The Untold Truth Of Ringo Starr

As the iconic drummer of the one of the most influential bands in history, Ringo Starr has a long list of accolades and titles not afforded to most. As part of the Beatles, he's sold hundreds of millions of albums, been appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE), and won numerous awards. As a solo artist, he's sold millions of albums, been inducted into the Roll and Roll Hall of Fame for Musical Excellence, and knighted for his contributions to music. Combine all of that with an unquantifiable influence on music as a whole, and it's no wonder that Ringo Starr is often considered a living legend.

But while Starr is a world-renowned musical figure who will be remembered forever in history, it's often easy to forget that underneath the phenomenon is just a man. Growing up as sickly boy in a poor Liverpool district, young Richard Starkey was a music-lover who had naïve teenage ambitions, like moving to another country and being neighbors with his musical hero. And even as the world shined a spotlight on Starr as a member of the Beatles, there would still be some stories and secrets that came out only years later. Here is the untold truth of Ringo Starr.

How the Starr got his name

With a name like Ringo Starr, it may seem like the superstar drummer was destined for the stage and spotlight. But, unlike his fellow bandmates, the Beatle actually took a stage name. In an interview with Live for Live Music, biographer Michael Seth Starr explains how Ringo Starr was actually born Richard Starkey. Going by "Richy" for most of his life, Starkey became Starr in 1957, when he joined Rory Storm & the Hurricanes (pictured), a Liverpool band that was at one point "more popular than the Beatles themselves," according to AllMusic

The new stage name had a simple significance, mostly stemming from the fact that Rory Storm and Ringo Starr were both huge fans of American Westerns. With films like "Stagecoach," in which John Wayne played "The Ringo Kid," and 1957's "Johnny Ringo," the snappy name was an attractive choice for the Liverpool drummer. Starr was also quite fond of wearing rings, making "Ringo" all the more fitting. And of course, with a last name like "Starkey," it seemed a no-brainer for the aspiring musician to "show-biz" it up a little and turn it into the ever-iconic "Starr."

Ringo Starr's dad left him as a child

Ringo Starr had one of the more tragic childhoods of the Beatles, with biographer Bob Spitz noting that, "In contrast to the others, who were middle- (John) or working-class (Paul and George), Ringo was 'ordinary, poor,' a hardship case." The Dingle, the rough district in Liverpool that Starr called home, was known to be a violent neighborhood that housed "the artisan working class." When the drummer was only three, his father initiated a divorce and left the family. With his father out of the picture, Starr's mother had to desperately work any job to provide for herself and her growing son. As Starr so fondly put it during an NPR interview, " ... they call it lower working-class when you've only got one parent. But my mother, God bless her, she did anything from scrubbing steps to working in a food shop to working in pubs — anything she could to support us because he forgot that part of the bargain."

But while Starr's childhood was marked by poverty and "no real memories of dad," the drumming legend still has "romantic" memories of his younger days. According to Live For Live Music, the musician grew up in close proximity to family members who had no shortage of love to show him, including "his mom Elsie, his 'stepladder' Harry, and ... loving grandparents." It was all that care that made Starr into the easygoing man that the world knows him as today.

He was hospitalized at just six years old for an entire year

Growing up, Ringo Starr had quite an unlucky streak with his health. According to Biography and an NPR interview with Starr, the future Beatle was only six years old when his appendix burst and he had to go in for an appendectomy. The whole ordeal ended up with Starr contracting an internal infection called peritonitis, a particularly dangerous diagnosis that was even more severe back in 1947.

After undergoing surgery to treat the infection, Starr stayed in the children's hospital to recover. Things were going well for about six months, just for the overexcited young boy to fall out of bed! As Starr recalls, "[The tumble] ripped open all these stitches in my stomach. So they had to dive in again and sew me up." The incident meant another six months in the hospital for recovery, totaling his hospital stay to a period of one whole year. Spending all that time out of school meant the soon-to-be drummer was horrendously behind in his studies, catching up with the help of tutors, only to fall back behind because of his health.

Getting tuberculosis led to him playing the drums

Just a few years after getting peritonitis, Ringo Starr had to spend another birthday bedridden by disease. This time it was his 14th birthday, with the Liverpool drummer contracting tuberculosis when he was 13, as described in his interview with NPR. The rough neighborhood that he lived in was hit particularly hard by the disease, with "six or seven cases in every street where people were just in the living room dying of TB because they didn't have a cure." Seeing it as God "[shining] his lights" on him, Starr was lucky to have gotten TB right around the time that the antibiotic Streptomycin was discovered and was promptly sent off for treatment in the country. 

