Ringo Starr Talks 'Photograph' Book, Snapping Foo Fighters & Auctioning Beatles Memories

Rob Shanahan
Ringo Starr photographed in 2015.

When Ringo Starr earned a No. 1 single with “Photograph” in 1974, little did he realize he was also presciently coming up with the title for a book of photography he would release in 2015. He admits he cycled through several more “pretentious” titles before circling back to the most obvious. The only thing that Photograph doesn’t quite get at as a title is how the book also serves as “my autobiography,” as he plainly puts it, as the memoir aspect comes via extended photo captions.

Starr closed down West Hollywood’s Book Soup store Wednesday to talk with TV crews and other members of the media about Photograph, which is being released as a traditional hardback after an initial 2,500-copy deluxe edition quickly sold out two years ago. These photos, which Starr uncovered when he was collecting material for a Grammy Museum exhibit, will be a kick for fans who know that -- as photographically well-documented as the Beatles’ invasion of America was -- no one had quite as intimate a view of the calm amid the storm as Starr.

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Sitting down with Billboard, Starr preferred to bump elbows rather than shake hands, trying to avoid pesky germs before his next All Starr Band tour kicks off in San Francisco Oct. 1. The preternaturally youthful 75-year-old legend has a few other things worth discussing, too -- like an auction of some of his and wife Barbara Bach’s collectibles at Julien’s in Beverly Hills Dec. 3-5 -- and the Nov. 6 re-release of the Beatles1s collection with 50 value-added video clips. (If you’re hoping he might signal excitement about the Let It Be documentary ever coming out on DVD, though, you might want to just let that one be.)

We might have thought that you were the only amateur photographer in the Beatles, but you say in the book that all four of you fancied yourselves that way. Would you say that you were at least the best photographer in the group?

It’s interesting -- maybe not! If you look in the book, you’ll see John, George and Paul with cameras, and Neil Aspinall with a camera. And always a cigarette or a drink. That’s all we carried. They may all have got the same shots of me, because they all liked cameras, and I would be as relaxed as them. But I haven’t seen their photos, and they haven’t seen half of these. I was blessed that someone had put them away for me over all these years, and they were in a trunk. It started with finding stuff for the Grammy Museum, and we emptied out all the storage spaces I had. I was as shocked as anybody when we found a box with all these negatives and photographs in my stuff. I was absolutely mind-blown. I had no idea I had it. And several years back I thought I’d lost the Pepper suit and the Magical Mystery Tour outfit and stuff like that. But it was all in a trunk somewhere, and finally arrived at our home from some storage facilities I had. I wasn’t keeping track. The other great find [for the book] was the photographs of my mother’s. She had two small suitcases full of stuff that only a mother would collect.

It’s really sort of a two-part book. The first part is snapshots of you and your family growing up, and then you start being the one taking the pictures right as the Beatles become stars. Were you all just handed cameras in 1963 or ’64?

Well, I think we were handed better cameras the first time we went to Japan. [Laughs] That’s what started it.

It’s fun seeing some of the pre-Beatles pictures of you in the late ‘50s and very early ‘60s, when you had facial hair.

I know. Paul said, “He was sophisticated. He had a beard.” That’s all you needed. Plus, I knew a good whiskey when I saw it.

This is as close as you’ve come to a true memoir. Up to the point you join the Beatles, the text in the book is elaborate, with a lot of detail. Then at the point when you join the group, you say, “And you know the rest of the story.” So at that point it becomes less of a memoir because you’re not interested in filling in every detail that every fan knows.

Right, because a lot of it is out there. But yes, this is my autobiography. This is phase 2. The first phase is on record. I have mentioned that several times over the years when people have asked me to do your autobiography, and I don’t really want to do that. I want to do it this way. Pictures are great because they remind you of so much. If one of these pictures is, let’s say, September of 1964, if you were just to ask me “What did you do then?” No idea! But oh, there’s the shot, and all those memories kick in. So I loved doing this book. I have enough for another one, but don’t tell Nick (Roylance, from Genesis Publishing, laughing over his shoulder).

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Fans will have different favorites from among your photos. Mine is an adorable one of George Harrison goofily pressing his nose against the studio glass.

Yeah -- who else would he do that for? That’s why the book is great. I mean, I’m not saying that in a big-shot way. But there are photos of John in such a relaxed state that he would only do if it were “Oh, it’s him,” and not like “Oh, it’s the photographer,” where you straighten up a bit. I got a lot of shots that only I could get. Dave Grohl asked me to take photos of him and his band. He said, “Oh, you’ll just be like a fly on the wall.” I said, “No, Dave, I’ll be like a tarantula.” Because I don’t really know the band, and they know it’s me. But after a couple of hours of shooting -- and pretending you’re not shooting -- we got some good pictures. He put them out as promo pictures, for (the Foo Fighters’) tour last year.

You offer a Beatle’s eye view of motorcades from those early touring years. One of the sweetest shots is of a car full of incredulous kids pulling up next to yours.

You know what I love about that one? That we got off the plane with like 8,000 cops to protect us, and these kids just drive up right alongside us -- “Hey, there they are!” It was just luck. I always had the camera, so I was like, “Oh, look at these kids! Oh, there’s an arrogant policeman! Oh, there’s a tollbooth!” They were not really exciting things to anyone else -- everyday things -- but we were in America, so it was all exciting.

