“It Don’t Come Easy” is a song by Ringo Starr released as an Apple Records single in April 1971, reaching number 1 in Canada and number 4 in both the US and UK singles charts. It was Starr’s first solo single in the UK, but his second in the US (the first was “Beaucoups of Blues”), following the breakup of the Beatles. This song may also be considered Starr’s signature song.
A demo version exists with George Harrison providing a guide vocal for Starr. It has been suggested that Harrison wrote the song on his own.
The released version included Harrison on guitar, Klaus Voormann on bass guitar, Stephen Stills on piano, Ron Cattermole on saxophone and trumpet, Badfinger members Pete Ham and Tom Evans on background vocals, and Starr on drums and lead vocals. The B-side of the single, “Early 1970”, featured Starr on acoustic guitar, piano, drums, and vocals, with Harrison playing guitar, bass, and backing vocals. The lyrics refer to the lives of the Beatles around the time of their breakup (hence the title). Both tracks were produced by Harrison and published by Startling Music.
Recording of the new composition was begun on the evening of 18 February 1970 at Abbey Road’s Studio 2, during the Sentimental Journey album sessions. Earlier in the day, Starr had re-recorded his vocals for “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You” and “Let the Rest of the World Go By”, songs destined for Sentimental Journey. At this stage, the song was known as “You Gotta Pay Your Dues.”
On this first session, George Martin was producing, with Harrison playing acoustic guitar and directing the other musicians, which comprised Starr (drums), Klaus Voormann (bass) and Stephen Stills (piano). 20 basic track takes were made between 7 p.m. and 12.30 a.m., with take 20 being labelled “best.” Starr then added a lead vocal and George added two electric guitar parts, finishing at 4 a.m., with the song being mixed into stereo.
The following day, after overdubs onto “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing”, recording resumed on “You Gotta Pay Your Dues”, with Starr overdubbing another lead vocal onto take 20 between 5 and 6 p.m. Harrison was not involved in recording on this day, although Eric Clapton may have been involved. After an hour’s break, it was decided to remake the song, with takes 21-30 being taped between 7 and 11 p.m. Take 30 was labeled “best” and onto this take, two bass parts were added before the session ended at 1:30 a.m.
This version however, was to remain unfinished, because on 8 March, Starr decided to again remake “It Don’t Come Easy”, as it was now known. Recording probably took place at Trident Studios (documentation is unavailable – all that is known is that it wasn’t recorded at Abbey Road), with Harrison producing and playing guitar. Klaus Voormann (bass), Stephen Stills (piano), Mal Evans (tambourine) and Ron Cattermole (saxophone, trumpet) were also involved.
Recording of overdubs continued the next morning, again with Harrison producing. The song was then left until October 1970, when further overdubs were made (details unknown).
When news of the sessions reached the press in March 1970, Apple told the music press there were “absolutely no plans for the record to be released as a single at the present time”, and the song wasn’t issued until 9 April 1971 in the UK (and April 16 in the US). Starr’s second solo single (with “Early 1970” as a B-side featuring Harrison on guitar and backing vocals) entered the NME charts on 21 April at number twelve and rose to number five for two weeks, staying on the chart for nine weeks.
An early mix from these sessions has appeared on bootlegs, which featured Harrison on lead vocal. While the instrumentation is almost identical to the released version (the horns have not been added yet), during the guitar break, the backing vocalists, Pete Ham and Tom Evans from Badfinger, add the line “Hare Krishna.” This can be heard on the final Starr release, though buried in the mix. Following the guitar solo, rather than there being another verse, there is a repeat of the song’s opening guitar phrase from Harrison, again with the backing vocalists singing ‘it don’t come, oh no, you know it don’t come easy” twice, with Harrison adding a few shouted lines behind them before returning to the verse. Subsequently, there are some additional backing vocal lines.