Blog from Steve Frank at the Jimmy Fallon Show featuring Ringo
I’m lucky to live in New York. For a Beatles fan like myself, there’s no better place in the world to catch a glimpse of the two surviving members of the greatest and most successful rock group of all time. Whether it is to promote a new album or on tour, the New York metropolitan area is almost always a must-stop (sometimes multiple stops) for Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.
In fact, it was last April that Paul and Ringo jointly appeared at a news conference and performed together on the same bill on an American stage for the first time since The Beatles stopped touring in 1966. That was at Radio City Music Hall for David Lynch's "Change Begins Within" benefit concert to support teaching Transcendental Meditation (TM) to students in "at-risk" schools. It was an incredibly moving and exciting experience!
Fast-forward nine months to 2010. Ringo has a new album out, called “Y Not,” his 16th studio album since The Beatles. And where does he launch the inevitable promotional tour? Yes Mr. Starkey, it’s back to New York. Always willing to try something new, Ringo opted for an appearance on the “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” a late-night talk show that airs Monday through Friday on NBC. Fallon took over the 12:35 a.m. time-slot after Conan O’Brien left to host “The Tonight Show,” replacing Jay Leno who moved to prime-time (as we all know, that didn’t work out too well, but that’s a story for elsewhere).
Not only did Fallon book Ringo as his sole guest for the evening (something rarely seen on late-night talk shows), he also agreed to host a media launch event for the new album in his studio earlier in the day. Both events were set for January 12, the day Ringo’s new album was to be released. Needless to say, I wanted to go to both events, but it wouldn’t be easy. When it comes to these kinds of promotional events (as opposed to paid concerts), luck plays a much bigger role on whether you get in.
Regular tickets (all free) for Fallon’s show were all booked a month in advance, so the only option was try for standby tickets, which are distributed by NBC on 49th Street at 9 a.m. on the day of the show. I got in line at about 7:20 a.m. behind a group of seven people, all in their twenties and mostly from the Baltimore area. They had arrived in New York at about 2 a.m. and had been up all night. They really wanted to see Ringo. By the time the standby tickets were released at 9 a.m., only two more people had gotten in line behind me. I was surprised there weren’t more people, but then again, it was quite cold (about 30 degrees). We were told to come back at 3:45 p.m.
Meantime, I had been working to get into the press launch, which I knew was somewhere at NBC at some point on the day of the “Fallon” show. I had offered to go as a representative of Joe Johnson’s Beatle Brunch. It took a few emails to confirm my entry, but no details were forthcoming yet. I wrote yet another email about 11 a.m. or so on the day of the show. Finally, at 11:45 a.m., I got all the details (with just an hour to spare, whew!).
Once at NBC, we received a few press releases (including the one that included the itinerary for Ringo’s summer tour, revealing that he’s planning to celebrate his - gulp! - 70th birthday on July 7 with a performance at New York’s Radio City Music Hall) and stood in line for a bit. After passing through metal detectors, we were whisked to the seventh floor and into the studios of the “Late Night” show. The press contingent was solid, about 50 or so, but not as big as I thought it would be. I quickly set up my video camera and tripod as the proceedings began almost immediately.
Fallon served as master of ceremonies, briefing journalists and bloggers about the studio’s history (including a stint as “The Tonight Show” starring Johnny Carson). Then excitedly introduced Ringo, saying "we've only been around 10 months and we already have a Beatle!" Ringo bounced onto the stage, looking fit, slender and youthful.
“Good afternoon everybody,” said Starr. The answer was a bit subdued. Ringo noticed and blamed the cold temperatures in the studio. Clearly, the media reps needed some warming up.
Ringo and Jimmy launched into a conversation about the excellent sound in the studio and stage set-up. As photographers snapped away, Jimmy briefed Ringo about how some audience members will be recruited to surround the stage, both behind and above the band. They let it slip that Ringo would perform four songs that evening, but refused to say which ones.
Then it was time to introduce Ben Harper and members of the Rentless7 as they all posed for more photographs, giving the classic Ringo peace sign. Ringo praised Harper, explaining that they had met at the David Lynch TM benefit in April. Ringo also gave a special mention for violinist and vocalist Ann Marie Calhoun, calling her “one of the few violinists who can swing - it’s not the Ozark Mountains that she’s from, but its close.”
Ringo and the band assembled to perform, but the music was delayed a few minutes to make sure everybody was plugged in. With Ringo out-front behind the microphone, they suddenly launched into a solid performance of the first verse and chorus of “Walk With You.” Harper did a fine job on the vocal-part that Paul McCartney created for the studio recording.
The band got a warm applause before launching into “The Other Side of Liverpool.” This time they performed the whole song, including Ann Marie’s fine answer vocals and Ringo playing a mini Sheila E.-type drum kit to his right towards the end. The applause was louder this time. Ringo seemed to have won over the crowd by this point. Next, he switched to his full drum kit for a rousing performance of The Beatles’ classic “I Wanna Be Your Man.”
Ringo and Ben then joined Jimmy for a Q&A and session. When asked if they wanted chairs, Ringo responded “What are we, 90?” Ringo fielded a variety of questions, many about “Y Not.” He explained how he started the album at home and ended up as “the” producer of a full studio album for the first time. Ringo it was produced entirely at his direction, except for one tabla part. In addition to such guests as Joe Walsh, Joss Stone and Harper, “Y Not” also features Paul McCartney on two songs.
"Working with Paul is always a pleasure for me,” he said. “You know I know him really well. I asked him to come play on 'Peace Dream' mainly because there's a verse about John Lennon, so I'd thought it would be nice if we were still there carrying the peace and love. I was playing him the other tracks and he heard what I've done already with 'Walk With You.' And he said, 'Give me the mic.'"