Staying at what was described to be a huge greenhouse for a year, Starr and the other bedridden children were kept entertained with little activities, including knitting and making papier-mâché items. What would prove life-changing was the day that a woman came in with various instruments and handed Starr a drum. As the Beatle would explain in an interview with France Inter (via Alternative Nation), "That's all I wanted to play — I didn't want to play piano, I didn't want to play this, that or the other, I just wanted to play drums." Short on money, Starr started with a makeshift kit of biscuit tins and firewood before upgrading to a bass drum when he was 16 and then a full kit at 18 years old.

Ringo Starr almost moved to Texas as a teen

Once Ringo Starr discovered his love for music, it seemed that he was always interested in following that passion wherever it may have taken him. According to an interview with "Today," the Beatles drummer nearly moved to Texas when he was around 18 or 19 years old! A huge fan of the music that was being played across the pond, Starr was drawn to the Lone Star State because he wanted to live next to country blues singer Lightnin' Hopkins in Houston.

At the time, the teen was looking to find work in the factories there, even making a visit to the American consulate to start the emigration process, as told by USA Today. Reminiscing on his efforts, Starr explained, "They gave me a load of forms to fill in. And I filled those in. You know what it's like when you're 18 ... I filled 'em in, took 'em back, and then he gave me more forms. I gave up." And, well, lucky he did, or we might not have had the Fab Four lineup we know and love today.

Ringo Starr was the first Beatle to leave the band

While the Beatles' very public breakup was most notably remembered as being announced by Paul McCartney, it's a known fact these days that tensions were high among all of the members. In fact, pretty much every band member had their own "I quit" moment, with Ringo Starr being the first to walk away from the historic band in 1968, according to The Beatles Bible. The Beatles were in the middle of recording "The White Album," but Starr was discontented with his playing and frustrated with being left out. This feeling of tension was apparently widespread among the band. In an interview with Howard Stern, the drummer recalls going to both McCartney and John Lennon to explain that he felt the other three members had bonded without him, only to be told they had thought the reverse: "I thought it was you three!"

Hearing that, the Liverpool native decided he'd had enough and walked out, taking his family to stay on a yacht in Sardinia, as described in Far Out Magazine. It was on this two-week break that Starr wrote "Octopus's Garden," before receiving a telegram from his mates expressing their appreciation for him and asking him to "come on home." And so he did, coming back to the studio with his drum set decked out in flowers by George Harrison.

His first wife had an affair with George Harrison

When it came to maintaining relationships through the craze of Beatlemania, things were complicated, to say the least. According to an interview with biographer Michael Seth Starr, while infidelity was rampant among the couples, possibly the most tangled twist was the affair between Ringo Starr's first wife Maureen Cox and fellow Beatle George Harrison, who was married to Pattie Boyd. As Boyd recalled decades later during an interview with Starts at 60, "I became aware [of the affair] when she would turn up at midnight and she'd still be there the next day. I'd have to be pretty stupid not to notice! Some girls ... It was towards the end of our marriage."

In the long run, though, the affair wasn't something that resulted in lifelong grudges, likely because Starr had his own streak of unfaithfulness as well. The drummer and guitarist eventually reconciled and stayed on good terms. As the mother of his children, Cox would stay intertwined with Starr and, in 1994, the Beatle was at her bedside (along with her second husband and children) when she died due to complications from leukemia. 

He attributes his unique drumming style to his left-handedness

Despite being one-fourth of one of the most famous and influential bands of all time, Ringo Starr is often not considered a technically proficient drummer. As written on Sweetwater, producer Sir George Martin, "the Fifth Beatle," had this to say about Starr's talent: "He's not a technical drummer. Men like Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa would run rings around him, but he is a good solid rock drummer with a steady beat, and he knows how to get the right sound out of his drums."

