Ringo Starr paused.
The legendary drummer for the Beatles had just been asked what was the best compliment he had ever received.
"'Thanks for being useful,' " he eventually said.
Starr -- who turned 72 on July 7 -- has been far more than useful during his career, which began in 1957 when he and friend Eddie Miles formed the Eddie Clayton Skiffle Group.
That band eventually became known as Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. While the band was in Hamburg, Germany, Starr met John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and the rest of the Beatles. He replaced Pete Best as the band's drummer in August 1962, and during the next eight years he was an integral part of the foursome that changed the course of music history.
In a recent telephone interview, Starr admitted that -- like the rest of the world -- he finds himself listening to the Beatles from time to time.
"I was listening to the guys," he said, "and they sound like young boys."
Starr, whose baritone has gotten even deeper over the years, is performing and touring with the latest incarnation of his All Starr Band.
The tour includes selections from his time in the Beatles, among them "Boys," "I Wanna Be Your Man," "Yellow Submarine," "With a Little Help From My Friends," "Don't Pass Me By" and "Good Night."
He also takes a turn on the drums with his perfect, yet often-unacknowledged, sense of tempo and feel. A kind of sixth sense allowed him to keep time with his innovative matched-grip style, whether drumming to "All You Need Is Love" in 7/4 time, or "Here Comes the Sun" with repeating 11/8, 4/4 and 7/8 passages.
Before Starr, drummers were an afterthought. Starr elevated their status, figuratively and literally -- he was among the first to use drum risers.
Because of his willingness to share the spotlight, he is able to recruit the best sidemen in the business. Alumni of his All Starr Band include Nils Lofgren, Joe Walsh, Dr. John, Billy Preston, Levon Helm, Timothy B. Schmit, John Entwistle, Randy Bachman, Peter Frampton, Jack Bruce, Roger Hodgson, Howard Jones, Sheila E. and Edgar Winter.
"Usually," he said, "artists get in touch" about being in his band.
This year, newcomers include Steve Lukather (Toto) and Gregg Rolie (Santana and Journey). They join Richard Page, Todd Rundgren, Mark Rivera and Gregg Bissonette. With that lineup, fans might hear Santana's "Black Magic Woman," Rundgren's "Bang the Drum All Day," Toto's "Africa" and Mr. Mister's "Broken Wings."
"I don't want to stand there and be the front guy (all the time)," Starr said.
Well, no one's perfect. Not even a Beatle.
But useful? Yes, Starr is always that.
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