Rick Derringer rocks a cherry red Gibson ES-355 on stage with Ringo Starr And His All Starr Band. © Robb D. Cohen./Retna Ltd./Corbis
"I've been so fortunate," says guitarist Rick Derringer. "Here I am, nearing the 50-year-mark in this crazy business of rock 'n' roll, and I'm having the best time ever. If you would've told me when I was an 18-year-old kid that I'd still be doing this in 2011, and that people would scream their heads off when I play Hang On Sloopy, I wouldn't have believed you for a second."
You can't blame him. When Derringer and his band The McCoys hit number one in the summer of 1965 with Hang On Sloopy, no one expected careers in pop music to last more than a few years. "The Beatles were big, and then there were The Stones," says Derringer. "After them, there was everybody else. Still, we all got lumped into the whole Beatlemania thing. And now here I am, decades later, playing with one of The Beatles. Like I said, it's all pretty crazy."
As lead guitarist and co-vocalist with the 11th incarnation of Ringo Starr And His All Starr Band, Derringer and a host of seasoned vets (Gary Wright, Mr Mister's Richard Page, Edgar Winter, The Romatics' Wally Palmer, along with drummer Gregg Bissonette) get a chance to play a generous portion of Ringo-based Beatles songs, as well as a handful of Starr's solo hits. "Right there we're talking about some of the best music in the world," says Derringer. "And then everybody in the band plays a couple of their own hits. I even get to do Frankenstein and Free Ride with Edgar Winter [Derringer produced both songs, the first of which topped the charts in 1973]. It's an awesome show. If I wasn't in the band, I'd be in the audience."
Derringer admits that it's the former Beatle everybody is coming to see, and the guitarist, who has been both sideman and solo artist throughout his career, is comfortable with his onstage role. "All of my performing skills are utilized on this tour," he says. "Every night I discover something new in a song, a guitar lick, a vocal line. Every night brings a new kind of magic."
During a recent tour stop in Sweden, Derringer sat down with MusicRadar to talk about playing with Ringo Starr. In addition, we discussed his early career...and a certain guitar hero (OK, it's Eddie Van Halen) who may have picked up a thing or two from the former McCoy.
How did you get hooked up with Ringo?
"Ringo has people he tours with – some people stay for a while, and other people come and go. As you can imagine, there's always a line of people who want to play with him. In my case, it happened when Billy Squier left the tour. Ringo and his agent put together a list of people, and I got a call one day asking if I wanted to do it. I thought about it for two seconds and said, 'Absolutely!' [laughs] To play in a good band is always cool, and to play with Ringo, well, like I said, who wouldn't want to do that?"
You've had quite an illustrious career, dating back to the '60s. Have you and Ringo crossed paths before?
"You'd think so, but we never met until I joined the tour. I met John Lennon and hung out with him a bit in New York during the '70s. I met Paul many years ago, and I recently had a chance to hook up with him again last year. But no, I never met Ringo until I started working with him. He's a great guy – beautiful as a person, and terrific to play music with."
You mentioned Paul. Last year, you and the band played with him when he surprised Ringo for his 70th birthday on stage and performed The Beatles' Birthday. So you've now played with half The Beatles.
"All the living Beatles, that's right. What an incredible experience that was. It was New York, Radio City Music Hall. They really wanted to keep it a secret from Ringo that Paul was showing up, so only a few of us knew about it. We did a soundcheck and Ringo went back to his hotel. We kind of made up an excuse to hang around. Then Paul showed up in his jeans and T-shirt, and we ran through the song. I think he'd only done it a few times live, so we had run through it a bit until Paul felt comfortable. It was great, though. Ringo had no idea it was going to happen. We totally surprised him." [laughs]
In 1965, you and your band The McCoys had a number one song with Hang On Sloopy – that is, until Yesterday by The Beatles knocked it out of the top spot. Has that ever come up in conversation between you and Ringo?
"It has come up, yes. Actually, when we play Hang On Sloopy on stage, I tell the story about having the number one song in the country, but there was this number two song by The Beatles. [laughs] Yesterday came on 'with a bullet' as they used to say, so our stay on top of the charts was short-lived.
"A lot of people over the years assumed the reverse, strangely enough, that we knocked The Beatles off the top spot – to the point where I think Ringo even thought that was a case. When I talk about it on stage, how The Beatles toppled The McCoys, Ringo says, 'Well, that's the first time I ever heard that part of the story!' [laughs] I'll tell you something: Before I started introducing Hang On Sloopy and telling the tale, I asked Ringo if it was cool that I mentioned it on stage, and he said, 'It's OK with me. I didn't play on either of them!'" [laughs]
During the show, you do a few songs from your career – Hang On Sloopy, Rock And Roll, Hoochie Koo, Free Ride, Frankenstein, some of which are from your time with Edgar Winter... Tell me, how is the setlist drawn up?
