It wasn't quite the Cavern Club. But at times on Friday it felt like it, as Ringo Starr and a few of his famous friends squeezed into a scaled-down Ruth Eckerd Hall for a private concert benefitting the arts in education.
"Can you hear us in the back?" the Funny One chuckled, pointing to fans all of 10 rows back.
The show was the kickoff to the eighth year of Ruth Eckerd Hall's Friends of Music program, which gives money to arts programs at schools across Tampa Bay. And while the series has booked big names for private shows in the past – Toby Keith, Kid Rock, Daryl Hall and John Oates – none of them were a Beatle.
For the 300 or so Friends of Music benefactors who scored an invite, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
"It's pretty rare for him to do this," said Bobby Rossi, Ruth Eckerd Hall's executive vice president of entertainment. "The donors in this group, you could see their expressions coming in – they're beside themselves. How many people get to be this close to him?"
And it's not like Starr typically plays this close to his fans.
"This is very cool, right? This is like being at home" Starr told the crowd. "We're all here for a good cause, namely, bringing music into the schools. That's pretty good. Help music wherever you can, because it brings a lot of peace and love."
Friends of Music events are invite-only, and membership it isn't cheap – at least $2,500 for the chance to receive one invite to one event per year. Higher-level donors get more invitations and the chance to meet artists. The result of all this paid access: Some $2 million raised to benefit 40,000 students in 2016-17 alone.
On Friday, Ruth Eckerd Hall's back lobby was transformed into an undersea-themed buffet, with finger foods like sushi, fish and chips and tempura-fried lobster pops. Starr – who no longer signs many autographs – signed a few prints to auction off, including a pair of Friends of Music lithographs that went for $15,000 apiece.
Inside, the crowd went only about 10 rows back, with a standing-room pit right up to the stage, maybe 10 feet from Ringo himself. Starr's mates in his All-Starr Band – including Todd Rundgren, Toto's Steve Lukather, Santana's Gregg Rolie and Mr. Mister's Richard Page – all offered their own testimonials about music education.
"Your cause is also my cause," Rundgren said. "Getting music education back into schools is a No. 1 priority. Good for your brain."
"I used to cut school, if you can imagine that," Lukather said. "And I would go back to school to take music classes. It really helped me become a professional musician. It helps in so many ways in life."
As usual with the All-Starr Band, artists traded lead vocals all night, leading to a wall-to-wall smorgasbord of hits — the Beatles' Yellow Submarine and With a Little Help From My Friends, Toto's Africa and Hold the Line, Santana's Evil Ways and Black Magic Woman, Mr. Mister's Broken Wings and Kyrie, Rundgren's Bang the Drum All Day and I Saw the Light.
But owing, perhaps, to the intimate and exclusive nature of the performance, they all seemed unusually loose and high-spirited. Rundgren and Lukather bounced off each other like little kids. The artists engaged fans right at the lip of the stage, with Starr, at one point, even briefly borrowing a captain's hat off a fan near the front.
"They can't believe this is happening with 300 people," Rossi said of the donors. "The enthusiasm for the Friends of Music people who have been longtime members – and the new members – they're like, 'Are you kidding me?'"
— Jay Cridlin