Ringo Starr Emotionally Recalls Recording John Lennon Song for New Album 'What's My Name'

Ringo Starr
Scott Robert Ritchie

Ringo Starr

Paul McCartney plays bass on the track, while George Harrison makes a pseudo-cameo.

Ringo Starr is at the famed Sunset Marquis’ Morrison Hotel Gallery in West Hollywood meeting with 30 fans who have purchased limited-edition prints from his new photography book, Another Day in the Life.

Proceeds go to charity and, in exchange, the buyers get to meet Starr one-on-one to say hello and pose for a photo. Not surprisingly, given he has now been one of the most famous people on the planet for nearly 60 years, Starr has the grip-and-grin ritual down. A new person sidles up to Starr roughly every 30 seconds, and while the time may be short, the exchange doesn’t feel rushed as they share an anecdote, a treasured memory or just thank Starr for the music. In his trademark shades and black jacket, he genially greets each one and quickly connects -- whether it’s asking a little boy if he knows “Yellow Submarine” (the boy nods yes) or teaching a fan the right way to flash the peace sign as they pose.

The book’s release closely coincides with the Friday release of What’s My Name, Starr’s 20th studio album via UMe. The radiantly upbeat album, recorded at Roccabella West, Starr’s home studio in Los Angeles, features such friends and frequent Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band collaborators as Joe Walsh, Edgar Winter, Dave Stewart, Colin Hay, Richard Page, Steve Lukather and Benmont Tench, as well as his fellow remaining Beatle, Paul McCartney.

The emotional centerpiece of the album is “Grow Old With Me,” a tune John Lennon wrote for his and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy but didn’t record (Lennon’s demo of the song appeared posthumously on 1984’s Milk and Honey).

At 79, Starr radiates a youthful energy. Credit healthy living, but also, Starr enthuses, “I love what I'm doing. I love playing, I love music. I love hanging out with musicians and writers, and the end result is what you hear.”

Following the meet-and-greet, he sat down with Billboard to talk about What’s My Name and putting the band back together again -- sort of.

When you're writing or collecting songs for a record, are you thinking about how they might fit into the live show, even though your All-Starr tours are packed with your hits and the hits of the other musicians? 

No. I'm making a record. “Oh that will be great for a live show!” That's secondary. On [2017’s] Give More Love, I only kept [that song] into the act for like two weeks and then we just dropped it. We got a lot of stuff. From this record, in my mind already, we'll do “What's My Name?”

You have to!

So I do that on stage every night. I introduce the band and then I would say, "Well, so I don't feel left out, what’s my name?”and the audience would yell “Ringo!”

Is that what made Colin Hay write it? 

Yes, six years ago and he never told me. I only found out halfway through this album. Somebody said, “Have you heard that song Colin wrote called 'What’s my Name’” “No.” So I called Colin and it took him two days to find it. He came with it and I said, “Wow, we love this. Let's do it.” And that's how we did it.

You also brought in some new collaborators, like Sam Hollander, who co-wrote Panic! at the Disco’s “High Hopes” and Fitz and the Tantrums’ “HandClap.”

Sam Hollander is the best prize a boy could have. I didn't know him. He didn't know me. He told somebody he’d like to work with Ringo. That person told Bruce Grakal, my lawyer, who told me and I said, “I don’t know…All right, send him over. Let's have a chat.” We sat in my room in the house, and we’re chatting for about an hour. I say, “Let's see what we've got going. There’s a guitar over there” [He says] “I don't play guitar.” “No problem. We'll go to the studio. Plenty of pianos.” “I don't play piano.” I said, “OK. See you Friday, bring your guitarist.” And that’s when we got "Thank God for Music.” He had it started and I threw my [part] in. [Hollander also wrote “Better Days” on the album.]

He told me he sang you the first verse. You said “I think we need a second verse.” You wrote that together and within 10 minutes, you were laying down the drums. Does songwriting come that easily for you? 

No, it's not so easy to me. He did a lot more than he said then. He did bring a guitar player who played great piano. And so with the piano player and drums, we put the basic track down.

I read that you were not aware of the John Lennon track “Grow Old With Me.” How did it come to your attention?

I had no idea. I had never heard it, never heard about it. [Double Fantasy producer] Jack Douglas, I bumped into over the last couple of years. “Hey Jack.” And he said, “Well, did you get that tape?” I said, “What tape?” And he said, “The Bermuda Tapes where John went to Bermuda [in 1980].” And I said, “No, I don't know really what you're talking about. Get me a copy.” So it was on cassette, but I've got it on a CD. The modern way. And it was hard to listen to in the beginning because John talks about me, mentions me.

It was very emotional for me. I listened to all the songs, but he recorded all of them bar one. And that was this one, you know, “Grow Old With Me” -- I did the best I could. And then I brought a few people in. I called Paul and said, “Hey, we've got this song. It’s a John song, you know, I'm going to put it on the album. You coming in, you could play bass for me please?” He said, “Sure, I'm coming over.” And that's what it was. And what is really exciting, I’m on it, Paul’s on it, and Jack Douglas, unbeknownst to me, I go down to the studio where he's putting the string section on and I listen to this music. He uses a George [Harrison] riff that everybody knows. So we're all there now. And I thought, “Well done, Jack.” He was so great.

Is it poignant for you to listen to? 

It is, but what I want [is], I want every bride to force their new husband to sing it to them. [Laughs]

What did your bride think when she heard it?

Oh, she loved it and I've actually had men listening to it who cried. 

Your performance on it is so delicate. 

It moved me. I did my best and it's very me, but you know, he wrote those words and he'd written songs for me before, so I thought, “No, I'm gonna do it.”

The other Beatles nod on here is the Motown tune “Money (That’s What I Want),” which The Beatles covered in 1963.

We did. I had that thought before I had John’s song. You hear it with the vocalizer and I just wanted to do it different. I thought it turned out great. I was trying to be a bit more now. 

The Beatles recently came back on Billboard 200 with Abbey Road, which turns 50 this year. “I Want to Hold You Hand” was your first U.S. No. 1 single and Meet the Beatles was your first No. 1 album. What are your memories of hitting the top of the chart?  Did the charts matter to you? 

Oh yeah! And the playing of the record. Thank you, Murray the K and people like that in those days. And in England, because we only had the BBC, if we knew when a record of ours was going to be played, oh, at 11 minutes past 9, we'd pull over because we were always in the same car. We’d pull over and “It’s on the radio! Wow!” And then we’d drive to the gig. 

It was all exciting. Landing in America. Nothing more exciting because all the music we loved was from America. A No. 1! Just being on vinyl was the first thrill. No. 1 was the second thrill. Coming to America, doing this album. It was just like more, more, MORE. We're like, just kept going. It was so great. 

And now Abbey Road is No. 3

I think the record holds up. It's not like we’re getting away with anything. That is a really cool record and what Giles [Martin] has redone to it is great. So I have no problem with it being No. 3.

Your music and whole message are about positivity and lifting people up. What do you listen to when you’re down?

Leonard Cohen.

That's not going to lift you up!

No. But you're never gonna get that far down. [Laughs] God bless Leonard Cohen.