Ringo Starr’s Ringo! Album Turns 50

Ringo Starr's Ringo! Album Turns 50

Feature photo Featureflash Photo Agency / Shutterstock.com

As the world eagerly anticipated the solo ventures of each of the Fab Four following the break-up of The Beatles in 1970, Ringo Starr’s Ringo! album, released in 1973, proved to be a standout contribution to the post-Beatles discography.  Marking Starr’s third solo effort and his most commercially successful release, Ringo! is a delightful and eclectic album that showcases Starr’s unique musical sensibilities, features an impressive array of guest artists, and exudes a joyful and optimistic spirit.  The bulk of the album (produced by the very in-demand Richard Perry) was recorded in Los Angeles at the famed Sunset Sound Recorders.

With its catchy melodies, diverse musical styles, and notable collaborations, Ringo! stands as a significant milestone in Beatle history and a testament to Starr’s musical prowess.

The album opens up with a song originally curated for it’s author.  But because of the self-aggrandizing nature of the lyrics the composer found it better suited for Ringo Starr. I am referring to the groovy piano plunker “Im The Greatest.” John Lennon wrote this tongue and cheek song.  In true Lennon style, it features unexpected time signatures, unison riffs, and key changes.  And I speculate maybe even a slight nod to McCartney’s version of “Mary Had A Little Lamb” with its descending chromatic scale progression in the outro. 

It’s a significant song in the Beatles canon in that it features Ringo Starr on vocals and drums, John Lennon on piano and background vocals, George Harrison on guitar and old time Beatles friends Klaus Voorman on bass and Billy Preston on organ. An almost Beatles reunion and a wonderful way to open the album. Ringo’s delivery is bursting with confidence and humor and this sets the pace for the whole album. The song makes reference to Billy Shears (as in “With A Little Help from My Friends”) and this works well as a nod to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. 

The album cover itself is very “Pepper” with it’s collage of all the musicians who contributed to this disc. The colorful and intricate artwork kept my mind occupied well after the music played; not to mention the lyrics booklet that was included in the gatefold featuring the imaginative pencil art of Klaus Voorman. But I digress. Hearing three Beatles playing together on this song reminded me that above all the crazy business and personal issues, the Beatles may have been going through up to this time, there was still a brotherly love here. As a devout Beatles fan, that brought me a sense of hope and peace.

Track two is a bluesy rocker called “Have You Seen My Baby” composed by Randy Newman and originally recorded on his 12 Songs album.  In typical Newman fashion, the music is all at once familiar, and the clear lyric content is bathed in humor and sarcasm.  With delayed echo (more characteristic of Lennon), Ringo’s offhanded vocal perfectly suits the tune. The song features some authentic New Orleans piano by veteran keyboardist James Booker. Ringo’s pal Marc Bolan of T-Rex fame boogies out on electric guitar and the tasty horns are astutely arranged by top notched studio sax player Tom Scott.

One of the album’s highlights plays next.  It’s the hit single “Photograph,” co-written by Ringo Starr and George Harrison while on a yacht hired for the 1971 Cannes film festival.  The song was a commercial success, reaching number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.  Its infectious melody and Starr’s soulful vocal performance make it a standout track on the album. The heartfelt lyrics evoke a sense of nostalgia and longing; especially for those who at the time had loved ones missing in the Vietnam War. An instant classic right out of the gate. 

The ubiquitous saxophonist Bobby Keys turns in an expressive solo supported by Jack Nitzsche’s “Phil Spector-ish” grandiose string arrangement (snappy castanets included) that builds to an explosive conclusion featuring Nicky Hopkins tastefully plinking on the piano during the outro. This is a signature song for Ringo Starr and one that still resonates with his young and old audiences today. Note: The flip side of the “Photograph” single is the forgotten pot boiler Ringo Starr penned called “Down and Out.” George Harrison plays wicked slide guitar on it and Gary Wright knocks out a competent piano solo.  It only shows up as a bonus track on the CD release.

After “Photograph” kind of gallops off into the sunset we are then greeted by a song that can best be described as some sort of country hoe-down.  Almost bluegrass in nature.  The song “Sunshine Life For Me (Sail away Raymond)” was composed by George Harrison and its cheerful yet snarky lyrics are quite a contrast to the previous track’s melancholy sound.   Harrison wrote the song on holiday in 1971 in Ireland and initially treated it like an old traditional folk tune a pirate might sing. Musically it’s actually very inventive and interesting considering the chordal structure is based on one chord, “E.” Harrison creates enough of a melodic shift between verse and chorus to make it move along and not be boring. 

