Billy Connolly has revealed he inspired Ringo Starr to give up drinking – but only after the Beatle had watched him quit and checked to see if his “spirit went away” after sobering up.
The Big Yin was a wild but legendary drinker in the 70s but kicked the habit in 1985 after a boozy night in St Lucia with Michael Caine when they were filming Water.
On the cliff-edge ride home, Billy covered the bus driver’s eyes and tragedy was only avoided when Caine intervened.
Ringo, too, was a known drinker who partied in Los Angeles with other famous names such as Harry Nilsson and Alice Cooper, in a notorious afternoon drinking club known as the Hollywood Vampires.
In the 80s, he wanted to quit too much but was worried – and used Billy as a booze barometer.
The Scot, 79, said: “I remember Ringo, when he quit drinking, he said, ‘I watched you when you quit drinking, to see if your spirit went away and it didn’t.’
“People worry that if they give up drinking, their life force will go away but it doesn’t.
“It’s a passenger, the drink. It slows you down. It only pretends to you that you’re dependent on it.
“I thought I might lose my wildness, and then I thought, ‘Well, it’s not wildness. It’s pretend-y wildness.’ You know how to turn it on, and that won’t go away. And it didn’t go away.”
Sir Billy, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2013, retired from live performances in 2018 but has kept us laughing in various documentaries looking back at his life and stand-up work.
His latest series on Gold, Billy Connolly Does… is a mix of new interviews from his home in Florida and archive footage of Scotland’s greatest comedian at various stages of his 50-year career.
Each episode will have a theme, with the first being Bad Behaviour, followed by Fatherhood, Home, Nature, On the Road, Culture and Fame. There were originally five episodes but it’s now been extended to seven.
Talking about his hellraiser days from his house, which he claimed used to be owned by a drug trafficker, Billy revealed it was the temptation of the unknown which made him drink.
He said: “The fact that you don’t know what’s gonna happen. Two absolutely normal guys, two plain, beige guys, can walk into a bar, and half an hour later be two interesting, windswept guys.
“It’s the land of promise. It’s a lie but it’s a good lie.”
One of Billy’s great on-stage routines was showing his audience different drunk walks – the drunk who walked on one leg, the dressage drunk and the guy who is a long way from home.
And he tended to follow it up with a tipple off stage. When Billy finished a gig, his roadie, Kenny MacPherson, would be there to meet him with a cigarette and a large gin.
Billy said: “That was my starter. We’d find some tavern for the people who were happy to listen to a tale or two. I don’t regret a second of it.” He admits he was drunk when he met his second wife, Pamela.
Billy said: “I was trousered when I met her. She came to see me in Brighton.
“We were back in the hotel and I had about 20 brandies. It was a brandy tour. And I had this ridiculous amount of brandy.
“We had gin tours, cider tours. We had different tours. And I had the drinks all lined up. It was like high mass.
“And that was the beginning of it.”
Billy was married with two children when he met Pamela. They went on to marry and have three children. He is now a granddad.
Before he became a comedian, Billy was a folk singer, and with Gerry Rafferty, a founder member of The Humblebums.
And while he had more success after the folk group, so did Gerry – who died in 2011 – including huge hits such as Stuck in the Middle With You with Stealers Wheel and solo track Baker Street.
Billy said: “I miss him terribly. The last time I spoke to him, he was on his death bed.
“I said, ‘Do you remember the night we smoked a Bible?’ And he just laughed the laugh of god and he said, ‘Oh boy, I do. I remember the blonde.’
“It was such a good life, and he was gonna be this other thing, which he became, and so was I.
“I was gonna become this other thing.
“We were both sure of it, so we were just killing time. We just played darts and got p*****d. We would just p**s ourselves laughing at the world.”
When Billy first started out, he’d never stayed at a hotel or realized you could order room service.
As he toured first Scotland, then the UK and then the world, his playful nature would come out – especially when he and his roadies would be having a drink and strike up conversations with traveling salesmen – or, as he called them, “the most boring men on earth”.
His group would also play a game called Changes.
Billy said: “You’re all checking in, and somebody will say, ‘Changes!’ And you get to your room and you have to
reappear in the bar, dressed only in stuff you find in your room.
“There’s bedsheets and tablecloths and pillow cases. And in Holiday Inns, you use the bit of paper that goes across the toilet. You get all dressed up, and suddenly the bar’s full of Romans.”
Billy toured with Elton John, Elvis Costello and Led Zeppelin – becoming pals with another big drinker, John Bonham, the group’s drummer.
He remembered the night he went out with The Who’s Keith Moon and had such a good time he thought they’d be lifelong pals.
Billy had to fly to Australia the next day for a tour and, when he arrived, found out his new friend had died. He was heartbroken at Moon’s death in 1978 from an overdose and said: “He told me when I got off the plane to Australia, I was to say, ‘F**k you, Australia,’ for him, and I did it. ”
In the first episode about Bad Behaviour, Billy also talked about how he used to fight. He’s battered a few paparazzi in his time and also punched a heckler in Dundee for wanting him to sing Needle of Death.
Billy said: “There comes a time where you have to defend yourself. I’m not proud of it, I don’t do it now.”
● Billy Connolly Does… starts on February 24 on Gold from 9pm.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.