Doug Thompson: Confessions of a Professional Rock and Roll Interviewer – Ringo Starr

Filling in for Cam Carpenter (who is busy with the NXNE Film Fest this week) is Legendary radio and television producer and writer, Doug Thompson. Cam will be back next week, but look for Doug to be popping up again soon. 

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

John Lennon wrote that lyric for the song “Beautiful Boy”.  It works for this column as well.  When Bob Segarini and I first discussed my writing this, I thought I’d tell some funny stories about some of the interviews I’ve done since 1964 (my first year in radio).  There’ve been over a thousand in total with everyone from ABBA to Frank Zappa and all the letters of the alphabet in between.  I thought I’d start with one of my favourites, Ringo Starr and a couple of thousand words later, there was no room or time for anyone else.  That’s why this is only one of many.

The Ringo story began in December of 1982.

It was a just before 9 AM.  I was fast asleep in my room at the Continental Hyatt House (often referred to as ‘The Riot House’ due to the many rock musicans who’ve stayed there and ‘occasionally’ wreaked havoc on their rooms) on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood when my phone rang.  For the previous week, I’d been conducting interviews for a radio series on record producers I was co-producing with Warren Cosford for the Telemedia Radio Network in Toronto.  I’d had a really late night hanging out with Motown writer/performer R. Dean Taylor, who picked me up around midnight and proceeded to show me some of LA’s more colourful (some might say ‘seedy’) nightlife.

Groggily I picked up the phone.  On the other end was Tom Rounds, President of ABC/ Watermark, the largest and most successful radio syndication company at that time.  Tom co-founded Watermark  in 1970 with the weekly program, “American Top 40 with Casey Kasem”.  Since that time, the company had expanded with such regular series as “Soundtrack of The 60’s”, “American Country Countdown”, “The Elvis Presley Story” and been so successful that ABC Radio bought it for several million dollars.

Our conversation was brief and to the point, “Doug, it’s TR.  How’d you like to write a Beatles special for Ringo Starr?”  I‘m pretty sure I mumbled “Absolutely”.  “Good” came the phone reply.  “Can you come by the Watermark offices in Burbank this afternoon?”  My vocabulary was still limited after only a few hours sleep, so I simply repeated my previous answer, “Absolutely”.  By the way, TR knew me from my previous work – I co-produced CHUM Radio’s “The Story of The Beatles” in 1970 and in 1981, I wrote and produced a three hour radio tribute called “John Lennon: A Celebration”, which ran on 65 radio stations in Canada and on NBC Radio’s The Source network in the U.S.

When I arrived at Watermark later that day, Tom filled me in on the details for the series.  The premise was that Ringo will be the DJ.  Tom explained that “It’ll be like he’s hanging out at the radio station every week, spinning Beatles songs and telling stories about his time with the group.  Ringo will adlib his stories, you’ll write everything else.  We’ll record him in England and bring the tapes back to LA to put it all together with the music.”  That was the start of a great adventure that took place throughout most of 1983.  This was the first time any of The Beatles had done anything like this, certainly for North American radio.  They’d done weekly BBC programs as a group and guest DJ’s on various radio stations around the world, but nothing this extensive.  ABC Radio planned to air the series throughout the summer of ’83, culminating in a live one hour show in November with Ringo taking phone calls.

Tom Rounds and I got together, he outlined the plans and showed me the program hour clock.  I gathered up all of the documents and flew back to Toronto to start writing.  We were scheduled to fly to England to record the first half of the series with Ringo at his home in Tittenhurst Park in January and finish off in February.  That’s the big white house formerly owned by John Lennon and Yoko Ono that’s pictured on the cover of what is commonly referred to as the “Hey Jude” album.

After an additional trip to New York to meet with Tom and some ABC Radio execs, the script was finished, approved and off we flew to jolly old London at the end of January, not exactly the best time of year to visit England.

Shit, it was so bloody cold.

I grew up in Canada and for four of those years, I’d lived in Edmonton, Alberta (a city where your car needs to be plugged in overnight to ensure that the battery will start the next morning), but I was not prepared for this.  It literally chilled me to the bone and I’d brought along a heavy Shetland wool sweater and my very warm winter coat.  On the recommendation of Ringo, ABC had booked us at the Dorchester Hotel.  The Beatles had had more than a few great parties there and Ringo suggested that would be an excellent locale.  I don’t think anyone at ABC checked on the price, because the Dorchester is, or certainly used to be, the most expensive hotel in all of London.   Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton practically lived there for a time.

Needless to say, we didn’t stay there on our next trip over.

We’d arrived on Sunday morning and had the full day to prepare for the following week’s recording sessions at Tittenhurst.  Tom Rounds had brought his SONY Walkman and played me a tape of the series logos he’d recorded a few days earlier at TM Productions in Dallas.  Basically, there were a multitude of instrumental variations on the “Yellow Submarine” melody.  These would be used when segments of the program began and ended.  I don’t remember much about the rest of the day as I was exhausted from having flown all night.