And maybe the most poignant shot is of you in the hospital where you spent a year recovering from TB as a kid. You describe in the text how you had your first experience with percussion in this hospital, of all places, and it was a formative thing.

One of the nurses must have taken that. That’s one of the things my mother would have saved; I wouldn’t have. But they had to keep us busy in the hospital, because we were in bed for months and months. So they brought in acoustic things and maracas and little drums and a tambourine -- and a big thing where you’d press a red dot and you’d hear a drum. At 13, I only wanted to play drums from that moment on. It was a striking moment that I remember so well. I couldn’t get out of bed, even, but I wanted to be a drummer, and that was my dream. It was underlying everything I did. After working in factories, then I got enough to get a drum, and then my stepfather got me my first kit. It was an old kit, so I wanted a new one, so I borrowed the money off my granddad, and I paid him back a pound a week. It was all I wanted. I didn’t want to do piano; didn’t want a guitar. Since then I play a bit of those, but I am a drummer.

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You’ve got a few shots from the movie years. You say you burned out on movies around 1989, right around the time you formed your first All Starr Band to take out on tour, and you’ve never looked back. But before then you had the strangest movie career ever, between Sextette, Candy, Son of Dracula, The Magic Christian and Blindman.

I know. How far out! I mean, in those days, it was like, “Sure, I want to be in a movie!” I was so open. I produced Son of Dracula with Harry Nilsson, where it was my idea to have this tall blond Dracula who gets the girl and wanders off into the sunrise. We had a lot of music in that that people don’t ever mention, like (John) Bonham on drums in the club scene and (Peter) Frampton and a lot of people. We had a good time making it, but…

Almost no one ever got to see it. I remember waiting for Son of Dracula [in which Starr played Merlin] to come to my town, and it never did. So it’s funny to see you write in the book that the film ultimately only played in towns with…

…one cinema, because if anything else was on, people would go to that instead. It premiered in Atlanta, with 12,000 people, and was the first one since Gone with the Wind to have a premiere like that there. After that, it was like, any village will do!

The big auction is coming up in December. What was the hardest thing for you and Barbara to give away?

A lot of it was easy to give away, like furniture. How many dinner services do you need? There are a lot of paintings, because we moved from a very large house in Monte Carlo we closed down and live in L.A. now. We just had it renovated with a lot of big glass sliding doors, so we have nowhere to hang anything. Getting all this out of storage was a great lesson, and I don’t want to put it all back. And then I wanted to make it really exciting. I had those three guitars -- Marc Bolan gave me a guitar, John gave me a guitar, and George, Olivia, and Dhani gave me a guitar after that. But they were always in their cases, always hidden away, always put safe. I just thought, someone is really going to get off on this. It was a huge emotional move, but I said, no, let’s put them in. This will be an auction to be remembered. And then I had the White Album, on vinyl, which had been in the safe since I got it, plus the CD. The vinyl is [stamped] No. 1 and the CD is No. 4. I’m tired of stuff being in the safe. Let’s put it out there and see what we get. And a lot of it’s going to charity, anyway, so it’ll do some good. So it’s like a four-way split, between Julian’s, Barbara and I, the government -- because they’ll want a piece! -- and the charity, the Lotus Foundation.

One of the most intriguing items you’re auctioning is a three-piece Ludwig Oyster Black Pearl kit that you’re said to have used on most of those 1963 and early ’64 recording sessions and shows. It brought up the trivia that Paul used that same kit when he recorded his first solo album in 1970. Was he thinking, “Yes, I must have the kit Ringo used on ‘All My Loving’” for some reason?

Why he wanted it was because he was going to Scotland and he wanted to make a record (McCartney), and he said, “Give me a kit.” So I gave him a drum kit. No, I lent him a drum kit. And 10 years ago, he said, “Oh, I’ve got that kit of yours, I’ll give you it back.” I said, okay. That’s how it happened. It wasn’t like we planned, “Oh, I’ll give you this one…” I think it’s interesting for all the Beatle crazies that it’s been on a lot of records, that kit. That’s why I did it. I mean, I’ve still got the (Ed) Sullivan kit, and the Shea (Stadium) kit, and enough other kits that I thought, “I’m going to put this one in.” Plus there are like six other kits, from the All Starrs. So if you’re a drummer out there, there’s going to be a lot of drums coming at you.

As far as archival Beatles releases go, some people thought a DVD release of Let It Be might finally be coming out, since that’s always the eternal question mark. But probably no one was disappointed to find out that it was going to be a collection of live and studio videos covering the group’s entire career. So, a two-fold question: Do you think Let It Be should ever come out? And then, do you have a favorite of the clips that will be in the set that is coming out?

Let It Be, I thought, was a bit one-sided. Or two-sided. You know, it was all about the battle. (Director) Michael Lindsay-Hogg honed in on that. But I think the little videos we made should come out, because they’re so great. Some days I like this one; some days I like that one. I can’t say, “Oh, that’s the one” -- I can’t do that for you. But if you look at it through the span of what we did, some of them are on stage, so that’s easy enough. We did the David Frost Show (doing “Hey Jude” and “Revolution”), and that’s really one of my favorites.