He was once in the most important rock band on the planet, yet Ringo Starr couldn’t help but be reminded of his humble beginnings while combing through his past. He was looking at items to offer up for “Ringo: Peace & Love,” the Grammy Museum’s new exhibition focusing on the life and career of the Beatles’ drummer.
“In all honesty, there’s not a lot of photos — we didn’t have cameras,” Starr, 72, said on Tuesday of his childhood circa Second World War in the seaport city of Liverpool, England.
During an interview in the museum’s offices, Starr said that even once fame and fortune hit, documenting the group’s legacy was far from the forefront of anyone’s minds.
“We didn’t think of that,” he said. “We just did our job: We were musicians, we made records, we played live, we went on holiday, and we’d click each other occasionally. But we were never in the studio like click-click-click-click.”
There is, however, no shortage of material from Starr’s days with the Beatles in “Ringo: Peace & Love,” which opened June 12. It’s the Grammy Museum’s third exhibit dedicated to an individual Beatle, following salutes to John Lennon and George Harrison.
The Ringo show is extensive, spanning from his hardscrabble days in Liverpool leading up to worldwide success, his 40-plus years as an ex-Beatle making solo records and his stints in films and television. His passions for painting and photography are also represented in the show.
“There’s a lot of Beatles, there’s some of Rory (Storm, leader of the Hurricanes band Starr was in before the Beatles poached him) and some at the other end of the All-Starrs,” he said. “But the main situation that people want to see is the Beatle days, and that’s just how it is. And musically, why not? I loved the music.”
Trim and fit from his many years on a vegetarian diet, Starr was dressed in a smart black ensemble accented by a miniature red plastic 45 rpm insert on one lapel, a tiny silver revolver with its barrel in a knot pinned on the other, reflecting his anti-handgun stance. From his left earlobe hung a small silver safety pin.
An invitation last year from Grammy Museum Executive Director Robert Santelli to do an exhibition dovetailed with a decision that he and his wife, actress Barbara Bach, had made to start archiving various bits of memorabilia stashed away across more than half a century.
Santelli introduced Starr on Tuesday as “the most important drummer in rock ‘n’ roll history,” also commenting on the uncounted numbers of drummers who took up the instrument after seeing Starr and the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964.
Asked whether he’d been approached previously by any institutions interested in surveying his career, Starr sounded a bit surprised, and said, “No,” but he noted that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland had previously exhibited some of his drum kits.
“My mother died in 1986,” he said, “and the biggest surprise for me was in some boxes I took from the house. She saved everything. There’s a letter in there from Rory. I had no idea. There was a letter from Brian (Epstein, the Beatles’ manager) telling us to ‘Dress sharp, lads — it’s a big gig!’ I never kept any of that.”
The exhibit contains a wealth of items to intrigue Beatles fans. There are stage and album-cover outfits from the Fab Four’s heyday — including Starr’s pink military-inspired satin suit from the cover of the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album, his cape from the “Help!” film and his red jacket from the 1969 rooftop concert featured in the “Let It Be” film.
Starr also lent a couple of his drum kits, including the signature Ludwig black pearl set with the Beatles logo on the bass drum head from “The Ed Sullivan Show” appearances, as well as the one he played while the group recorded “Abbey Road,” “The Beatles” (aka “The White Album”) and “Let It Be.”
Interactive exhibits involve stations where visitors can explore his new e-book “Photograph,” while wanna-be Starrs can sit behind a kit and get a virtual drum lesson from Starr, or step into a “Yellow Submarine” booth and sing that 1966 hit with him.
As with the Grammy Museum’s Harrison exhibition three years ago, there are three mixing stations where visitors can adjust the instrumental and vocal balances of one of his signature recordings, in this case, “With a Little Help From My Friends” from “Sgt. Pepper.”
The job of organizing and disseminating a lifetime’s worth of memorabilia from a Beatle could easily turn into a 24/7 commitment, but Starr said, “You don’t do that.....You live in the now, the best you can, but you’ve got that past with you. That’s how it was, but you’re still carrying on now.”
Starr’s “now” includes his All-Starr Band, the ever-revolving lineup of rock-star pals he tours with every few years. They’ve got a run of performances booked in South America in November, followed by a pair of shows in Las Vegas.
“It’s all about the music really — for me,” Starr said.
“Even the Beatles: It was about the music we made. The films were fine, but it was about the records, and they still hold up today. We didn’t make them thinking, ‘Oh, this will hold up!’ You just made the damn records. This is what we do, and we love doing it.”