If anything, it is exactly Starr's straying from the standard that makes his one of the most recognizable drumming styles in the world. Known for his distinctive rhythm, the Liverpool native attributes his unique approach to the fact that he is left-handed. In an interview with Conan O'Brien, Starr describes how his grandmother tried to force the left-handedness out of him when he was younger. While he does now write with his right hand, he does most other activities with his left, including leading with his left when he drums while playing on a right-handed kit. This mismatch leads to his unconventional rhythm and is emphasized by his intuitive, out-of-the-box approach. Because he was always so immersed in the music and would just play what felt right, the Beatle would rarely be able to duplicate a drum track in the studio exactly. "It's an emotional style I have," Starr declares.

Ringo Starr was the first Beatle to smoke marijuana

In a meeting between legends, the Beatles and Bob Dylan enjoyed the effects of marijuana and some cheap wine, as well as each other's company. As reported on Leafly, it was August 1964 when Dylan first suggested that the group smoke a joint in their hotel suite as they waited for their order of wine. When the Fab Four admitted that they never smoked marijuana before, Dylan was reportedly confused, thinking the lyrics from the Beatles' "I Want To Hold Your Hand" were "I get high, I get high" rather than "I can't hide."

As far as who was the first Beatle to try their hand at cannabis, Ringo Starr confirmed in a 2012 interview on "Conan" that it was him who went first. Rather than passing the joint along, the drummer actually ended up smoking the whole thing. Reminiscing on the event, Starr exclaimed, "We got high and we laughed our a**es off."

Ringo Starr was the only Beatle to see Yoko Ono after John Lennon's assassination

Notoriously known for causing tension with her presence among the band members, Yoko Ono had long been the easy scapegoat for why the Beatles broke up. But according to biographer Michael Seth Starr, while Paul McCartney and George Harrison may have "really resented" John Lennon bringing her along to the studio, Ringo Starr never really had anything against Ono. In an interview with Parade, the drummer explained, "I remember, she was in bed in the studio when we got to work and it was weird. ... [But they] wanted to be in each other's company. And that was fine by me, once you knew what the situation was."

Starr's empathy for Ono also meant that he was the only Beatle to fly to her immediately after Lennon's assassination in 1980, as reported by TIME. Talking with Barbara Walters, he recalled "I was in the Bahamas and, as soon as we heard, we rented a plane as early as we could and flew up to New York. Not that you can do anything, but you have to go and say hello. ... There's nothing you can do, but say we're here." As decades passed, the two would establish a warm relationship based on mutual respect, with Ono calling Starr "the most influential Beatle" and describing him as someone who "embodies peace and love" when she attended the legendary drummer's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015, according to Rolling Stone.

His alcoholism left him with no memory of countless events

It was a few years after the Beatles broke up that Ringo Starr's alcoholism and drug abuse really took hold, according to VC Reporter. For over a decade, from the mid-1970s until the late 1980s, Starr spent much of his time under the influence. Blackouts were common, with the drummer being unable to remember countless events: "I've got photographs of me playing all over the world, but I've absolutely no memory of it. I played Washington with the Beach Boys — or so they tell me. But there's only a photo to prove it."

When he married Barbara Bach, the young actress also fell into that lifestyle. As told by the New Zealand Herald, Starr at one point was drinking 16 bottles of wine a day, and both he and Bach were snorting up coke on a daily basis. In their own words, the couple described the situation: "We used to go on long plane journeys, rent huge villas, stock up the bars, hide and get deranged."

In October 1988, the two made the decision to get help and checked into a rehab clinic in Arizona for five weeks. Talking to People, Bach said, "We went into rehab because we needed desperately a change. I got used to living at the bottom. But you get to a point where you realize, 'This isn't living.'" Those weeks resulted in long-lasting life changes, with Starr and Bach being sober ever since.

Looking good for 80

Now a living legend, Ringo Starr still shocks crowds when they see the great shape he is in at a whopping 80 years old. Radio 2's Zoe Ball expressed those sentiments to him during an interview in early 2021, particularly pointing out that he looked "mighty fine" at the 63rd Annual Grammys and asking him for the secret behind looking so good at his age. In a stark reversal of his earlier "rock and roll" lifestyle, Starr mentions working out at the gym and eating "lots of berries, lots of fruit, and lots of vegetables and salad."

The musician is also a staunch vegetarian, spending his free time on tour checking out local organic shops to "get out of the hotel," and has a good ol' meditation session every morning. And whatever else the "I'm the Greatest" singer is doing seems to work, because he's certainly looking his greatest.