Ringo Starr was undoubtedly the backbone of The Beatles, the biggest band in rock history. His heavy-hitting style and sublime subtlety blended together perfectly to enhance the group’s early dynamic.
A less talented drummer may have failed to rally the group during important early sessions, while a more technically gifted drummer may have swamped their emerging style and sound. Finding Starr was never easy however and the group were plagued as a wandering collection of guitarists with no permanent drummer during their early days. “The rhythm is in the guitars” Lennon would allegedly quip when asked about their lack of a drummer.
Even after they found Starr, he was replaced on Beatles recordings by a further four individuals on five occasions and once on a major tour.
On the approaching half-century anniversary of Ringo Starr replacing Pete Best as The Beatles’ drummer on August 18, 1962, we look at the various individuals who have occupied the drum stool during The Beatles’ (and its earlier formative line-ups) career.
The original drummer with Lennon’s group The Quarry Men, Hanton must hold the distinction of being the first drummer to back John, Paul and George on stage and in the recording studio.
Two years older than Lennon, Hanton had already left school and was serving an apprenticeship when he joined the group. His main asset was that he was in possession of a brand new drum kit. His tenure as the group’s drummer witnessed the departure of several floating Quarry Men members and the arrival of the future Beatles core of Paul McCartney and George Harrison alongside the already present John Lennon. Hanton was playing with the group the day McCartney saw them perform at Woolton Village fete and he also played drums on the group’s first studio recording featuring Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day” and the very first original Beatles recording; “In Spite of All the Danger”.
In a sign of things to come, the arrival of McCartney was not exactly met with joy by all group members, particularly Hanton, whose drumming skills were allegedly called into question by the group’s latest arrival on guitar. Hanton quit the group after a drunken performance in early 1959, apparently never seeing John, Paul or George again. In 1997, he joined the reformed Quarry Men. The inclusion of “In Spite of All the Danger” on Anthology 1 in 1995 guaranteed that Hanton was eventually featured playing drums on a Beatles album.
With Hanton’s departure in January 1959, The Quarry Men/Johnny and the Moondogs entered the most inactive period of their musical career, playing only a handful of gigs between then and May 1960. However, after acquiring bassist Stuart Sutcliffe early in 1960, the group was ready to shed their skiffle skin and get serious as a rock and roll band by May of 1960. Hamburg: T-minus three months.
Tommy Moore was recruited into The Silver Beetles by their booking agent/manager Alan Williams in May 1960. All reports indicate that Moore was a solid and capable drummer who owned his own kit and who suitably impressed Paul McCartney with his abilities to reproduce the tricky drumming on the Everly Brothers’ hit, “Cathy’s Clown”. Moore’s age at the time has been questioned with some sources claiming he was 28 and others 36. Nevertheless, Moore was significantly older than the rest of the group.
A nervous and slight man, he was an easy target for John Lennon who seemed to delight in making his life a misery with his cruel tongue. Moore had joined the group just before their infamous and pivotal audition for London promoter Larry Parnes. Parnes was seeking a backing group for one of his major artistes; Billy Fury, and The Silver Beetles had squeezed into the audition.
Legend has always maintained that Parnes was put off by Stuart Sutcliffe’s non-existent bass guitar skills. However, Parnes himself later claimed that it was the flustered and unprofessional late arrival of drummer Tommy Moore halfway through the group’s set which put him off. Moore had been dashing to collect his kit from another venue and while he was en route, Johnny Hutchinson of Cass and the Casanovas was instructed by Alan Williams to sit behind the drums. Parnes booked the group to tour Scotland with another of his artistes: Johnny Gentle.
That tour was a disaster from start to finish with Moore losing teeth and suffering a concussion in an automobile accident while remaining under the unrelenting lash of John Lennon’s acerbic verbal abuse. On his return to Liverpool, Moore had had enough and quit the group by failing to show up for a gig. When they arrived to inquire about his absence, his girlfriend allegedly leaned out of a window to instruct them to p*ss-off, before informing them that Moore had been taken back at his old job as a night-shift forklift driver in a bottle factory. Moore, it seems, had decided not to quit his day (or night) job.
