Paul McCartney, his Hofner bass in hand, took center stage at New York's Radio City Music Hall Wednesday night – but for once, his pal Ringo was the Starr of the show.
Ringo Starr celebrated his 70th birthday with a rollicking concert that showed he's ready to keep rocking into his eighth decade – a testament to the timelessness of rock-and-roll, the enduring appeal of the Beatles and of the man who gave them their beat.
The show was seemingly over when McCartney strode, unannounced, onto the stage as Starr scrambled back behind his drums. The crowd erupted as McCartney tore into "Birthday," marking a rare joint performance by the two surviving Beatles, giving those of us with no memories of the Fab Four as a working group a brief, welcome glimmer of the magic.
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"Happy birthday, Ringo," McCartney said, hugging his beaming bandmate and giving him a smooch after the song.
It was a fitting tribute to Starr, the first-born Beatle and one of the first major figures of the British Invasion era to hit the 70 mark (Rolling Stone Bill Wyman beat him by nearly four years). Instead of retiring to a cottage on the Isle of Wight as part of some "When-I'm-64" fantasy, Starr is still playing the music that's his lifeblood – and the soundtrack to many other lives.
His clearly takes joy in performing, and the duty he's assumed is not only to keep alive the Beatles' music, but their message and spirit. Starr asked that folks pause at noon Wednesday to flash a peace sign and say, "Peace and love" – a nod not only to the group, but to the legacy of bandmate John Lennon, who would have turned 70 himself this October.
Starr has been touring with his All Starr bands every couple years or so since the late 1980s, performing Beatle and solo hits, as well as newer songs from some fine, but largely overlooked albums he's turned out over the last two decades.
But Starr is seemingly just as happy to step back behind the drum kit and let others shine. Instead of backing John, Paul and George, he's provided the backbeat over the years for the All Starr likes of Peter Frampton, Joe Walsh and Rod Argent, among many others. The latest All Starr incarnation includes Edgar Winter and Rick Derringer.
Starr's drumming sometimes – unfairly – gets a bad rap. He's always performed in service to the song, whether keeping steady time on early, primal hits like "I Want to Hold Your Hand," or pounding out trickier beats on innovative later work, like "Strawberry Fields Forever."
He was never Keith Moon, but sure sounded a lot like him backing All Starr John Entwistle some years ago on "My Wife." He was never Ginger Baker, but sounded a lot like him backing All Starr Jack Bruce a few tours back on "White Room."
On Wednesday, as Starr banged the drums and belted "Boys," it seemed as if he were transported back nearly 50 years, when he still lived in Liverpool, where he was born Richard Starkey and survived a hardscrabble youth and serious childhood illnesses to go on to play with the same enthusiasm in seedy clubs as on the world's most storied venues.
Before McCartney's surprise appearance, Starr was joined on the Radio City stage for the show's ostensible finale - "With a Little Help From My Friends" - by an impromptu chorus that included a giddy Yoko Ono, Jeff Lynne and E Street Band members Little Steven Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren. "I've got a lot of friends," Starr quipped.
But what came through Wednesday night is for all the help he may have received, Ringo Starr has given his many friends and million of fans more over the last 70 years – and counting.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.