Monday morning arrived bright and early (as we were still on North American time), TR and I met for breakfast to outline what we wanted to record that day.  We’d brought Dave Herman over with us from WNEW FM in New York.  Ringo had talked with us on the phone several times, but didn’t really know us yet.  He said he’d feel more comfortable talking about the Beatles days for the ‘story’ portions of each hour if he had an interviewer that he knew and trusted to ask him the questions.  Dave Herman was that guy.  Dave joined us for breakfast while we mapped out the stories we knew we wanted to get from Ringo.

Our scheduled recording time was from noon until 6 from Monday through Friday.  Tittenhurst Park was an hour’s drive from London, so we left that morning at 10:30 to make sure we wouldn’t get lost (GPS wasn’t available yet).   We arrived at the massive wooden gates around a quarter to noon.  We were buzzed in and there behind the massive wooden gates was ‘the house’.

This was so cool.

It’s the house that was immortalized in John Lennon’s “Imagine” video, plus The Beatles were   standing in front of it on the ‘Hey Jude’ front cover.  The ceramic white busts were still there just as they had been in that famous picture.  Mike O’Donnell, Ringo’s engineer greeted us at the door and brought us into the studio.  John Lennon had the studio built and recorded the ‘Imagine’ album there.  The studio was attached to the main house via a door in the kitchen.  We got comfortable while we waited for Ringo to appear.

We didn’t have to wait long.

At the crack of noon, Richard Starkey walked through that kitchen door and simply said, “Hullo, I’m Richie”.  I think we all knew that.  He greeted Dave Herman warmly, since they’d known each other for years, then got around to TR, Corrine Baldissano (the ABC Executive in charge of this project) and me.  Barbara Bach, Ringo’s wife walked in a few minutes later and she was just as gorgeous as her photos and movies (Of course in my mind, I vividly recalled the January 1981 edition of Playboy with Barbara’s nude pictorial).  TR had been wise enough to bring Barbara a bouquet of flowers to thank her for letting us ‘borrow’ her husband for a few hours this week.  She graciously accepted them, told us a little about her upbringing just outside New York, then left

Mike O’Donnell had set up two microphones out in the studio – one for Ringo and one for Dave.  After getting settled in the chairs and a few minutes of small talk, the interview began with Ringo telling great story after great story…many I’d never heard before.

Around 2 o’clock, TR and I looked at each other and we both knew this series was going to work.  We did three days of interviews, then Dave Herman  flew back to New York.  Ringo was comfortable enough with us at that point that any interviews we needed to pick up, I would handle the questions.

Thursday and Friday were dedicated to the first 12 hours of my script.  They were short record intros and back sells and Ringo was a pro, so those went relatively smoothly.  There were a couple of sections of the script that Ringo didn’t feel comfortable saying, even  though I’d gotten the information from Hunter Davies official book on The Beatles, so we changed those on the spot and he was happy. Pictured above: Doug revises Ringo’s script

We gathered up the dozen or so 10” reels and boxes (we were still using analog tape in 1983) and headed back to our rental car, happy and satisfied that we had a great show…or at least the first half of a great show.  We said our goodbyes to Mike O’Donnell and Ringo and said we’d see them again in February.  The next morning, TR and I flew direct to LA while Corrinne jetted back to her New York ABC office. Pictured above: Doug, Ringo, Tom Rounds (TR), Corrine Baldissano (ABC) & Ringo’s engineer Mike O’Donnell.

The next few weeks were kind of crazy for me.  Monday through Friday, I was editing Ringo’s interview pieces at Watermark.  Another engineer was leadering up the scripted sections. Friday night, I’d head for LAX and get on a plane bound for Toronto because every Saturday and Sunday, I’d be in Studio 3 at Eastern Sound on Yorkville Avenue (now a massive high rise complex with condos selling in the multiple millions) producing a series of one hour specials on record producers for Telemedia Network Radio with my business partner Warren Cosford.  Monday morning, I’d head to the airport and catch the first flight back to LA.

That was probably the most insane month of my life.

Mid February came, the second half of the script was completed and approved by ABC and TR, so back to London we jetted.  This time, ABC had us in the St. James Hotel, a smaller, somewhat more sedate location (and certainly less expensive) than The Dorchester.

As in January, our recording time frame with Ringo was noon to 6, Monday through Friday.  The sessions went as well as the previous ones had, but when we got there on Friday, our final day, Ringo still had a few cobwebs in his head from a party the night before, so he offered to show us around the estate.  It was February and the ground was a bit mucky, so Ringo offered me a pair of his ‘Wellies’ (rubber boots) to wear.  We walked around for close to an hour.  Ringo showed us the small lake that John Lennon had installed and that he and Yoko had been filmed in floating around in a rowboat that was used in the “Imagine” movie.  We also looked at dozens of species of trees.  Ringo told us that the man who’d owned the property before John had had trees imported from all over the world.  He said  that not only did he get Beatles fans hanging around outside the gates all the time, but also tourists who wanted to take pictures of the trees.  I remember distinctly him saying, “I think I’m going to have to sell.”

