Renowned producer, manager and musician Peter Asher discusses the early days of Peter and Gordon, his career as a producer, touring with Jeremy Clyde, and what made him a believer in James Taylor.
Audiences first came to know Peter Asher in the early 1960s, as one half of the duo Peter and Gordon. The duo quickly became a part of the British Invasion phenomenon and topped the charts in both the U.S. and U.K. with their hit single “World Without Love.” Shortly after the duo’s split in 1968, Asher went on to become head of A&R for Apple Records, and it was during this period that he met James Taylor through a mutual friend. After moving from England to the West Coast to act as James Taylor’s manager and producer, Asher went on to manage and produce several other artists, including Linda Ronstadt, Cher, 10,000 Maniacs and Diana Ross.
In 2005-2006, Peter and Gordon briefly reunited at a benefit concert for Mike Smith of the Dave Clark Five, who had been paralyzed by a fall at his home. After performing at the benefit concert, Peter and Gordon began to play a series of concerts at the Fest for Beatles Fans. After Gordon Waller’s death in 2009, Asher questioned whether he would ever be able to play their chart-topping hits on stage – not an easy decision to make.
Said Asher, “I gradually developed this idea of putting together a show that would be some stories and some bits of video and some songs that would include the Gordon songs. Then I worked on this idea where I could do one or two songs with Gordon actually on tape, because we had some recordings that would enable us to do that, so I put the show together experimentally and it seemed to work.”
Asher refers to these performances as his Memoir shows, in which he transports his audience to the 1960s with his informative stories about cultural icons of that era. Currently, Asher is performing with R&B and country guitarist Albert Lee in addition to touring with Jeremy Clyde of the duo Chad & Jeremy. In 2017, Asher became a radio host on the Sirius XM Beatles Channel. His hour-long show, entitled Peter Asher: From Me to You, is broadcasted four times a week. On it, Asher shares memories and anecdotes about his friends The Beatles and their music.
PKM: What is your earliest music memory, and what music were you exposed to as a child?
Peter Asher: Classical music. My mother, as you may know, was a classical oboe player and teacher, so early in my life she was playing in various orchestras. Indeed, I spent some time as a baby on the road when my father was off working in the hospital, and that’s when the orchestras all had women in them for the first time because the men were all off at war. So I spent, evidently, some baby years…several of the women in the orchestra had babies who were looked after by some army person while the orchestra was on stage. I don’t remember that, but that was the case, and then certainly I remember hearing classical music all the time being played in our house. My father was an amateur pianist as well and played classical music.
PKM: Your mother was a professor at the Guildhall School of Music?
Peter Asher: Actually, she was a professor at the Royal Academy of Music and I think she was a guest professor at the Guildhall, which is where she taught George Martin, which is why that’s spoken of more often, but her actual full-time position was at the Royal Academy of Music. Two parallel institutions.
PKM: Do you feel that she influenced you in terms of pursuing a career in music? Peter Asher: Not particularly, no. I mean, she certainly influenced my love of music, but I don’t think my career in music had much to do with that.
PKM: Can you remember where you played your first gig?
Peter Asher: Well, I guess before Gordon, I had a skiffle group. I played bass in a jazz band as well, sort a traditional Dixieland jazz band. I played bass rather badly…quite badly. We did a few gigs every now and then but they tended to be parties and stuff. You know, we would play for free food and drink or something. But yeah, playing in jazz groups, playing in a skiffle group (skiffle was a whole British phenomenon), that kind of stuff, and then when Gordon and I met at school, we followed the same kind of pattern. We started off playing parties and eventually you’d end up with some actual paid gigs. Those might have been our first paid gigs when Gordon and I started playing coffee shops and pubs and actually getting paid to do so.
PKM: What was the turning point for you and Gordon in terms of when you felt that you’d made it?
Peter Asher: That all happened after we got spotted by Norman Newell the A&R guy from EMI records. He spotted us at the Pickwick Club in London and signed us up to EMI records, in that sense, that would be the turning point, certainly.
