On April 9th, 1971, Ringo Starr made his first major statement as a solo artist. After a pair of lackluster solo albums in Sentimental Journey (1970) and Beaucoups of Blues (1970), the ex-Beatle released the blockbuster single “It Don’t Come Easy” b/w “Early 1970,” a record that would set into motion an impressive string of commercial successes that, for a time at least, set him apart from his former bandmates.
Produced by fellow Beatle George Harrison, “It Don’t Come Easy” featured Starr on lead vocals and drums, along with Harrison on guitar, Klaus Voormann on bass, Stephen Stills on piano, Mal Evans on tambourine, and Ron Cattermole playing the song’s distinctive saxophone flourishes. Beatles veteran Ken Scott served as engineer on the track. While Starr is credited as the author of the composition, Harrison provided vital writerly assistance in bringing the song to fruition.
Recorded under the working title of “Just Gotta Pay Your Dues,” “It Don’t Come Easy” began life at EMI Studios in February 1970 when Starr was recording the Sentimental Journey LP with George Martin in the producer’s chair. With Harrison, Voormann, and Stills pitching in on the instrumentation, the song was performed across 20 takes. Working at Trident Studios in March, Starr remade the song with Harrison helming the production. The March session marked Cattermole’s first appearance on the track, which would be mothballed until October, when Gary Wright added a piano part. Badfinger’s Pete Ham and Tom Evans later appended backing vocals to the song.
“It Don’t Come Easy” proved to be a commercial hit, notching top-five results in several different countries. In a review in NME, Alan Smith praised the song as “undoubtedly one of the best, thumpin’est things the Starr man has ever done.” But the single’s real treasure may have been the B-side, “Early 1970,” in which the drummer contemplated the contours of his post-Beatles life.
With a backing band that included Harrison on electric guitar and Voormann on bass, Starr’s countrified “Early 1970” served as a “disarming open letter,” in the words of Nicholas Schaffner, to the other ex-Beatles. In a February 1970 interview with Look magazine, as he put the finishing touches on Sentimental Journey with Martin, Starr admitted to a lingering sense of bewilderment over his lost mates. “I keep looking around and thinking where are they? What are they doing? When will they come back and talk to me?”
Having been recorded under the title “When Four Knights Come to Town,” “Early 1970” brims with Starr’s obvious pain over the loss of his bandmates and the unsettling nature of their demise. In one of the song’s most heartfelt moments, Starr laments the distance that he feels in particular with McCartney: “Lives on a farm, got plenty of charm, beep, beep / He’s got no cows but he’s sure got a whole lotta sheep / And a brand new wife and a family / And when he comes to town, I wonder if he’ll play with me.”
Over the years, Beatles fans have lauded Starr’s nostalgia in “Early 1970” as a key moment in the band’s post-breakup story. But for the Beatles’ drummer, “It Don’t Come Easy” would emerge as a signature concert staple. The song would make its concert debut in August 1971, when Starr and a host of rock luminaries performed “It Don’t Come Easy” at Harrison’s famed Concert for Bangladesh charity benefit in New York City. Given the song’s buoyant, heartfelt message, Starr continues to perform the up-tempo number into the present day with his All-Starr Band.
As history would show, “It Don’t Come Easy” was a harbinger of things to come for Starr, who enjoyed a string of hit singles in “Back Off Boogaloo,” “Photograph,” “You’re Sixteen,” “Oh My My,” “Only You (and You Alone),” and “No No Song.” While his future commercial performance would pale in comparison to those heady days in the early 1970s—especially in terms of his blockbuster Ringo album, released in November 1973—Starr would more than prove his mettle as a pop singer during that era. For a while, he even outpaced the success of Harrison, Lennon, and Paul McCartney, his more celebrated bandmates. Indeed, after the mega-success of the Ringo LP, John Lennon famously telegrammed Starr, saying “Congratulations. How dare you? And please write me a hit song.”
–Ken Womack is an internationally renowned Beatles authority regarding the band’s enduring artistic influence. He is the author, most recently, of Maximum Volume: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin (The Early Years: 1926-1966) and Sound Pictures: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin (The Later Years, 1966-2016). His next book, Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles, is forthcoming in September 2019. You can learn more about Ken’s work at kennethwomack.com
-Photo Credit: John Pratt/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images