On The Road With Ringo

Conducted by Ken Sharp in 2001

Eric Carmen was a member of the '70s band the Raspberries, whose very strong Beatles influence was particularly evident in the hits "Go All the Way" and "I Wanna Be With You". More recently, Carmen toured with Ringo Starr as a member of the 2000 All Starr Band. Contributing editor Ken Sharp talked recently with Carmen about his Beatles connections…

Ringo wasn't the first Beatle you met. What are your recollections of hanging with Lennon?

Well, we didn't exactly hang with him, although we would have loved to. But we became aware that John was around when he was producing Pussycats for Harry Nilsson, and I think we (the Raspberries) were doing the Starting Over album in 1974 at Record Plant in New York. And he was in Studio A and we were in Studio B, and the first time I actually saw a Beatle they had a tiny cubicle of a bathroom which was right off the front door as you walked into the recording studio, it was very tiny and You kind of had to squeeze in and squeeze out, and as I was opening the door to leave the bathroom I heard a thump and as I opened the door further, I saw John sifting on the floor! (laughs) And I immediately wanted to kill myself, because this was definitely not the way I envisioned meeting a Beatle for the first time, knocking him down with a bathroom door.

What happened from there?

No problem, he was very very cool. I thought he was the most charismatic person I'd ever seen. Period. Bar none. I've met a lot of rock 'n' roll people over the years, some that I had idolized…and some were cool and some weren't, but they all seemed pretty much human. John was really just overpowering in person. He was shorter than I thought. Having read all these Beatle biographies when I was growing up I thought that pretty much George and Paul and John were all about six feet tall, or five eleven, and John didn't appear to be anywhere near that big. I would have guessed more like five-nine or ten. And so I was kind of surprised at that.

And yet his aura was just overpowering. His presence. We would see him going by in the hall as we went in the studio or we came out of the studio and we'd just kind of say hello and he'd say hello. And then one day we were in the studio doing something and I think he recruited Michael McBride and I and he had a room full of little kids and he was doing handclaps on "Loop de Loo" and he needed someone to help lead the kids in the studio, so he got Michael and I and asked if we'd come help him. And we said, but of course!

I actually can remember the picture in my head of standing in that studio next to 25 little kids, trying to get them all to clap on the beat, and John and Harry were in the control room and afterwards he thanked us and we went on our way.

Do you remember him peeking his head in and hearing the 'Berries' stuff while you were recording?

You know, I actually vaguely recall one time maybe seeing the door open and I glanced back and it looked like it was John's head and it quickly ducked out.

According to Jimmy lenner, he had something to do with "Overnight Sensation" in terms of when it was mixed.

I wasn't there. Jimmy maintains that John came by and loved the record and said let me help you with the mix or something. Next thing I heard about it was (I went) to, a luncheon in New York where they were honoring Rick Sklar, I guess it was WABC Radio, and he was like the one completely uncorruptable program director in the country, and…John was, there in his pilgrim period attire, with May Pang, and he sat on the dais, and afterwards, I'd had all these things in my head about what I would say to him when I finally would actually meet him, and…I stuck out my hand and before I could say a word, John said, "Love your record. Ringo and I are gonna do promotion." And I was rendered kind of speechless, and I said, "I like your records, too."

The kind of stuff I was gonna say was if not for you, there would be no me. But before I could say anything, he just kind of knocked me out. That was a pretty wonderful moment in my life. The teacher recognizes the student.

At some point I got a call and David said, "Ringo decided you're the guy. He liked your stuff." And that was that.

I'm surprised you never ran into McCartney or Harrison over the years.

You know, I met Paul once ever so briefly. I wouldn't even say that it was like a meeting. There was a guy from Arista named Dennis Fine who was head of publicity when I was there and I guess somehow or other he was doing PR for Paul's first tour, the Wings tour. And he knew I was a big Beatle fan and when they came to Cleveland to play the Richfield Coliseum, Dennis invited me and said I'll introduce you to Paul. And as it turns out backstage after the show there were a trillion people all trying to see Paul and Paul had very very tight security. And I've always been really bad at that, meeting someone backstage, I'm so used to being on the other end of it that I really feel like a groupie (laughs) and when someone wants to introduce me to someone who's just played a concert I always feel really sort of out of place.