PKM: In 1964, Brian Jones played harmonica on several of your songs (including “A Mess of the Blues” and “Love Me, Baby”). How did that collaboration come about?
Peter Asher: We toured with the Stones, you know? We became friends. Gordon and Brian were particularly close friends. They’d go out pub crawling together and have fun. I liked Brian very much and I also became friendly with Mick Jagger and Bill Wyman who are still good friends. Yeah, I miss Brian. He was a very cool guy and a brilliant harmonica player.
PKM: One of your earliest shows in the U.S. was at the New York World’s Fair of 1964. That must have been an exciting time for you.
Peter Asher: It was! I mean, just getting to New York for the first time was very exciting. I had always dreamed of going to New York, I had posters of the New York City skyline and Malibu beaches and stuff on my wall. I always wanted to go to America and it was very hard to get to and distant and expensive at that time, so when our record was a hit, we knew that they were going to bring us to America. That was a big deal, landing in New York for the first time, and then of course being chased around the city by screaming girls was fabulous.
PKM: So there was an element of Beatlemania present?
Peter Asher: Oh yes, that’s when it all began, starting with The Beatles, that whole ‘British Invasion’ thing all fell into the same general group, so yes, the girls knew their role which was to scream and chase British bands, which they did!
PKM: Do you remember the other bands that shared the bill with you at the World’s Fair?
Peter Asher: No, I’m not sure if there were other acts. There may have been, but I don’t remember. We played with a lot of different bands. I remember we did the Atlantic City Steel Pier around the same time, and that was with Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs. I remember we did some gigs with Sgt. Barry Sadler, he had a number one record, “Ballad of the Green Berets,” with whom we found we had very little in common except for poker, so we all played poker together.
PKM: You served as the head of the A&R department at Apple. How did you discover new artists and determine which ones would make the cut?
Peter Asher: I had weekly A&R meetings with The Beatles. We got sent a vast number of tapes because we took out ads asking people to send us music, but we never really found anything good that came through all the sent in stuff. If there was anything vaguely promising, I had four or five people working for me listening to stuff and I would listen to anything that seemed vaguely good. Then we’d play some of it at the A&R meetings with as many Beatles that showed up that week. Really, the people we signed came through contacts. Mal Evans, The Beatles’ roadie, found The Iveys, Paul McCartney spotted Mary Hopkin on a TV show, Jackie Lomax was a friend of George Harrison’s, and I found James Taylor by being introduced to him by a mutual friend. So that’s how we found people, actually. It turned out to be through people we knew or people who we were introduced to.
“…when our record was a hit, we knew that they were gonna bring us to America. That was a big deal, landing in New York for the first time, and then of course being chased around the city by screaming girls was fabulous.”
PKM: Speaking of James Taylor, his first album was not what you would call a ‘commercial success’ but you were still determined to stick with it. What made you believe in him? Peter Asher: Everything about him. His singing, his guitar playing, his songs, his remarkable intellect. I found everything about him admirable. I thought his songs were unlike everybody else. He had this beautiful voice, plus he had the phrasing of a soul singer, you know, he sounded like Sam Cooke or Ray Charles but with a folky voice. I thought he was amazing.
PKM: What was the first record you ever produced?
Peter Asher: It was a song called “And the Sun Will Shine” by Paul Jones. He used to be the lead singer of Manfred Mann. That was a single that…Paul Jones had seen some of the Peter and Gordon stuff that I was not officially producing, but was getting involved with, and he asked me if I would produce some tracks for him. So I owe him gratitude for that. It had a remarkably good band that I had put together for the occasion. I had Nicky Hopkins on piano, Jeff Beck on guitar, and Paul McCartney playing drums.
PKM: What is a favorite production of your own?
