Longtime Ringo Starr Engineer Talks New Album, Working With Paul McCartney on His Day Off
Bruce Sugar says when you're in the studio with Ringo, it's all about "acting naturally"
Bruce Sugar, Ringo Starr's longtime recording engineer, is very enthusiastic about the Beatle's forthcoming album, Give More Love, which will be released Sept. 15. “We're real happy with it. Everyone who's heard it can't wait till it's put out there in the universe.”
The album has 10 main tracks and four additional bonus tracks that are new versions of old Ringo songs, including a version of “Back Off Boogaloo” that was assembled from an old recently rediscovered tape. And as always, the album has an assortment of distinguished names playing on various tracks, including fellow Beatle Paul McCartney, Ringo's brother-in-law Joe Walsh, Edgar Winter, Peter Frampton, Nathan East, Don Was, Jeff Lynne, Timothy B. Schmit, and current Ringo All-Starrs Steve Lukather, Richard Page, Gregg Bissonette, among others, along with Sugar himself. He says the plans for the new album started coming together just after his last one, Postcards From Paradise, was released.
“It wasn't long after Postcards came out,” he said. “Ringo likes to plan his life years in advance. I think he went on tour after that and then when he got back we started looking at some different ideas.”
He said recording sessions with Ringo can be accurately described as “acting naturally.” “It's very casual, especially when it starts out. I just go over to his home studio. And we just play around with some different synth ideas and bring in a few friends of his initially and see if he can get the ball rolling, kind of get a feel for what he wants to do.”
Paul McCartney plays on two songs on the album – the opener “We're On the Road Again” and also “Show Me the Way.” Sugar says McCartney came in in the middle of sessions for his own album, for which a release date has yet to be announced.
“They talk when they're both in L.A. Ringo just asked him, 'Look, I'm doing an album. Could you play on it?' And Paul was so nice. He came by on his day off on a Sunday. And he worked hard, too. Those weren't easy songs he played on.” He said McCartney's vocal on “We're On the Road Again,” which has been released ahead of the album, is “vintage McCartney.” “But the bass on the ballad 'Show Me the Way' … that's a difficult ballad. So he had to work on that a bit. We definitely put him through his paces. But the guy's the greatest. (He's) humble. He came in to help his friend on a Sunday when he had his day off. What else can you say?”
Sugar says the songs that McCartney played on were challenging. “I think (Paul) was initially a little taken back by what Lukather wrote. It's a little more sophisticated than some of the stuff Ringo's done in the past. I think Paul was looking at and listening to it. He doesn't read charts. He has his own notation.” Sugar says he's discussed this with Starr. “I've brought that up to Ringo. 'I can't believe Paul doesn't read charts.' He goes, 'We're all buskers.' They just played, just played by ear.”
The CD contains four bonus tracks – “Back Off Boogaloo,” “You Can't Fight Lightning,” “Photograph” and “Don't Pass Me By” – that are new remakes of previous Ringo songs. “Those are new recordings. We had a couple of bands playing at his birthday bash at Capitol last year playing Ringo songs. Two of the bands were Vandaveer and Alberta Cross. Ringo thought it would be cool to have different versions of some of the songs (they played) as bonuses. So they provided us with a track and we did some vocals on them and I remixed the tracks.” Vandaveer is on “Don't Pass Me By” and “Photograph,” while Alberta Cross is on “You Can't Fight Lightning.”
“Back Off Boogaloo” is different. It came from a tape with one of the first recordings of the song that Ringo found recently while preparing for the massive auction of his items that took place in 2015. The story of how it came together recalls how the Beatles' “Strawberry Fields Forever” was made.
“He had shipped all his stuff over here from England during the auction. They consolidated everything he had. He had storage areas all over the place. I don't know if it was him or his assistant were going through some of the stuff and they found this quarter-inch reel-to-reel tape and they put it on. It was Ringo, just him on guitar singing and playing 'Back Off Boogaloo'. There was just a cool vibe.
“Ringo's idea initially was to get Jeff Lynne to take that tape – it was like a minute long -- and turn that into something. Jeff took it and sent us something back, then I told Ringo let me work with it. I had to manipulate the tempos and do all the Pro Tools editing you do these days and kind of married it to what Jeff did. Then Ringo played drums on it and we got Nathan East to put a bass on it. The front piece is from that original quarter-inch tape. There's a little bit in the middle from the quarter inch tape that I put in there. The rest of it is all new with Ringo singing. With the background vocals, Ringo said to get some of the vocals from the original record he did with George and put that in it, too, so it would kind of be three different generations of Ringo on the record.
"So we've got Ringo from when he first wrote it, then part of his distorted original vocal, then the new vocal that we did here. It's an interesting conglomerate. Plus Joe (Walsh) played slide guitar on it, another cool thing. It's an interesting example of what you can with digital editing these days.”
Other Ringo classics got a new look, including “Don't Pass Me By” from The Beatles (The White Album). “They all sound pretty cool. 'Don't Pass Me By' is kind of a different approach than anyone else has done on that, that kind of laid back slide guitar deal. It's kind of a cool, cool vibe on that.”
At one time, there was talk of making a country album. Only “So Wrong For So Long,” which made the album, survives. “It's a good country song. It's a little more traditional than what they're doing now on the radio, but it'd be interesting to see if they'd play Ringo on country radio,” Sugar says. “They should. It'd be great if they did.”
Nashville or not, Sugar is quite excited about Give More Love as it stands. “I think it's the best music I've done with Ringo. I think it's the best musical album we've done,” Sugar says enthusiastically. “We'll see what happens.”