Paul kind of did his interviews and then in this split second as his limo was about to leave and they were stuffing Paul and Linda into the car, Dennis says "this is Eric Carmen" and Paul says "Hello," and kind of stuck his hand out as he was jumping in the car, and that was that. I really don't think he had any idea who I was. And actually at the time I was a little bummed, because "All By Myself" was a really big hit right then.

Let's talk about how you got involved with playing with Ringo.

David Spero, who was my manager, had worked with Ringo a couple of times over the years when he managed Joe Walsh, and also The Beatles had stayed at his house in 1966 when they came to Cleveland the first time, his father, Herman Spero, was a producer of a show called "The Upbeat Show", which was kind of the Cleveland version of "American Bandstand" except that it was actually a lot more progressive, all these British Invasion acts came and played "Upbeat" and from time to time some of them would end up staying at David's house. And I met David years ago and he had all these incredible Beatle stories to tell me…and we had just begun working together and he heard that Ringo was going to do another All Starr tour and he came to me and said, "Would you ever be interested in doing something like that?" And I thought about if for about 10 seconds and said, "Yeah, who else would be in the band?" And he said, "It could be Jack Bruce, could be Dave Edmunds…"

Beatlefan reported that you were considered for one of the prior versions.

I never knew that. So, David said, "Do I have your permission to throw your name in the hat?" and I said sure. I knew that there were five or six keyboardists that were being considered, I heard Billy Preston was in the mix. And at some point I got a call and David said, "Ringo decided you're the guy. He liked your stuff." And that was that. Off I went to Atlantic City.

What songs did you send him?

I think initially I sent "Go All the Way", "Tonight" and "All By Myself "'cause he only wanted three. We suggested maybe we should send some more and he told David, "No, I only want three. Don't send me any more than three."

"Tonight" was supposed to be done, did you guys ever even try it?

It wasn't that it was supposed to be done, I was really just trying to give Ringo an idea of what I did. The impression that I got was that basically he wasn't paying a whole heck of a lot of attention to what was going on on the radio in the early '70s and so was really pretty much ignorant to the existence of the Raspberries, hadn't really heard of them at all. What he knew about me was "All By Myself", and I just wanted to give him the impression that we could rock, too. So I threw "Tonight" on there and I thought if it turns out that would be a good one for the band, that would be great fun.

So you guys never rehearsed it?

Well, we rehearsed it for about 10 minutes.

With Ringo playing?

You know, I don't recall if he was playing or not. But I know that before that, the first day that I met him, he kind of mentioned to me in passing that he had listened to my tracks and he'd have to really brush up on his drumming to be able to play them, and maybe Simon (Kirke) would do those. The uptempo stuff. 'Cause it had lots and lots of fills.

He said, "Call me Ringo." And as the tour went on on, about halfway through the tour, it became Richard. I called him Richard.

The first time you met him was at the press conference in New York.

Right. It was kind of wild. I'm sitting backstage and it was the first time that I'd met everybody. So I'm the new guy and I'm sitting there and here's Jack Bruce, and then Simon wanders in and Dave Edmunds. And we're all sifting there on folding chairs back behind the stage and all of sudden here comes Richard. Boom! There he is, it's Ringo.

Does he ask you to call him Ringo or Richie?

Well, I actually asked him a few days later. And he said, "Call me Ringo." And as the tour went on on, about halfway through the tour, it became Richard. I called him Richard.

So anyway, we're finally introduced and there's this whole gaggle of people and I looked at him and all I could say was, "You're Ringo Starr. " [Laughs] And he said, "Yes, I am. You're Eric Carmen."

So how much preparation before going to Atlantic City did you have to do, and how were you presented material to learn?

All that happened is Ringo made a list of the things that he thought he was going to play and Dave Edmunds submitted a couple of songs that he was going to play and I think the CDs all came to David Spero and David burned a master CD with everybody's songs on them and a copy was sent to everyone.

You had played some of this material in bands before. Raspberries used to do "All Right Now", for instance.

Oh sure. Some of it was very familiar and then other things, like "White Room", I had never played. To sit down and listen to this CD that I got was pretty amazing really, 'cause here's this cross-section of incredibly immortal songs from the '60s and '70s and I'm sifting here learning this stuff and charting them out, figuring the chords out and where the verses and chorus happen, and I was thinking, "Damn, this is like history here that I'm playing." "Sunshine of Your Love" and "I Hear You Knockin'," he later updated his thing and decided to do "I Knew the Bride" instead of "Girls Talk". So I was sifting and learning all the guitar parts for things that had guitars on them, and I assumed that things that I could find a piano on, I would be playing piano on, but a lot of them there weren't any pianos. The Cream stuff didn't really have much in the way of keyboards, so I learned them on the guitar.