A journalist who asked Ringo about turning 70 years old this summer told Starr he looked more like 50. The drummer responded drolly, "Thank you, but I'm really 40.” Ringo said it doesn’t find it any harder to create and do the work compared to years ago, saying he is currently “in a groove.”
"I'm blessed,” he added. “I’m in a profession where as long as I can pick up the sticks, I can work. My big hero of course is B.B. King, now he is 900 years old and I want to go as long as he does. We're just lucky. We just keep going and doing it."
Asked about what material from the new album will be in the set list for his All-Starr Band summer tour, Starr said he plans to perform “Walk With You” and “The Other Side of Liverpool.” The tour is slated to also include performances by Edgar Winter, Gary Wright, Rick Derringer, Richard Page of Mr. Mister and Wally Palmer of the Romantics.
"No matter what, I'm gonna still do, 'With a Little Help From My Friends,' 'Yellow Submarine' and 'Photograph.' There's a lot of stuff I have to do,” he told reporters. “I'm not Bruce Springsteen. I will not go on for nine hours."
Starr also offered his thoughts about the sound quality on The Beatles’ remastered albums, particularly the mono versions.
"I didn't play the Mono box -- I came in with mono," he joked. "There's a lot of clarity in the new mixes and it didn't take away from the vibe of the record. It's really clear because of the technology they have now."
Ringo was also asked about “The Beatles Rock Band” music video game and got a big laugh when he bluntly confessed “my rock band skills are crap. But I love the graphics.” Starr says he knows two of his grandsons play the game as one of his sons recently telephoned him to say “somebody’s being Ringo today dad.”
One of the more obscure moments of the Q&A was when he was asked about the possibility of working with songwriter and producer Vini Poncia again. “Anytime Vini,” Ringo responded. Starr admitted the two haven’t spoken for years (they last worked together on the 1978 “Bad Boy” album), but didn’t get the chance to explain why.
Harper, who met Starr at the Transcendental Meditation show in New York last year, said, "It's been one of the greatest musical experiences of my life. I think what sums it up the best today at sound check was I don't know who had the bigger s***eating grin, Jimmy [Fallon] or myself."
“I had the biggest grin,” quipped Ringo.
Two hours later, I was back at NBC with my standby ticket and hoping my luck would continue. The standby ticket-holders got in line at about 4:15 p.m. All but 35 were dismissed. Then we moved upstairs where all but 15 were dismissed. I had ticket number eight, so I figured I had a 50-50 chance of getting in. Finally sometime after 5 p.m., we were told that nine standby ticket holders would get in. Wow, what a close call! I was very happy, but I felt bad for standby ticket holder #10, who is a big Beatles fan.
By the time we got in, the comedy warm-up act was already underway. After a few more jokes, the house band The Roots (an outstanding hip hop band from Philadelphia) was introduced, performing and dancing (and warming up the audience even more).
By 5:30 p.m., the show was underway. You probably watched it on TV or saw it on the Internet, so no need to rehash it here. The interview was certainly better than the usual late-night TV talk show fare. I do think one thing Ringo said that he probably had wanted to mention at the media event earlier in the day but forgot is that his 70th birthday wish is that everybody pause at noon (local time) on July 7 and say “peace and love” while flashing the peace sign (he also made a similar request for his 68th birthday in 2008).
I can tell you a few things that you wouldn’t know by watching the show on TV. The studio audience that was recruited to surround the stage during Ringo’s numbers were brought down from the entire last row and the second to last row (center only). Talk about an upgrade!
Of course, Ringo did end up performing four songs – all three from the afternoon media launch event, plus “With a Little Help From My Friends,” with Fallon enthusiastically helping on the “conversation” vocals. One of the twenty-something guys ahead of me in the standby line told me afterwards he got teary eyed during that performance. Overall, the crowd was totally into the show, including occasional screams by women in the audience.
The biggest glitch came when Ringo flubbed the lyrics of “The Other Side of Liverpool” during the regular taping. He had apparently switched half the lyrics of the first two verses, saying it had “made no sense.” Ringo insisted on doing it again after the taping was completed and everybody was happy to accommodate. Ringo thanked the audience for sticking around, joking “I know the buses are waiting for you outside.”
No bus was waiting for me outside, but I certainly felt very lucky. To have watched Ringo perform eight times and speak twice in one day was a dream come true. I kept telling my wife, “I saw a Beatle today, twice!!”
Unfortunately, the luck did not continue. I had gotten a ticket via online to the “Daily Show” the next day. If you go to their ticket calendar on the show’s website, you can refresh it to see what dates come open (I managed to secure a January 13 ticket after only a few attempts). I thought I was in with that ticket, but the show was overbooked so some 50 or more people with “tickets,” including myself, were turned away after spending an hour in the cold. Next time, I’ll know that a “ticket” to the “Daily Show” is in reality a standby ticket, even though they don’t use that terminology.
I also failed to get into Ringo’s “secret” gig on the day after that (January 14) for the PBS show "Live From The Artist's Den." Shucks, guess I can’t have everything. After all this, I did feel like normal again when I managed to nab 13th row pre-sale tickets to his June 26, 2010, All-Starr concert at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in upstate New York. Sure, this time I had to pay for these tickets. But it was nice not to have to rely so much on luck.
Now, Ringo is off to Los Angeles to continue his promotional tour for “Y Not.” But he’ll be back again in the New York area this summer and I’m already planning to see multiple All-Starr shows.