Interviewed on camera by the BBC at a Mersey Beat reunion in 1971, Moore by then cut a slightly worse-for-wear looking figure who admitted he was struggling and regretted his decision to quit the group. Within 10 years he would be dead. Like his brief rhythm section bandmate Sutcliffe before him, Moore succumbed to a brain hemorrhage (in 1981), less than a year after the death of John Lennon.
Also known as Johnny Hutch, Hutchinson was the drummer with Cass and the Casanovas when he stood in for Tommy Moore at the Larry Parnes audition. No fan of The Silver Beetles, Hutchinson – who cut an imposing figure and who allegedly terrified even John Lennon – was known to have remarked that they [Silver Beetles] “weren’t worth a carrot” and were a “bunch of posers”. Hutchinson also plugged the two-day gap between Pete Best’s dismissal on August 16 and Ringo Starr’s agreed arrival on August 18, 1962.
Mersey Beat magazine editor and founder Bill Harry recalled how during a performance at Liverpool’s Lathom Hall in May 1960, the group’s (Silver Beetles) drummer – probably Tommy Moore – had failed to bring his kit. Upon arrival he asked the drummer of a rival band for the use of his drums. However, Cliff Roberts – of Cliff Roberts and The Rockers – refused to allow Moore to sit behind his brand new Olympic kit. He at least did offer to sit in with the group, playing six songs with them. So we have one more fleeting addition to the long line of Beatles stick men.
Following the departure of regular drummer Tommy Moore, the group were sitting in the Jacaranda one night they heard the sounds of a practicing drummer drifting across the summer night air. Tracking down the source of the racket, they discovered Norman Chapman; a picture framer and part-time drummer. No sooner was Chapman invited to join the group – playing three gigs – when the British Army made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Chapman was conscripted for National Service in June of 1960 and thus missed his chance with rock’s hottest ticket.
Towards the end of the summer of 1960, The Silver Beetles were offered a contract to play a stint in Hamburg, an unbelievable turn of fortune. But, the job spec required them to have a permanent drummer. Cue Pete Best.
Pete Best’s story is well documented. The Beatles’ drummer from August 1960 until August 1962, he was unceremoniously dismissed from the group by Brian Epstein who informed him that the others simply wanted him out.
To this day, debate still continues as to whether he was dumped because of his dire performance at the group’s EMI artist test in June 1962 or because the moody and quiet loner simply never fitted in. Lennon later admitted that they were cowards to fire him in the manner they did, but the fact remained that Best was cut from a different cloth than Lennon, McCartney & Harrison. He was apparently never particularly close to any member of the group and when George Martin – the EMI producer who held the keys to their professional careers – flagged Best’s drumming as sub-standard, his days were numbered. Best’s sacking was unpopular with the group’s fans, many of whom viewed Best as the ‘looker’ in the band, and some scuffles among fans in the Cavern resulted in George Harrison obtaining a black eye.
Although Best formed another group after his dismissal from The Beatles, he was soon left behind. He attempted to commit suicide during the height of Beatlemania and by the time his former bandmates were recording the White Album, Best was loading bread onto delivery trucks. Following a successful career as a civil servant, Best finally came out of retirement as a musician in 1988 and has pursued a successful career as a musician and Beatles celebrity ever since. Best’s version of “Love Me Do” and the German Polydor recordings were eventually released on 1995’s Anthology 1, giving Best a windfall of royalties while finally placing him on a Beatles album.
Ringo Starr stepped in as the Beatles drummer on August 18, 1962, however his initial tenure was not a particularly happy one.
Turning up at EMI Studios on September 4 for a second attempt at recording a debut single (the previous session on June 6 had featured Best), Starr found himself partaking in a slightly shaky version of “Love Me Do” which failed to please producers George Martin and Ron Richards. When they returned for a third and final time a week later, Starr was sandbagged by Richards, who had hired trusty session musician Andy White to replace him. Starr feared EMI was pulling a Pete Best on him, although curiously despite the version recorded with White on drums resulting in a tighter and more accomplished version, it was Starr’s recording which was originally released on the group’s debut disc in 1962.