How did it come about that you started playing bass, too?

[Laughs] That was actually…Dave, we were working on "I Knew the Bride" and Dave is actually quite a good boogie-woogie piano player. And Jack, too. They've got this roaming left-hand doo-da-doo-da-doo, which is something that I've never done. I was always more the sort of McCartney ballad piano guy and just a little rock 'n' roll stuff. But I was never a boogie-woogie piano player. And that's really Dave's background. So he had wanted me to play this one left-hand part and I said, "You know, I don't know that my left hand will do it. I can work on it, but it's not something I know how to do." And we discussed it and Jack came over at one point and sat down at the piano and he was doing it and I said, "Well, why don't you play piano?" And Jack said, "Well, OK." And Dave said OK, and I said I'll play bass. So we moved Jack over to piano, and he had a ball doing that, and I had a ball playing bass.

In the early days of the Raspberries, you were the bass player. "Go All the Way" you played very McCartney-like bass. Was he your main inspiration as a bass player?

I'm sure that was the case. I mean, we played a lot of Beatles songs and Paul was always, l always sort of felt like he was a kindred spirit, you know, the bass player-keyboardist-melodic guy. And I think I kind of understood what he did and I understood his approach to playing bass and I liked what he did, so he was probably my model.

Did the Raspberries ever consider recording a Beatles song?

I don't think we ever really considered it because it just really would have been…well, first of all, my inclination about doing covers of any kind is if you can't bring something new to it, don't do it. When Jimmy suggested on my first solo album that I did "On Broadway", we didn't do like a carbon copy of the original version. We tried to give it our own flavor. For the Raspberries to do a Beatles song, I don't know how we would have done it because we would have wanted to have made it sound just like them.

One of your reigning moments was playing Carnegie Hall. Share what number you opened with as nod to them.

One of the things that happened early on in the Raspberries is that there were some rock critics who really got it and some people who really got it and then there were some who just dismissed us as being a Beatles imitator kind of band. So we had heard lots from both camps. And we were coming up on our Carnegie Hall concert where we were debuting in New York and this was obviously a very big moment. All of 23 years old to be stepping on the same stage The Beatles played in New York and where Rachmaninoff played and various other luminaries was pretty heady stuff. And all I was ever trying to do was think of ways to shock the audience. And it occurred to me that because of all the Beatles comparisons that probably the last thing that anyone would ever expect us to do would be to open with a Beatles song. So I thought what would be a pretty cool idea just to get the shock value happening would be to walk out onstage and open with the first few bars of "Ticket to Ride" and just see what happened. So I incorporated it into the intro of "I Wanna Be With You". And just as the audience was gasping for air because they couldn't believe that after all this Beatles imitator stuff that we were going to play a Beatles song, we launched directly into "I Wanna Be With You". It was very cool, and I think we just owned the place from that minute. I think that the people who were there really got it. I think it was the best show the Raspberries ever played.

What were your feelings the first day of rehearsals with the All Starrs? Were you nervous?

Sure. This was brand new stuff for me and the keyboard tech and I hadn't really had an opportunity to sit down together and spend the hours going through this new keyboard that it was going to take to arrive at all the sounds that I wanted to use. Plus it was a stage full of musicians I'd never worked with. They'd all worked with each other at some point, so I was certainly a bit nervous. But I knew the songs, most of them. As well as everyone else did! I think the first couple of things we actually did, Ringo just sang. So Simon was playing drums. But just standing right in front of me, there's Ringo Starr singing! How cool is that?

"There's a fucking chord for every word!"

What was the first one of yours that was rehearsed?

I really don't remember. I think probably we did "All By Myself". I think mostly because everyone seemed to know that one the best. "Go All the Way" was kind of a mysterious song for the band. I think everybody listened to the tape to an extent but I don't think anyone really sat down and started taking songs apart and working them out independently, so I think everyone was familiar with "Go All the Way" but they hadn't actually played it yet. And unlike, say, "I Hear You Knockin"' or "I Knew the Bride", which are pretty much Chuck Berry-type groove songs, and once you get the groove, you're there. There's not a whole lot of chords, you just have to know how the song goes and create the groove. "Go All the Way" on the other hand, as Jack once said, or Dave and Jack together said, "there's a fucking chord for every word!" [laughs].

