Ringo Is “The Greatest” by Marvin Etzioni

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A Tribute to Ringo written on his 80th birthday, July 7, 2020.

Ringo’s 75th Birthday Party at the Capitol Tower in Hollywood. July 7, 2015. Photo by Paul Zollo/American Songwriter.


As a kid, my favorite Beatle was Ringo. I gravitated toward his drumming.

“She Loves You” is one of the most exciting singles ever recorded. When he painted the open high hat with a wooden drumstick, it sounded like Superman flying through the speakers and into the room.

Ringo Starr, “I’m The Greatest.” Written by John Lennon.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to have dinner with Geoff Emerick, midway through our meal, without any prompting, he said, “Okay, you can ask me about The Beatles.” 

I asked, “Why does the single ‘She Loves You’ on Swan Records sound louder and more like a Little Richard record on Specialty Records than the release of The Beatles on Capitol Records? (The song appears on the American only release The Second Album.)

Geoff said, “Swan most likely didn’t have the same mastering standards as Capitol Records.”

Mastering is the final opportunity to change and alter levels and EQ settings before the record is sent to be manufactured. Emerick and producer George Martin were not involved in the mastering process of The Beatles’ records. With the single of “She Loves You” sounding like it’s about to explode, I’m glad I grew up with the single on Swan. It made Ringo sound even more on fire, pinning the needles in the red with near distortion, as opposed to the quieter Capitol pressings (which still sound amazing).

“Ringo didn’t play drums. He played songs.” Photo by Paul Zollo/American Songwriter.

As the decades have passed, I’ve come to appreciate Ringo more and more. If I was to choose my favorite Ringo track it would be “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” (a rare example of a Lennon/McCartney song with the chorus only appearing at the end of the song). A songwriting masterpiece, a mini-opera from my point of view.

During the section where Lennon sings, “When I hold you in my arms/ And I feel your finger on my trigger, ” Ringo plays straight-time against the guitars and bass, pushing and pulling the song in another time signature, that is when Ringo’s drum mastery boggles the mind.

This was a revolution, something that had not been heard before The White Album in 1968.

The Beatles, “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”

John Bonham would be heard doing something similar years later on the Led Zeppelin songs “Black Dog”(1971)  and “Kashmir (1975).”

No one had more diversity in groove than Ringo, who could authentically play country, rock and roll, Samba, soul, and R&B, all on the same album. Just listen to the high hat work on the Buck Owens’ classic “Act Naturally.” 

Lennon called “Ticket to Ride” a “heavy drum record.” Ringo’s drum arrangement on that song alone shows his ability to always keep the interest of the listener by never playing the same drum fill twice on the same song. It’s always a variation. On “Ticket,” the more complex rolls are heard earlier in the song, building up to a simple crack of the snare towards the end, which I always look forward to every time I hear the record.

Perhaps there were edits combining various band takes of a song, but there was no cut and paste on Beatles records, thank you very much.

Ringo didn’t play drums. He played songs. It’s very easy to sing along with his drum parts. 

Did he have influences? Of course. Check out the drum pattern on “In My Life” and then listen to the original Arthur Alexander classic “Anna” (which the Beatles covered on Introducing The Beatles). It’s the same drum pattern. Yet in the context of a completely different song, it sounds original.

Anyone who has worked me with knows I am a drum/percussionist fanatic. I’ve been blessed to have recorded with some of the world’s greatest drummers over the years. Examples include (in no particular order):

James Gadson (Marvin Gaye, Beck)
Santa Davis (Bob Marley, Peter Tosh)
Dave Mattacks (Fairport Convention)
David Leach (Earth, Wind and Fire)
Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello)
Dave Scheff (Translator)
Randy Guss (Toad the Wet Sprocket)
Phil Jones (Tom Petty)
Stan Lynch (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers)
Donald “The Clock” Lindley (Lucinda Williams)
Abe Laboriel, Jr. (Paul McCartney)
Joe Bell (The Model)
Danny Frankel (Lou Reed)
Trevor Lawrence, Jr. (Dr. Dre)
Bryan Head (John Doe)
Dave Raven (Keith Richards)
Don [The King of Swing] Heffington (Bob Dylan)

Drums are the first thing I listen to on a record. One can identify the decade (or the year) of a record by the sonic relationship between the snare and kick drum. The early Ringo recordings were backbeat driven, meaning the snare drum could be heard louder than the kick drum.  The recording technique would often combine drums and bass to be shared on one individual track, which sometimes resulted in the kick drum hiding behind the bass.

As the years progressed and recording technology advanced with additional tracks, soon the kick drum would have its own track (something recording artists and engineers take for granted in these modern times). It seemed with every Beatles album, the kick was more prominently featured in the mix.

And by the time Abbey Road appears, Ringo’s drum solo on side two has a massive sounding kick drum pounding to the double time heartbeat that propels the band to “The End” – a drum solo with what seems to be written out parts. No other recorded drum solo compares.

The Fab Four on Abbey Road just before “The End.”

Years ago when I was on tour opening for T Bone Burnett and Sam Phillips, T Bone and I were talking about Ringo, and I said, “He’s the one drummer I’d like to work with.”

“Well,” T Bone said, “I don’t see why that shouldn’t happen.”

As Ringo turns 80 today, I hope I don’t have to wait too much longer.

The drummer provides the heartbeat of the song for the record. Ringo provided not just a backbeat for the boys but rhythmically and prophetically invented the groove of the 21st century record. Every genre of music after The Beatles broke up in 1970 has been influenced by Ringo.

From ’70s soft rock and hard rock, through punk, country, metal and hip hop, you’ll hear Ringo somewhere in each modern record.

And yet, more than a half century after “She Loves You,” and still no one has come close to being Ringo.

Faders up and Happy Birthday to “The Greatest.”

Marvin Etzioni
July 7, 2020

Marvin Etzioni is a Grammy Award-winning producer/singer/songwriter and record producer. He recently signed a digital distribution deal for his label Regional Records with Six Degrees Records (Ingrooves/Universal). 

Stay tuned to American Songwriter for more info on forthcoming releases by Thee Holy Brothers, Grey DeLisle, The Williams Brothers (their first album in 25 years), Ryan Hedgecock (founding member of Lone Justice), Goldy (debut recordings by up and coming band) and more.

Interested parties can contact Joseph Maisterra, Vice President of Regional Records:

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