When Steve Hilstein first saw The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964, he thought Ringo Starr was cool — just like the other members of the Fab Four. But Ringo’s drumming skills didn’t stand out.
“I couldn’t tell if he was a good drummer or not,” Hilstein said.
A year later, Hilstein took up the drums himself. And soon he realized that there was more to Starr, who performs Oct. 2 in Paso Robles, than a funny accent and one-liners.
“I think I really appreciated what he played with The Beatles when I became a better drummer myself,” said Hilstein, who owns Music Motive, a countywide music school.
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While The Beatles are arguably the greatest band in the history of rock music, most of the critical acclaim has gone to John Lennon, Paul McCartney and, to a lesser extent, George Harrison. Meanwhile, Starr, the last to join the group, has sometimes been viewed as the lucky one, who got to go along for the magical ride.
Legend has it that Lennon once said Starr, whose real name is Richard Starkey, wasn’t even the best drummer in the band. (McCartney played drums on a few tracks.) And drum icon Buddy Rich supposedly once described Starr’s drumming as “adequate.”
But those who really listen to the music know Starr was much more.
“People who underrate Ringo don’t know what they’re talking about,” said Gregg Bissonette, who plays drums with Ringo Starr & His All-Star Band. “Ringo changed the way drummers played the drums.”
“He is maybe the most — or one of the most — musical drummers ever,” Parsons said. “And, by that, I mean he supports the music. He plays to the song. He knows how to make a song feel good.”
Beatles lore has long propagated the sad tale of Pete Best, the band’s original drummer, who was canned after producer George Martin suggested a session drummer could keep better time.
That firing is often seen as Ringo’s big break. Yet, many said Ringo’s arrival helped propel the Beatles.
“That was the beginning, really, of The Beatles,” McCartney said in April when Ringo was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo performer.
When Ringo joined the band, music historians have noted, he was more well-known around Liverpool than the other Beatles.
“Look at it this way: The dude was good enough for John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison,” Parsons said. “They said, ‘Of all the drummers in the world, Ringo’s the one we want to work with.’ ”
Starr, formerly of Rory and the Hurricanes, was known to be somewhat of a human metronome.
He also didn’t overplay his parts, which could have taken attention from the songwriters.
“It was like he had no ego,” Parsons said. “He was just concerned with the concept of, ‘How can I support the song and make it feel great?’“
Playing to the song meant paying attention to the lyrics, said Bissonette, a technically proficient drummer who once gave clinics on Starr’s skills.
“Ringo won’t ask for a drum chart — he’s not a drum chart guy,” Bissonette said. “But he’ll ask for a lyric sheet.”
Those understated aspects of Ringo’s drumming were symbolized by his famous Ludwig drum set. While arena rock drummers would later be surrounded by bombastic kits, Starr’s Beatle set was a simple four-piece.
“You don’t need a huge kit,” Bissonette said. “You don’t need to play a million notes.”
A close listen to Ringo’s drumming, however, reveals that he did more than provide steady beats for songs. His parts were often inventive, featuring unique fills that played off the lyrics and melody.
“It wasn’t what the typical drummer would play,” Hilstein said.
Consider the tom-tom pattern that followed the lyric “He blew his mind out in a car” from “A Day in the Life”; the toppling yet perfectly placed drums on “Strawberry Fields Forever” or the rattlesnake-like hiss of hi-hat on “Come Together.”
“Once you hear it, you can kind of copy it,” Parsons said. “But to think of it for the very first time. ...”
During his tenure with the Beatles, Starr proved he could play different drumming styles, from Latin (“I Feel Fine”) and heavy metal (“Helter Skelter”) to jazz (“You Know My Name”) and psychedelic (“Tomorrow Never Knows”). And he had original ideas for sound.
For a while Starr put a packet of cigarettes on his drums to muffle the skins. “Then I put towels on every drum,” he told The Associated Press in 2007. “It gave it that deeper quality.”
That muffled, punchy sound became part of Ringo’s trademark, recognizable even on ballads such as “Something.”
“You can just hear two seconds in the middle of that song and go, ‘Oh, that’s Ringo,’ ” Parsons said.
In some cases, Lennon and McCartney did offer direction. On “A Day in the Life,” the duo convinced Ringo to play tom-toms, McCartney notes in the book “Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now.”
“He normally didn’t like to play lead drums, as it were, but we coached him through it,” McCartney said. “We said, ‘Come on, you’re fantastic, this will be really beautiful,’ and indeed it was.”
Starr did occasionally let loose. At the end of his busy part on “Helter Skelter,” it’s the drummer who yells, “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!” after several takes of a cymbal-heavy rocker.
Starr’s most well-known part, however, was his solo on the “The End” — even though he didn’t like solos.
The solo is short and simple, but it connects the crescendo of the “Abbey Road” medley to its gentle conclusion without detouring the listener.
“You can dance to that solo,” Bissonette said.
Fittingly, “The End” was the last song recorded by the Beatles. While Ringo would have a successful solo career — singing on eight top 10 hits — he would continue to play drums for others.
Once, Bissonette said, he was backstage warming up with paradiddles, a drum exercise, on a rubber pad when Starr saw him and joked, “Why are you doing that? Are you going to play that tonight?’ ”
Just as Starr didn’t like drum solos, Bissonette said, he never plays drums alone, knowing the value of working with others.
“Ringo always said, ‘Go out and play with other musicians,’ ” Bissonette said.
RINGO STARR AND HIS ALL-STAR BAND
6:30 p.m. Oct. 2
Vina Robles Ampitheatre, 3800 Mill Road, Paso Robles
$69 to $125 286-3680 or http://www.vinaroblesamphitheatre.com