When we returned to the studio, we were in for an amazing surprise.  Ringo had asked his engineer Mike to set up his full drum kit.  Yikes, Ringo Starr was going to play for us.

This was really worth the price of admission.

We rolled tape and Ringo proceeded to play many of his famous drum riffs that were oh so familiar from Beatles records.  He showed us some of his ‘silly fills’ as ‘The lads’ called them.  He told us that of all The Beatles songs, his favourite for his drumming was “Rain”, the flipside ofa 1966 single, “Paperback Writer”.

It was truly a magical day.

After we wrapped and we were putting on our coats, Ringo thanked us for coming, then turned to me and said, “I learned a lot from your script Doug.  I mean, I was there, but even I didn’t know everything that went on.”

Quite a compliment, coming from one of The Beatles.  I know we drove back to our hotel in a car, but after that comment, I was really flying.

Back to LA we went.  For the next few weeks, I continued to work on editing the interview sections, then TR and I assembled the produced hours in one of the Watermark studios.  Ringo’s voice tracks had been leadered and were on one tape recorder, the musical logos on another and TR recorded to the third using the half speed mastered vinyl Beatles albums for the songs.

Once the 24 hours were completed, I flew back to Toronto and my regular life producing programs, commercials and promos for Telemedia.  In October of ‘83, I received another phone call from TR.  After the usual pleasantries, he got right to the point, “We’re working on the live one hour phone-in show for November and Ringo says he wants you with him in the studio.  He says you know more about The Beatles than he does and he’ll feel more comfortable with you there.”

OK.

How could I possibly refuse a request from Ringo Starr?  Well, I couldn’t, so a couple of days before American Thanksgiving, I hopped on an LA bound plane, landed, checked into my hotel (paid for by ABC, thank you very much) and called TR.  He said we’d meet with Ringo and Gary Owens (the live show host) the next day at 10 AM.  Ringo was staying at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard (the one they used for the original “Beverly Hills Cop”).

The meeting took about an hour, then the next day, we all met at the KLOS Studios on La Cienega Boulevard for the live show.  I hadn’t realized that I’d actually be on the air, but Ringo wanted me there in case there were questions from fans he didn’t know, so there I was sitting right beside him in the studio.  Host Gary Owens was exactly how you imagined Gary Owens to be…a great guy.  Gary opened the show, introduced Ringo and me (still yikes.  I’m a behind-the-scenes person) and the phone calls rolled in.  That weekend, there was a Beatlefest (now known as The fest For Beatles Fans) going on in LA, so everyone there was listening.  One caller wanted to know who designed the Apple Records label logo of a Granny Smith apple.  Ringo had no idea and passed it over to me.  Off the top of my head, I said it was a man named Mahon at a London advertising agency, I just couldn’t think of his first name fast enough (it was Gene). Pictured above: Gary Owens, Ringo, and Doug

The show went on and thankfully ended without my having made too much of a fool of myself. And that was the end of my year with Ringo.

I’ve seen and spoken with Ringo a few times since then.  He’s always been pleasant and continues to say that he remembers me.  He’s starting the latest edition of ‘Ringo Starr & His 13th All Starr Band’ tour which wraps up on July 21st at the Greek Theatre in LA.  Go see him if you can and say ‘hi’ for me.

A few years ago, complete vinyl sets of the 24 disc “Ringo’s Yellow Submarine” (with cue sheets) were selling in the $600 range on eBay.  I’ve got two if anyone’s interested in one. Ringo’s Yellow Submarine Week One

Just kidding.

Next time: How Canada’s first home grown teen idol, Bobby Curtola almost got me killed in Edmonton, Quincy Jones keeps me waiting in LA…plus my dinner with Yoko Ono and Sean Ono Lennon at the Russian Tea Room in New York.

What more can I say…

Cam’s column appears every Thursday.

Contact us at: dbawis@rogers.com.

Doug Thompson has spent his entire adult life in broadcasting, both in Canada and the U.S. and has won 152 awards for his work.  He worked with Canadian actor John Candy for 17 years, writing and producing commercials, specials and several weekly radio programs.

Currently, he’s writing and producing the second season of a television program for the Hi Fi channel in Canada called “Hi Fi Salutes”, a series of short biographical documentaries on Canadian musicians, producers and record industry pioneers.  One of those programs recently won a Platinum Award at the World Film Festival in Houston.

3 Responses to “Doug Thompson: Confessions of a Professional Rock and Roll Interviewer – Ringo Starr”

  1. Joe Summers Says:

    Great story from a great guy….Thank you….Joe Summers

  2. Great story Doug, not sure why I never asked you about all the details before, love, your
    brother, Tom

  3. Douglas George Thompson Says:

    I wish I could have been your shadow! lol
    Take care and best wishes

    d.out.

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