That was a tough one for the band to do?

Yeah. My songs were definitely the toughest because, if you really think about "Sunshine of Your Love", it's a very cool song, but it's the riff. "All Right Now", it's a lick basically. "Boys". "Love Me Do". These are not songs with lots of chords and lots of changes, and they were certainly a lot easier to latch onto. "Go All the Way" is a ton of chord changes, all the time, never-ending. Starts at the beginning and continues to the end.

Ringo's rehearsal approach is basically just to play the song. And when it became apparent that we didn't really know the song, I had to kind of jump in and say "Let's just work on the verse, Dave and Jack and I, let's just get the verse happening and then we'll add the chorus," it's the only way I know how to rehearse basically. Because my songs were complicated to the point it's the only way you can learn them. You can't jam your way through them, it just doesn't work. Once we did that, it kind of all fell together, but I think probably it took about half the tour before everybody really kind of got it, playing and singing at the same time.

You told a great story about Simon, how midway into the tour you gave him a little advice that really helped.

It was probably about two-thirds into the tour and Jack and Dave had kind of gotten it, and certainly Mark Rivera, but the drumming was just sort of keeping time. So I just asked Simon one day backstage, "If there were one word that I could use to describe how I would really like your drumming to sound on 'Go All the Way', the word would be aggressive." And Simon kind of looked at me as if with a question, "Aggressive?" And I said "Yes, aggressive. The more aggressive, the better." And he said, "Really?"

And then he went out and just banged away on it and it got better and better and better.

Why didn't Ringo play on it?

Umm, you know I'm not sure exactly. I think maybe that with all the fills and stuff he just kind of felt like maybe it would be better as a song that the rest of the band played, he was going to be on his break then and he knew where in the set he wanted the song to come, and it was kind of the welcome-back portion after the solo spots and so I don't know whether he just wanted an extra three minutes for his juice break…

Were you bummed a bit?

I think I was initially. I was kind of hoping to be playing "Go All the Way" and have Ringo back there playing, but you know, Simon did a wonderful job. And really, it's Ringo's call.

At rehearsals, how much is Ringo in control of what's going on, does everyone have a say or is Ringo still the leader?

It's definitely his band. But the rehearsals were relatively…the way I learned to learn something, in classical training at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and the way you approached a piece of music was you learned the first bar, and you learned it perfectly. Just the first bar. Because in classical music, there's all kinds of very complicated things going on, your fingering has to be just right, every nuance has to be right. My piano instructor once said its much easier to learn something right the first time than to unlearn it and learn it right the second time…And when I joined rock 'n' roll bands, I brought that approach to my songs. Because they weren't just little jamming things.

My approach to rehearsing was to learn one bar and then another bar and then put the two together and eventually you've got the verse. And then once you've played the verse perfectly three or four or five times, then you learn the chorus one bar at a time. And then you put the pieces together and eventually the song comes together, but everybody really knows what they're doing. That certainly wasn't the approach that Ringo had ever used while rehearsing obviously [laughs]. I think he just pretty much figured that you've got a great bunch of musicians and everybody's heard the songs and you just start to play it and everybody brings their own little thing to it, and that's that. So I think with a lot of stuff, that tended to work itself out. And then there were certain songs that needed more of the original guy's touch. Those were the ones that we ended up working on a little bit harder. I know "White Room" was like that. And "Go All the Way" was like that. "All By Myself" was like that.

At one point Ringo could see that I was stressed, and he said something like, "I sense a bit of the perfectionist in you."\

Were any of Ringo's tough to pull off?

I don't think so. They're pretty straightforward. And the other thing is because they're Ringo songs, I think everyone just knows them better. You just totally know them.

What would you say was the best show on the tour?

I would say the House of Blues in Chicago was a great night, and the second night at the House of Blues in Los Angeles was a great night. I think maybe the second night in Los Angeles all of us would have agreed boy, that was a really good show.

At the press conference, Ringo said he was thinking of doing "Don't Pass Me By". Was that tried?

I don't think so. By the time we began rehearsing, Ringo pretty much had the set list in front of him and had decided where each song was even going to go, and there were very few changes made in terms of the order of the songs or whatever from Day One.

Would you have liked to have done any other songs?

