Behind The Song: “I’m The Greatest” by Ringo Starr, Written by John Lennon

John, George & Ringo all play on the track, the only time three Beatles performed together after the break-up

Ringo & John

John Lennon wrote many of the great songs that Ringo recorded, including “With A Little Help from my Friends” and “Good Night,” recorded with The Beatles. Lennon also wrote “I’m The Greatest,” which Ringo recorded as the opening cut of his 1973 album Ringo. George Harrison played on the track along with Lennon, marking the only time all three Beatles played on a record together since their band broke up.

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Three Beatles together, Ringo, John & George, May 19, 1967. Celebrating the completion of their new album, ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, at a press conference held at the west London home of their manager Brian Epstein. The LP was about to be released on June 1. Photo by John Pratt

“I couldn’t sing it!” said John. “But it was perfect for Ringo. He could sing ‘I’m A Loser’ to the world
but not ‘I’m The Greatest.

Lennon wrote the song in 1970, soon after The Beatles broke up. Inspired by the line spoken often by Muhammad Ali, he wrote “I’m The Greatest” as a joke. It’s quite like a Randy Newman song, musically and lyrically. But unlike Randy, who would sing songs told by the most untrustworthy narrators without compunction, Lennon felt differently. The man who sang “I’m A Loser” to the world, would not sing “I’m The Greatest.”

“I couldn’t sing it,” John said in 1980. “But it was perfect for Ringo. He could say, ‘I’m the greatest’ and people wouldn’t get upset. Whereas if I said `I’m the greatest,’ they’d all take it so seriously.”

“It’s very tongue in cheek,” said Ringo. ” Only [John] could have written it and only I could have sung it.”

Ringo & John

The song was recorded on March 13, 1973 at Sunset Sound in Hollywood (making it the only studio in Hollywood, next to Capitol, where all four Beatles have recorded—as McCartney recorded there separately.)

Richard Perry produced the sessions, the first being the basic tracking session for the song with Ringo on drums, Lennon on piano and scratch vocal, George on electric guitar and their old pal Klaus Voorman on bass.

George Harrison was in L.A., and had already played on two songs for the record.
Although the common assumption was that Ringo and/or John invited him to participate, they did not. George had heard that John and Ringo were recording together, and called up Perry to ask if he could join the party. Perry asked John if that was okay. John was delighted.

“Hell, yes!” he answered. ” Tell him to get down here right away and help me finish this bridge!”

In subsequent sessions came many overdubs, including George Harrison adding several layers of electric guitars—including rhythm, arpeggios and slide. Many writers have suggested that it’s his playing that makes this the most Beatlesque record made since the breakup.

Ringo recorded his lead vocal, replacing some but not all of Lennon’s singing. And “fifth Beatle” Billy Preston played organ. Perry added applause to the track, a connection to the first appearance of Ringo as Billy Shears, on Lennon’s “With a Little Help from My Friends” on Sgt. Pepper.

When the news broke about this partial Beatles reunion, it fueled the fires of a full Beatles reunion, something which much of the world was yearning for. Everyone felt that it would happen eventually, just as soon as Lennon and McCartney could make up. When asked about this, John left that door wide open: “It’s closer now than we have been for a long time,” he said to Melody Maker. “There’s always a chance.” He said McCartney would have been on the track too, if he were in Los Angeles.

(Original Caption) LONDON-08/25/67-: Costumed Beatles John Lennon and Ringo Starr carry luggage as they walk briskly through Euston Station here August 25th en route to train which will take them on a “love pilgrimage” in Bangor in North Wales to hear Himalayan mystic Maharishi Mahesh, who has expounded the love doctrine around the world. The Beatles, their wives and girlfriend and hundreds of others, headed for the Welsh town to hear an explanation of the essential merits of “transcendental meditation.”

Ultimately, McCartney did play on the album as well, on a different song, “Six O’Clock,” which was recorded in England.

Ringo & John

“I’m The Greatest”
By John Lennon

When I was a little boy,
Way back home in Liverpool,
My mama told me, I was great.

Then when I was a teenager,
I knew that I had got something going,
All my friends told me I was great.

And now I’m a man,
A woman took me by the hand,
And you know what she told me, I was great.

I was in the greatest show on earth,
For what it was worth.
Now I’m only thirty-two
And all I want to do, is boogaloo!

I looked in the mirror,
I saw my wife and kids,
And you know what they told me, I was great.

Yes, my name is Billy Shears,
You know it has been for so many years.
Now I’m only thirty-two
And all I want to do, is boogaloo!

Hey, hey, hey, (hey, hey, hey) yeah!
(hey, hey, hey)
I’m the greatest and you better believe it, baby!
Ho! Ho! Ho!
I’m gonna be the greatest in this world, (ho!)
In the next world and in any world! (hey!)
Alright, alright, alright, alright, alright, alright

©1970 John Lennon

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