It was a big day for North American music fans 56 years back. That day in 1967 kicked off the “Summer of Love” … and signified that the ’67 The Beatles weren’t your daddy’s Beatles. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band hit the stores here that day, about a week after they had over in Britain (which was earlier than the label had planned to release it there; a story for another day).
The album was a landmark, both musically and culturally and we’ve looked at it before, as well as its iconic cover picture. So today we’ll look at one of its iconic songs – “With A Little Help From My Friends.”
The song kicks in directly seguing from the opening title track (meaning radio usually played both together since they merge on the LP) and stands out from the rest of the album because it’s sung by Ringo Starr. Or “Billy Shears” in his Sgt. Pepper alter-ego. By then the band typically allowed Ringo one song per album to sing and take a bit of the spotlight on. Mind you, it wasn’t til their “White Album” that they actually trusted to write the song. So this one was a Lennon/McCartney one, although generally it’s believed to be more Paul than John. Lennon himself verified that. While at the time of the album he said it was about “fifty-fifty” writing, by 1980 he said the song was “Paul, with a little help from me.” Paul is believed to have written the lyrics but John tweaked them and helped compose it, on piano. He had an injured index finger, leading him to play primarily with his middle finger… which led to the band’s working title for it, “Bad Finger Boogie.” The title changed, but wasn’t wasted. Apple Records first non-Beatles stars took the name “Badfinger” from it. No matter whose words and whose finger may have been sprained, it was seen as one of the last songs John & Paul actually wrote together, no matter what the publishing credits might show.
They wrote it specifically for Ringo however, and he rose to the occasion. He sang it superbly, even the prolonged high note ending it, at about 5 AM after they’d already done 10 takes of the song. Interestingly, on those recordings John played piano, producer George Martin was on a Hammond organ and George played lead guitar. Paul’s bass and a bit of John guitar (and cowbell!) were added in later. And it was the perfect song for Starr. After the band broke up, the others had gigantic success for varying lengths of time, but Ringo did OK for a couple of albums then disappeared from the charts. But not from the stage or fans hearts; his All Starr Bands over the last 30 years or so have been live music highlights for millions and feature Ringo … with a little help from his friends who could range from Todd Rundgren to members of Men At Work and Average White Band to Joe Walsh. Everyone loves Ringo, and he traditionally closes his live shows with the song. Even Paul has joined him on the song at least three times, including a Grammy Awards Tribute to the Beatles with additional help from friends like Stevie Wonder, Dave Grohl and Miley Cyrus! Everyone loves Ringo.
So too must Joe Cocker. The Mad Dog Englishman made his version of it (with Jimmy Page on guitar) his first album’s title and it quickly became his only #1 song in the UK. As such, it ranks in the rarified air with another Sgt. Pepper song – “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” – as a Beatles song where a cover version not only exceeded the original in popularity, but actually hit #1.(The Lucy cover being by Elton John of course.) Joe’s version was a hit in the ’60s, made his name known when he appeared at Woodstock and later was used as the theme song for the TV show The Wonder Years. Not everyone liked his gravel-road, bluesy rendition of it, but many did, including Paul McCartney. Cocker made it into an homage to Ray Charles and McCartney said “it was just mind-blowing. Totally turned the song into a soul anthem, I was forever grateful for him doing that.”
As many know, The Beatles didn’t release any songs off Sgt, Pepper as singles in ’67; relying instead on standalone releases of “Penny Lane”, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “All You Need is Love” to keep them on the airwaves that summer. They did release it in 1979 (to capitalize on the … well, not quite “popularity”… but the presence of the Sgt. Pepper movie) but it failed to hit the top 40 in major markets. The album however, was another story.