Sure. I was a little bit in the dark initially about how this was all going to work and at one point Ringo I think could see that I was stressed. Simon and I were going to accompany him to a show while we were in Atlantic City that he was supposed to go to, and I arrived at his room first and he said something like, "I sense a bit of the perfectionist in you." [Laughs]. "Not unlike Mark Hudson." And I said, "Well, yeah, I was one of those guys sitting on the floor in 1964 watching you guys on The Ed Sullivan Show the first time, so I have great reverence for all this music and I've played it all my life and I've studied it and I know what all the parts are, and I just want to do it right." And he said, "Well, the thing you've got to understand is no matter what we do, it's not going to be The Beatles. The All Starrs, we just kind of do our thing. We'll play a Beatles song but we don't try to make it sound just like the record."

I was stunned, as they say. I couldn't imagine on "Yellow Submarine" if you could have a great big acoustic guitar why you wouldn't. But the All Starr Band approach, as Ringo said, is "No matter what we do with Jack's stuff, it's not gonna be Cream. And no matter what we do with your stuff, it's not gonna be the Raspberries. And my stuff is not gonna be The Beatles. So we just kind of have fun with it." And that was really his approach. Just have fun. Don't take it quite so seriously, just get out there and have fun with it. And once I understood that that was the plan, it all kind of fell into place. I just really didn't know going in that that was the plan.

How does the whole thing work, is David Fishof calling all the shots or does Ringo exercise any authority?

I'm not sure. I think Ringo makes most of the real decisions about what's right for him. He has a kind of attorney/manager-type guy named Bruce Grakal who's a very nice guy and a cool guy and helps him out a lot. And I think he relies on David Fishof to make certain kinds of decisions…I think once the Ringo stuff is agreed upon and the dates are set, then I think Ringo's machine kind of takes over and they know what to do with it.

You said the English (All Starrs) got a bit more sick on this tour than the Americans.

Well, they don't seem to know much or care much for air conditioning. Ringo and Simon and, to some extent Dave, and to a lesser extent Jack. Jack was kind of becoming an American toward the end of the tour. He wasn't minding air conditioning [laughs]. But for some reason Ringo and Simon especially, Ringo would go, "I go in my room and I just turn the air off as soon as I get there." And I mean, it is summertime Ringo, and we are in America and there were some places we played, like it was San Jose and it was 109 degrees outside. I think Dave actually wore shorts to get in the van that night. Ringo made fun of anyone who wore shorts. He said, "I never owned a pair." And he gave everybody shit that wore shorts.

Sometimes onstage when I would be playing, Ringo would get very loose with his fills and he would just play some fill that would be literally something that I'd heard a million times on "Meet The Beatles."

Being the new guy on the tour, and the whipping boy initially, what was that like?

Oh, it was all right for the most part. The funny thing is right in the very beginning I really hit it off with Jack and we went out, the two of us, I think I invited him to come out and have dinner and we went out to eat a couple of times, went to a real nice restaurant and had a bottle of wine and kind of got to know each other a bit right at the very beginning of the rehearsals, and so only once in a while did Jack ever take a shot at me. And he could be very scathing as well.

Ringo just kind of, he's an equal opportunity humiliator [laughs]. You give him an opening, he'll take it. He'll destroy you every time. He said, "I've had 40 years of doing it, you give a guy from Liverpool an opening line, I'm compelled to do it." It really wasn't that bad. l actually took more razzing for being the American guy than for anything else. It was always about, "You fucking Americans, blah blah blah blah."

In terms of social time, I know you did get to spend some quality time with Ringo. What were some of your favorite moments?

I enjoyed talking to him in his room one night. It was nice to be able to tell him I was one of those guys sifting on the floor watching you on Ed Sullivan, and the look on his face when I was telling him, I realized that he understood what I was saying to him because he was very serious, he understood this was said with reverence. He's got great reverence for The Beatles as well. He understood this wasn't some guy saying "Yeah, The Beatles, who gives a shit, I didn't really dig them." And I imagine that somewhere along the way he's probably run into people who have done that. I know I have. But he knew that I had nothing but the utmost respect for his band what they had done and for his drumming as well.

Sometimes onstage when I would be playing, particularly on Dave Edmunds' stuff, when I was playing bass, because they were just cool rockabilly grooves and stuff, Ringo would get very loose with his fills and he would just play some fill that would be literally something that I'd heard a million times on Meet The Beatles or something and it just made me smile to hear these great fills that I had listened to. And I'd turn around and give him a big smile and he'd kind of look at me and he'd smile back as if to say "Oh, you liked that one, did you? How about this one?" and he'd play some more.

—Beatlefan | March 1, 2001