People might not realize it now, but there was a time when Ringo Starr was as formidable a solo artist as any of his Beatle buddies. Starr always surrounded himself with excellent players and writers (including his mates in the Fab Four), so the majority of his 1970s albums are excellently-played and full of clever material, well-tailored to Starr’s congenial persona. Because Ringo never took himself too seriously (and what a refreshing notion that is for a star of his caliber), many fans underestimate his ability as a record-maker. The following ten songs are evidence why underestimating Ringo Starr has always been a fool’s game.
1. “Without Her” (1970)
After Ringo struggled through an album of standards in his first solo effort, he regained his footing on 1970’s Beaucoups of Blues, which found him taking on country songs written ad hoc and performed by Nashville pros. Starr has always slipped into the country milieu with ease, and he also inhabits put-upon characters very well. That puts this country-folk weeper in his wheelhouse. He plays it straight and delivers an excellent performance of an affecting song, written by Sorrels Pickard.
2. “It Don’t Come Easy” (1971)
Starr’s first two albums didn’t do a whole lot commercially. But considering he came from the band that was the best ever in terms of singles, he understood the value of a well-timed radio smash. “It Don’t Come Easy” is filled with charging, “Savoy Truffle”-style horns and Ringo’s just-right fills. It also features one of Starr’s most invigorated vocal performances, as he lends some hard-earned wisdom about the inherent difficulties of life. Starr received solo writing credit, although he later admitted that George Harrison contributed.
3. “Back Off Boogaloo” (1972)
Starr has always denied that the lyrics to this rugged single were aimed at Paul McCartney. Even if they were, they’re a little too silly to be that hurtful. The music is what carries this track anyway. Gary Wright’s piano plays off Harrison’s weeping guitar, while Starr puts his drumming at the forefront, something that didn’t happen too often in Beatle days. All the stopping and starting keeps listeners on their toes even after they’ve heard the song numerous times.
4. “I’m the Greatest” (1973)
John Lennon contributed the opening track to the smash album Ringo, and with Lennon, Harrison, Starr and Let It Be contributor Billy Preston playing on the track, it’s the closest thing we really got to a Beatles reunion before Lennon’s death. (Klaus Voorman played bass on the track instead of McCartney.) Lennon fills it with Beatle references, both musical (the spiraling Abbey Road guitars) and lyrical (Billy Shears). But his genius move was putting words of supreme boastfulness into the mouth one of the most self-deprecating musicians around.
5. “Photograph” (1973)
The crème de la crème of the Starr solo output, this lovingly retro track, written by Harrison and Starr and produced by Richard Perry and arranged by Jack Nitzsche as an homage to Phil Spector’s classic style, is one that works on the jukebox whether you’re feeling good or bad. Again, the sidemen are impeccable (longtime Rolling Stones accompanists Nicky Hopkins and Bobby Keys are especially fine on piano and saxophone, respectively), while Starr plays the romantic lead with a past that he can’t shake — to the hilt.
6. “Snookeroo” (1974)
Goodnight Vienna is a kind of Ringo, Part II, albeit with not quite as many memorable songs. This one, however, written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, is irresistibly fun. Starr easily slips into character as a kind of ne’er-do-well who is charming in spite of his flaws. The Rocket Man provides the rhythmic charge on the piano, while the brass never lets up. There’s nothing too heavy going on here, but you’ll leave it with a smile on your face.
7. “Easy for Me” (1974)
Harry Nilsson was always a favorite of The Beatles, and he ran in the same circles (often wildly) with the individual members of the band throughout the ‘70s. Here, he crafts one of his exquisite and idiosyncratic miniatures for Starr, complete with dramatic piano and strings. To his credit, Starr finds his way in a setting that would have sunk many a singer, locating the strange heart of Nilsson’s song. The penultimate track on Goodnight Vienna, it’s a relatively unknown beauty.
8. “Pure Gold” (1976)
Ringo’s Rotogravure was the last gasp of Starr’s ‘70s hot streak, an example of a formula producing diminishing returns. But at least his old buddy Paul McCartney stepped up and lent him the album’s best number, this laid-back roller with Fats Domino piano accents and a killer chorus that, like the refrains of so many of McCartney’s own hits, manages thrilling tension and glorious release in just a matter of seconds. Even Linda McCartney comes along for the ride on backing vocals.
9. “Weight of the World” (1991)
After a stretch of uninspired albums, Starr stayed out of the studio for a good chunk of the ‘80s. He came back swinging with 1992’s Time Takes Time, which put him together with a younger group of admiring songwriters and musicians. “Weight of the World” is a wonderfully-crafted piece of psychedelic pop that finds the narrator eschewing old encumbrances, which is ironic since so much of Starr’s solo work since that point is built on nostalgia. It should have been a hit.
10. “Golden Blunders” (1992)
Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow wrote this for their ‘90s alternative pop group The Posies, but it was a natural fit for Starr on Time Takes Time. After all, the title recalls one of The Beatles’ best, and the drum beat apes Ringo’s classic pounding on “Ticket to Ride.” The song features a bittersweet melody with lyrics that speak to the mistakes and hardships that are part and parcel of growing up. Coming from Starr, someone who by then had already been around the mill and back again, those words took on an even more profound meaning.
Photo: Ethan Miller (Getty Images)