Starr’s incandescent performance on the “Please Please Me” single in November 1962 secured his status and EMI felt no further need for session drummers thereafter. Soon growing into the role, Starr’s steady timing in particular helped to facilitate much of the editing that went into the band’s early releases. As they grew more adventurous, Starr became critically important as the conducer who facilitated translating the songwriters’ increasingly left-field desires onto tape. In particular, his unorthodox style of leading drum fills with his left hand instead of his right – he was actually left-handed playing right-handed – resulted in Starr’s contributions to various Beatles songs becoming as sublime and important as the vocals, melody and various instrumental parts. The most notable songs include “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “A Day in the Life”.
Additionally, Starr was instrumental – no pun intended – in introducing the drummer as an equal and integral part of the emerging format of the rock group. His influence outside of the Beatles was also massive with Phil Collins (Genesis), Dave Grohl (Nirvana) and Max Weinberg (Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band) among many others citing him as a major influence.
Often flippantly referred to as the luckiest man in music, you might argue that while he undoubtedly received the ultimate winning lottery ticket, The Beatles and rock music itself were equally lucky to land him. No Ringo. No Beatles.
He may have been small, he may not have been handsome, and he may have been the convenient figure of fun in Beatles movies and press conferences, but underestimate his importance and role at your peril. Starr was a giant in his field and was also an equal partner and contributor to the unrepeatable phenomenon that was The Beatles.
Glaswegian drummer Andy White was booked to drum on the third attempt to record “Love Me Do” in September 1962. He played on both the A-side and the single’s flip-side, “P.S. I Love You”. He appeared uncredited on The Beatles’ debut LP, Please Please Me.
Struck down with Tonsillitis on the eve of The Beatles’ European and Australasian tour in June 1964, Ringo Starr was ruled out of travelling with the group. Faced with the enormous headache of cancelling sections of such a huge tour, Epstein made the somewhat unpopular decision of calling in a replacement. George Martin suggested a session drummer he was familiar with: Jimmy Nicol. Nicol was familiar with the group’s recordings and so just over 24 hours after he was called in for an audition he found himself on stage in Denmark before thousands of screaming Beatles fans.
From obscure nobody to celebrated Beatle, Nicol was automatically returned to obscurity after 10 days following Starr’s return to the group. Although he earned a substantial amount of money and supported Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame theory, Nicol’s sudden propulsion into the international limelight and his subsequent hard-breaking return to normality left him with adjustment problems. He later remarked that “[s]tanding in for Ringo was the worst thing that ever happened to me. Until then I was quite happy earning thirty or forty pounds a week. After the headlines died, I began dying too.” (Mojo Special Limited Edition, 2002).
If Nicol had been altered by 10 days exposure to the incomprehensible madness of Beatlemania, what did eight years exposure do to the other four?
Never shy to bump Harrison out of the way for a lead guitar solo, McCartney had initially served sporadic terms as the group’s drummer during their Quarry Men days and again at various periods in Hamburg and Liverpool, particularly during Pete Best’s absence or solo singing spots. When Ringo Starr quit the group and walked out of the recording sessions for the White Album (ironically over an argument with McCartney about his drum part) McCartney took over. He taped a particularly credible – if slightly wooden – perfromance on “Back in the USSR”, “Dear Prudence” and later on “The Ballad of John and Yoko”.
John Lennon & George Harrison
During the same session for “Back in the USSR” in which Starr walked out, Harrison and Lennon also overdubbed drum tracks to augment McCartney’s. Allegedly on the stereo mix McCartney’s drum track can be heard in the left speaker, with Harrison’s and Lennon’s blended on the right. Incredibly, “Back in the USSR” is unique in that it features all three Beatles minus Starr on drums, with his colleagues taking over his part after his playing fell under criticism.
This was no easy band to be in, for sure!
Photo credit: Brian Farrell