"Ringo has a bandleader, Mark Rivera, and they sit down and work out the setlist. Mark decides most of it, really, and that's fine with everybody in the band. I think if we all started submitting our ideas – 'I wanna do this, I wanna do that' – it would get a little crazy and some people might get hurt feelings if their songs didn't get in. It's much easier having somebody who's not in the band figure it out."
You've worked with your share of music legends over the years, but what's it like playing with Ringo? As celebrities go, he's about as famous as it gets. Plus, he's an amazing drummer, and so underrated.
"He's the most down-to-earth guy you could ever hope to meet. Honest and truly. He's been through it all, so I don't think he's into the whole ego thing of music anymore. I'll give you some insight into Ringo as a person. Because he was very ill as a child, he eats very well, all organic juices and foods. He doesn't drink, doesn't do drugs, he doesn't do anything harmful to his body. He's an extremely healthy guy, and that makes him very focused on his music and what he's doing. Nothing gets by Ringo. He runs a tight ship, but one that's a lot of fun.
"He's a good person spiritually, treats everyone well, and that makes everybody want to give him their all. His crew is the best, his lighting and production people are fantastic. And I say that because it all comes from the guy whose name is on the ticket. If you're good to people, they're going to love you; they're going to love working for you.
"OK, musically, the first thing that strikes you about Ringo when you get on stage and start playing with him, it's what you said – he's amazing, and amazingly underrated. There's nobody in the world that sounds like Ringo. He's got a swing that is his own groove. He invented it. It's very human, very lively, it's that sound we all grew up loving. That's not only the mark of a great musician, but a great artist.
"Every song that Ringo plays, whether it's from The Beatles or his solo years, has a personality that could have only come from him. That's no small thing. There's millions of drummers all over the world, but how many can you name the moment you hear them? Not many. Ringo's one of the few."
Have you noticed any particular quirks or specifics to the way he approaches his drumming?
"Yes. He's very tuned into lyrics. A lot of drummers have no idea what the lyrics are to songs they're playing. Ringo always wants to see the words; he drums to the words. That's how he's figured out all of those amazing fills and parts, because he listens to what the song is about. People who put him down as a drummer just don't know what they're talking about."
As a guitarist in the band, what are some of your favorite songs to play?
"I enjoy them all, partly because Ringo really likes having a guitarist of my caliber on the tour. When he first started the All Starr Band, Joe Walsh went out with him. But Joe can't tour with him all the time since he's with The Eagles, so he's had to use other guys. When you look at some of the other guitarists Ringo's used, they were very good, but they weren't great lead guitar players. Clapton was never in the band, Jimmy Page was never in the band… Guitarists of that caliber were never part of the organization. So now he's got somebody who's a real lead guitar player.
"Ringo appreciates that. He encourages me to play, and I love all the tunes we do. Yellow Submarine, It Don't Come Easy…they're all great. I really get off on playing Act Naturally because I can do some cool country licks. Ringo's always been a big fan of that one."
I notice that you get to stretch out on a few songs live. On Rock And Roll, Hoochie Koo, for example, you do an extended solo that features some real Eddie Van Halen-type hammer-on licks.
"Well, that's one way of looking at it. Eddie's said a lot of things over the years, and one of the things he said was that I stole those licks from him. In reality, I had a guitarist named Danny Johnson, who was in my band in 1975, and we played a lot of gigs on the West Coast. He was doing those kinds of hammer-ons and things, and he showed me how to do all of that stuff. Eddie Van Halen, coincidentally, came to a lot of our gigs and heard Danny Johnson play. I never got a chance at the time to hear Eddie Van Halen play. Truthfully, I think Eddie picked the whole technique up from Danny."
"Every night I discover something new in a song," says Derringer of his current gig with Ringo Starr. © Robb D. Cohen./Retna Ltd./Corbis
In fairness, I don't think Eddie Van Halen ever claimed that he invented the technique; he simply popularized it.
"That's sure right."
Let's stroll down memory lane for a minute. As a mere teenager, you were having big success in The McCoys. What the heck was that like in those days?
"It was crazy! [laughs] I had just turned 18, and it was like we were The Beatles ourselves. The whole era, all those years, it was like Beatlemania throughout the entire world. If you were in a hit band, it's like you were in The Beatles. We opened for The Rolling Stones in 1966, and things were pretty wild. We'd had some hits, The Rolling Stones had their hits, so in many ways it was like having The Beatles and The Stones on tour together. Every teenage guy should've had the experiences and opportunities that I did back then. I certainly can't complain. I had fun." [laughs]
You've played various guitars during your career, but I notice that you play Warrior guitars quite a bit now.
"I love Warrior guitars. I'm not exclusive to them, though. I have a couple of great PRS models, some amazing Strats, Gibsons…a pretty nice collection. I don't have a million guitars, but I have all I need. The '65 Strat that I played during the heights of the Derringer era? I have that. I have a '66 Strat that's practically unplayed. It looks like a reissue – that's how little it's been used. And I have a 1957 Les Paul TV Special that's in really great shape. I try to take care of my guitars. They've been good to me, so it's the least I can do."