This summer marked 30 years since the debut of Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band, the former Beatle's crowd-pleasing act that continues to bring together casts of seemingly-disparate musicians to play each other's hits and a smattering of Ringo-sung Beatles tunes. When we spoke with inaugural All-Starr Band guitarist Nils Lofgren earlier this year to discuss his latest album, Blue With Lou, he also shared his memories of how he was brought into the band, who was really in charge, and how he was informed of the band's incredible lineup.
AllMusic: How was the concept first presented to you?
Nils Lofgren: I was playing Wembley with Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, and were all invited to a late night birthday party at Tittenhurst, where Ringo was living at the time, the house that Lennon lived in before him. There was a jam session, and musicians would come and go.
Ringo was kind and friendly to all of us, and my goal was to jam with Ringo, and that eventually happened at one or two in the morning. Then I found myself sitting around, sipping some Courvoisier with him, and he was very talkative, and by the end of it, I said, "I'm in England every year, playing my own shows," and he said, "I'd like to come see you sometime, here's my number, let's stay in touch." So I started calling every few weeks, and had a phone friendship going on. He was kind and smart and witty, everything you'd imagine from watching him grow up on TV. I'd play England and he'd come to see my shows, mostly acoustic shows, and we maintained that friendship.
About four years later, in 1989, I was living in L.A., he had a home in L.A., and he called me and said, "I'm doing this all star band. I can't follow the Beatles, and I'm famous, I have money, but I've got to find a way to play drums, it's making me ill. I'm putting together my favorite musicians and I want you in the first band." I was so honored.
He said, "Everyone's going to do a round robin, so pick two or three of your own songs. I don't want to be frontman all night, but I'd like to be frontman for a few songs for fun, then go back and play my drum kit." It was a very courageous thing to do, because everyone's always comparing you to what you used to do, and he had enough courage to go, "I'm sick inside because I ain't playing, so I'm going to remedy that, and damn the consequences." I've seen a lot of famous people get in that hole and never get out.
I said, "Great, count me in." I went to say goodbye, and he said, "Don't you want to know who's in the band?" and I said, "Well, you're in the band, that's enough for me," and he laughed and said, "Thank you, but let me tell you anyway. We have Joe Walsh on guitar, Dr. John and Billy Preston on piano and organ, Jim Keltner's gonna be on drums so I can come and go, Levon Helm is gonna play drums, mandolin, sing, anything he wants, Rick Danko's on bass, and we're going to bring your buddy Clarence Clemons in to play sax." Even today, we all admit that's probably the most stunning array of characters and talent.
AllMusic: Was there anyone who tended to serve as a musical director?
Lofgren: Everybody that walked into the room was a band leader, so everyone was used to directing bands, to arrange parts, vocals, harmonies. The background harmony singing sessions were just unbelievable with that cast of characters. We all shared duties, everyone was honored by this opportunity, and everyone showed up prepared and open for changes, a real desire to become a band together. It was a real democracy. But yeah, when push came to shove, we had a band leader.
I remember the first rehearsal, I asked him what the rules were, and he said, "No rules, but I want all of you all the time. Sing what you want, play what you want, go where you want onstage," and I said, "I want to come visit you on your drum riser," and he said, "That's fine. I want all of you all the time, and that goes for everybody. I just want to see what we become when everyone's free to contribute exactly what they feel."