, you know? My aim was to play with good players, and that's what I did. I mean, the aim was not really to, you know, be big and famous. It was just to play with really good people.

GROSS: Did you change your sound when you joined the Beatles?

STARR: No, no, that's why they - you know, they wanted me to play because of the way I could play.

GROSS: So when you joined the band, did you have to do, you know, the Beatles' haircut and the suit jacket?

STARR: Well, that's the famous line. You know, John came on the phone saying, welcome to the band, but you'll have to get your haircut and get rid of your beard, and which I did. I didn't have much of a beard then, but I did have my hair swept back. And we had it cut so it fell forward. It was part of the image. And Brian Epstein was moving them into, like, this image thing, too, making them wear suits and, you know, not drinking and smoking onstage. So it was all part of the deal.

GROSS: Now, in the Beatles, did you have to, like, figure out who you were going to be in terms of your public personality in the band, you know, because everybody in the band seemed to get this, you know, public persona?

STARR: Yeah, I think mine just came in naturally as Mr. Dopey, you know, like sort of, like, the comic clown, you know? John had the outrage. Paul was Mr. Lovable. Well, I was Mr. Lovable, but the young girls loved him. George was just the silent type. And, you know, I was, hi, what's happening? And so that image, of course, especially through "A Hard Day's Night," is, you know - I've had to battle that since that day. Everybody thinks, oh, that's what he's like. And of course, he's not like that at all.

GROSS: Could you give us a sense of what it was like early on when the Beatles fame started getting, like, so extraordinary that you couldn't go places without attracting crowds? I mean...

STARR: Well, you know, we were young boys. And it was exciting where, you know, we'd sort of conquered England. That was the first job, you know? Just to get down to London and get in there was heavy enough, and then we'd do the continent. You know, and we used to have this saying - oh, well, we've done Sweden. We've conquered Sweden.

GROSS: (Laughter).

STARR: We've done France now. We've done Italy, you know? And then, of course, we were invited to come to America. And at that time, we were really worried because we'd had two records out here, or they were coming out, nobody wanted them. And by chance, George came over for a holiday. He was the first one of us to come to America. And of course, he was going into record shops saying, you know, have you got the Beatles? And they were saying - excuse me? - never heard of them. So you know, he came back saying, no, they don't know us over there. And of course, you know, the story goes when Capitol decided to put some money behind us to promote us and we got off the plane to do "Ed Sullivan," we had a No. 1. I mean, you know, you can't plan things like that. This is just how it is.

GROSS: Well, that first "Ed Sullivan" performance is one of the watershed moments in rock 'n' roll history.

STARR: History.

GROSS: What were you - what are some of your memories of...

STARR: Of "Ed Sullivan?"

GROSS: Of that show, yeah.

STARR: Well, Ed, you see, I thought, we come to America - and it was fabulous. And there was millions of people at the airport. And they were lining the streets. And it was yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, all over the place. And just my mind I have of Ed to this day - and I don't know if it's actually true. But my - just my impression was Ed Sullivan - you know, I'm waiting for Ed to say, you know, they're all the way from England, and that's great. And they're going to be fabulous and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And Ed said, here they are, The Beatles. I just - that's just...

GROSS: You probably couldn't comprehend the whole...

STARR: We were just, like, thrown to the lions.

GROSS: Right (laughter).

STARR: So to this day, I've always thought, God, I mean, we could have done better than that, Ed.

GROSS: Well, you probably were unfamiliar with the whole Ed Sullivan phenomenon. I mean, the most...

STARR: We didn't know what it meant.

GROSS: ...Low-key, square person.

STARR: We did not know what it meant. You know, this guy just booked us on a show, and we'd go anywhere for a gig.

GROSS: So when girls started screaming at your performances, did you have - do you have any idea what was going on - like, why? Why the screaming, as opposed to anything else?

STARR: It started in Liverpool. And just...

GROSS: So you actually knew where it started? I mean, I was...

STARR: Yeah. It caught on like wildfire all over the world.

GROSS: Was it frustrating to perform in concerts where you couldn't hear what you were playing because the audience was screaming so loud?

STARR: It got frustrating in the end. At the beginning, it was just fabulous. I mean, you know, if you can imagine you're 22, 23, and you go on stage and all those people are just screaming at you, loving you. I mean, you know, you were selling - making and selling a lot of records and making good records. You know, it was everything you dreamed of. And it just built up and built up. And, of course, right about '65, you know, it started, actually, to get a little tiring because, you know, we were starting to make really interesting records, and we couldn't perform them. And it didn't matter what we did. People were screaming anyway. So no one was listening. And because of that, we were becoming, you know, not the best musicians we would become because we could only play, you know, the actual thing. I mean, for me personally, I - you know, it's very hard to do this on radio, but I could only do the downbeat, you know? (Imitating downbeat). I couldn't do any fills or anything because they would just disappear into the - you know, into the cosmos. So you found yourself - you know, you're just sitting there playing the track, really.

GROSS: Do you have a favorite phase of the Beatles recording years?

STARR: I think - well, you see, the very first record - you know, making the first record was just a thrill. I mean, it was absolutely thrilling. And listening to it on the radio - you know, we would stop the car when we'd be going to a gig somewhere, and you'd know - you know, because they didn't play every 10 minutes. Oh, at 7:45 on Wednesday, they're going to play your record. And so wherever we were going, we'd stop the car - we were usually in a car - and listen to it. And the other thing we did - if it moved up the charts, we would always have a celebratory dinner. So if you look at Beatle photos and Beatle footage, you'd see them getting fatter and fatter and fatter as they were getting more popular because now we could afford food, you know?

But - and then, of course, from "Rubber Soul" on, you know, the records started to really get exciting. You know, the sound - we were really getting into the sound, making sounds, making good sounds. The writing was getting better. You know, everything was picking up. It was really getting good. So, you know, it had a natural progression. So, you know, to say this period or that period - they're all different periods. I mean, I like the White Album. That's one of my favorites just because I felt after "Sgt. Pepper" - which was brilliant, but it just doesn't happen to be my favorite - the White Album, we were getting back to being a band again. And, you know, that's what The Beatles were. We were a really cool band.

GROSS: Being a band as opposed to being artfully produced in the studio. Is that what you mean?

STARR: Sure. Even though we did it ourselves, you know, certainly the - sort of the strings and the brass were taking center stage around the songs instead of the group.

GROSS: My guest is Ringo Starr. It just - something else about the Beatles. You know, the Beatles were such an important part of...

STARR: Life.

GROSS: ...Music, period, you know? And they're really a very small part in your life - I mean, a big part in who you are but a small part...

STARR: Sure.

GROSS: ...In the number of years...

STARR: Sure.

GROSS: ...That you were a Beatle. So I guess I'd like to get a sense of what it means in your life, if you still feel like that is so much a part of your existence or if that's something that you've really tried to move beyond and away from and...

STARR: Well, I don't think you can move away from it because, you know, it was only eight years of my life, but it's the eight years that everybody really associates with - you know, it's like, you know, it doesn't matter I've made hit records and, you know, had hit albums, and I'm on tour and that - it always comes back to these eight years of being a Beatle. And I think I just have to resign myself to that, that that's what people want to know about. But of course, in my life, I've moved on. You know, it's - I've done other things.

GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us.

STARR: All right. Thank you, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Ringo Starr speaking to Terry Gross in 1995. Ringo turns 83 years old today. After a break, film critic Justin Chang reviews the summer's newest R-rated comedy, "Joy Ride." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "ACROSS THE UNIVERSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.