Two Starrs

Two Starrs

Talking with Ringo biographer Michael Starr of River Vale

Let’s get the obvious question out of the way first.

No, Michael Starr is not related to Ringo Starr, the drummer for the Beatles and the subject of Michael’s seventh book, “Ringo: With a Little Help.”

“Unless he’s a Polish Jew, we’re not related,” the biographer said.

Ringo, as Beatlemaniacs know, changed his name from Richard Starkey. Michael’s grandfather changed the family name from Starogubski

Other differences: Ringo grew up in Liverpool, England. Michael grew up in Paramus, New Jersey. (Now he lives in River Vale.)

Ringo learned to play drums while he was recuperating from tuberculosis, became the best drummer in Liverpool, and was hired in 1962 by the Beatles — that is, by Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and George Harrison — and soon entered pop culture history.

On Saturday night, Ringo and his “All-Starr Band” will perform at the annual gala of the Bergen Performing Arts Center in Englewood.

Michael grew up listening to his older sister’s Beatles records and played drums for a while — as a hobby. “I wasn’t very good,” he said. “It never was going to go anywhere. I was never going to be a musician. Writing was always my passion.”

Besides writing books, he works as the television editor at the New York Post, overseeing that section and writing columns for it. “I was very lucky to pursue my passion and get paid for it,” he said.

Michael came to the Ringo biography after writing about Peter Sellers, Bobby Darin, Art Carney, Joey Bishop, Raymond Burr, and Redd Foxx.

“I like to remind people of how big certain celebrities were at a point in our history, and how much they still mean for pop culture,” he said. And that’s true even if those celebrities have now been largely forgotten.

“When I was writing about him, I would say, ‘Red Foxx,’ and people would say, ‘Who?’,” Michael Starr said.

“Ringo may deviate a little from that because he’s so famous. People know who he is.

Which brings up the key question. What made Ringo Starr so famous?

Was he an excellent drummer? Or was he really lucky — a good-enough drummer who played with three guitarists and song writers of real talent? That’s a subject people still debate.

“Was he a good a drummer?” Michael asks. “I made a conscious attempt not to take a side one way or the other. You can argue until you’re blue in the face what the Beatles would have sounded like with Keith Moon or Charlie Watts. The argument doesn’t go anywhere.

“The fact is, he was the drummer for all the Beatles’ hits. Whether you’re a fan of his drumming style or not, he had such a huge influence on drummers of a certain age,” he said.

Those include Michael Starr. “I was very influenced by Ringo in my high school years,” he said.

Those came well after Ringo’s Beatle days. Michael was born in 1961, a year after the Beatles came together as a band and a year before their first drummer, Pete Best, was fired and Ringo came onboard.

“A Ringo drumbeat has a very distinctive sound to it,” Michael said. “He was a lefty playing a right-handed drum set, which made it quirky in that way. His style is imitated to this day.

“He wasn’t technically great, not as technically adept as Buddy Rich, but as drummers go he is in my opinion up with the best of them. He played with a lot of heart. I did get to interview some well-known drummers, and they all spoke very highly of him.

“When the Beatles came here in 1964, Ringo was considered the most popular Beatle. When young drummer wannabees saw that telecast of the Ed Sullivan show and saw Ringo having fun and shaking his head back and forth, it motivated them to pick up the sticks.

“There’s one page in my book that describes Ringo’s impact on Ludwig Drums,” the Chicago-based percussion manufacturer. “They actually had to open a whole other factory to make drums because of that one performance on the Ed Sullivan show. Drummers just went nuts buying Ludwig drum sets because they wanted to be Ringo Starr,” Michael said.

The Beatles years, though, weren’t what most interested Michael about the Ringo project. In general, he likes to go where no book author has gone before; there had been a Ringo biography back in 1991 published in England, but nothing recent or in America. That was a contrast to the deep well of Beatles reporting.

Michael tells a nuanced story of Ringo’s childhood. “He had always been portrayed as this sort of ragamuffin, a dirty-faced kid in the ghetto in Liverpool,” he said. “It wasn’t quite that way.

“He grew up on the edge of poverty but always had a roof overhead and food on the table. His mother worked two jobs. His Starkey grandparents lived right down the road. A few photos in the book show him wearing real nice tailored suits he bought with his own money.

“It wasn’t like he was the artful dodger growing up; he had as normal a life as you could in postwar Liverpool in the ’40s and ’50s,” he said.

But if Ringo’s upbringing wasn’t as dismal as it was sometimes portrayed, it is true that he was the Beatles’ working class hero — even though it was John who made the phrase famous with his 1970 song. “The other three Beatles “grew up in middle class households, more well-off than Ringo,” Michael said.

If the poverty was largely relative, Ringo’s childhood was hard in other ways.

“He had to fight through a lot in his childhood, and overcome several serious illnesses that put him in the hospital for three or four years total,” Michael said. “He didn’t learn to read until he was 9, because the illnesses set him back in his education.”

The Beatles gave Ringo fame and wealth. But that was followed by hard times after the Beatles separated in 1970. “I was a little surprised by the struggles Ringo went through trying to find his own identity, what an abyss he spiraled into in terms of alcoholism,” Michael said. “He came close to having a breakdown.”

This was in the mid to late 1970s.

“Then he met actress Barbara Bach and turned his life around,” Michael said. They married in 1981. (Ms. Bach grew up in Queens. Her father was Jewish.) “Since the late ’80s, he has been on the straight and narrow, and considered the elder statesman of rock. The story seems to have a nice ending.”

And what does the future hold for Michael Starr?

He’s settling on his next book subject.

“I’m hoping it’s going to be William Shatner. He’s written some books, but nobody has written a book about him.”

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