The ending is particularly exhilarating as it builds using a musical technique known as a “round” (i.e. “Row Row Row Your Boat”). Ringo sings the verses effortlessly and the chorus is supported with strong background vocals by Harrison and Vini Poncia. Members of the group The Band provide the folk/country instrumentation aided by multi-instrumentalist David Bromberg. The song works for Ringo because the sea shanty type of melody sits comfortably within his low baritone range. The overall effect is slightly reminiscent of Starr’s self-penned 1968 effort “Don’t Pass Me By” and it would have worked well on his second solo release the 1971 countrified Beaucoup Of Blues album.

The Sherman Brothers early 60’s classic “You’re 16” yielded another number one hit for Ringo. Producer Richard Perry gives the song an upbeat, polished gloss that instantly crackles over the airwaves. Ringo puts the song across with the kind of sincere approach he’s always able to emanate (always sincere and easy to connect with). His good pal Harry Nilsson turns in some sweet background vocals and Paul McCartney comes up with a very memorable mouth / faux kazoo solo.

The recording engineer nailed the right equalization here because for decades, I always thought it was a real kazoo!  Also, there was a video shot for this song that featured Ringo pursuing a young Carrie Fischer. While probably viewed nowadays as kind of creepy considering the age difference between Ringo and Carrie it was nonetheless harmless fun for a harmless, commercial song.

Side two opens with yet another Billboard hit, the top 5 galloping boogie tune “Oh My My.” This tune was penned by Ringo and his 70’s writing partner Vini Poncia. Its insistent groove is propelled by Jim Keltner and Ringo on drums, aided by Klaus Voorman laying down a catchy, sliding bass part. The surprise of the opening augmented piano chord instantly sets up the spunky atmosphere and immediately draws the listener in.

The instrumental section of the piece is dually spirited featuring dazzling sax work by Tom Scott and Martha Reeves and Merry Clayton on soulful back ups and improvs. Producer Richard Perry captures just the right party mood and it made for exciting AM radio listening.

The next track is the melodic, self-penned Ringo song, “Step Lightly.” It’s an unassuming, relaxed “two-step” song that Ringo sings with ease. Here Mr. Starkey not only plays the drums but can be heard tap dancing during the instrumental break. Tom Scott manages a convincing vaudevillian arrangement with multiple clarinets swinging in harmony insinuated around intricate backup vocals. Legendary R&B guitarist Steve Cropper adds to the tasteful production. “Step Lightly” is a modest track that breezes by and is the perfect set up for the more up beat pop number that follows.

By now, Ringo’s relationship was amicable with all the Beatles. The bickering and lawsuits between them were pretty much settled. This made it easier to persuade Paul McCartney to not be left out on his album which already had contributions by John and George. Custom made for Ringo’s friendly demeanor and specific vocal range, McCartney composed the track “Six O’Clock.” It’s an upbeat pop song with familiar descending bass patterns (i.e. “Lady Madonna” “Hello Goodbye” etc…) and easy to digest colorful lyrics. 

The song climaxes during the dramatic bridge leading into a memorable synth solo. Unlike the rest of the album this track was recorded in England. Sir Paul plays the piano, synthesizer and arranges the strings.  Ringo of course is on drums, Klaus Voorman is on bass and giving it an almost Wings sound, Linda McCartney on backups. An extended version of this delightful piece ended up on Ringo’s follow-up album, 1974’s Goodnight Vienna.

We return to a solid, catchy rocker, “Devil Woman” co-written by Poncia and Starr. It features the steady drumming of both Jim Keltner and Ringo keeping the song moving at a feverish pace. Being that the song is about a “Devil Woman” the blazing horn arrangement along side Jimmy Calvert’s stinging electric guitar are more than appropriate. Richard Perry provides the low 50’s type vocals on the word “yeah”, the kind you might hear from the group Sha Na Na or Frank Zappa. 

They are pretty hysterical. As an added bonus there is a double drum breakdown section that is highlighted in true left and right stereo. Klaus Voorman adds a menacing bass part in this section and the sound is reminiscent of the Perry produced Harry Nilsson rocker “Jump Into The Fire.” Overall, a dark, sexy song that even mentions The Beatles “Sexy Sadie” in the lyrics. The song crossfades into the album’s closer.

“You and Me Babe” is a sentimental adult contemporary work colored with tropical touches of marimba throughout and a strong backbeat so clearly associated with Ringo’s playing.  The song was written by George Harrison and Beatles long time roadie Mal Evans.  Harrison plays wonderfully tasty guitar licks between the vocals. It’s a farewell track from (your friend and mine) Ringo Starr addressing his listeners in the manner of a show-closing finale. 

The general meaning of the lyrics refers to the completion of the album.  During the extended fadeout, Starr gives his thanks to the musicians and studio personnel who helped with the recording of Ringo!  It’s a warm, sincere, off-the-cuff ending to an album that almost reunited the Beatles. Almost.  Many consider it Ringo’s strongest collection in his long, successful musical career. I would concur. 

Ringo Starr’s Ringo! Album Turns 50 article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023

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