Peter Asher: I tend to think of the hits because they were important, you know, “Fire and Rain” was important, Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good”. When we finished that record, I thought it was really good. It did have that “If this isn’t a hit record, I don’t know what is” kind of feeling. Sweet Baby James as a whole album, same with Heart Like a Wheel as a whole album. Those were two early albums that were very important in my career.
PKM: Speaking of Linda Ronstadt, you are the first manager to ever grace the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. What was the story behind that photo shoot with Linda and James?
Peter Asher: Well, they said they were going to do a big story on me and my managing and producing, which was unusual at the time to do both, and they asked if I would go to New York the following week to do a photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz. I said “Sure”, but they did say that they were actually contemplating making it a cover story but it only had a chance to be a cover story if I took James and Linda with me to the photo shoot with Annie. And I admit, I called them up and said “Please, please, we have to go. I want to be on the cover of Rolling Stone!” So we all went to New York and did the photo shoot together.
PKM: In 2005-2006, you reformed with Gordon [Waller] to play occasional concerts. What prompted you to join together after all those years?
Peter Asher: Paul Shaffer. I don’t know if you know the story, but it was a benefit that Paul Shaffer, the keyboard player on the Letterman show was putting together for a friend of his, Mike Smith from the Dave Clark Five, and he said “I want to do a British Invasion benefit. What would it take to get you and Gordon back together?” I realized that given that Paul would do a great job putting it all together and the fact that Mike Smith was a great friend of Gordon’s, this might be the one we had to try and do, so after a 37-year gap, we got back together and we worked out a few songs we could do with Paul and his band.
PKM: When Gordon passed away in 2009, was there a part of you that thought you would never be able to play Peter and Gordon songs again?
Peter Asher: Yes. I wondered…I mean, it was a very conscious decision on my part. I kind of went “Does that mean I’m never going to play them again?”, and then I gradually developed this idea of putting together a show that would be some stories and some bits of video and some songs that would include the Gordon songs. Then I worked on this idea where I could do one or two songs with Gordon actually on tape, because we had some recordings that would enable us to do that, so I put the show together experimentally and it seemed to work, so that was the beginning of my going out on the road by myself.
“I thought his songs were unlike everybody else. He had this beautiful voice, plus he had the phrasing of a soul singer…he sounded like Sam Cooke or Ray Charles but with a folky voice. I thought he was amazing.” – Peter Asher (on James Taylor)
PKM: Speaking of going out on the road, you’ve recently played a few shows with Albert Lee. How did you begin touring together?
Peter Asher: We’ve known each other a long time, and we’ve done some benefits together. We both love the Everlys and so we would sing some of the Everly Brothers’ songs together, and it was actually somebody else’s idea. They said “Since you both have a lot of interesting memories and you both like a lot of the same songs, why don’t you try putting a show together, just acoustically, just the two of you. No band, no video, no nothing. So we did, and that seemed to work, so we do that from time to time. Currently I’m doing these shows with Jeremy Clyde which is a whole other thing.
PKM: Tell me about your shows with Jeremy.
Peter Asher: We play all the Peter and Gordon hits and all the Chad & Jeremy hits, as you’d expect. I mean, that’s the advantage of being the leftovers from two duos, because Gordon being no longer with us, and Chad having retired, we just thought “What the hell? Let’s start a new duo, Peter & Jeremy’.” I get to sing their hits for the first time like “A Summer Song” and “Yesterday’s Gone,” and Jeremy gets to sing “World Without Love” and our other hits. It’s fun and we have a lot of stories between us. Jeremy, of course, is a successful actor as well, so we both have fun being on stage together.
PKM: Tell me about your radio show on Sirius XM.
Peter Asher: They approached me about a year or so ago, I guess it’s been a year and half now. They said they had this idea and was I interested. They were starting a Beatles channel. I checked with Apple and with The Beatles themselves to make sure this request was coming from them and not just from the radio station. I mean, I obviously wouldn’t do it if they weren’t on board with it, but they were. They said “Yes, yes, we think it would be good and we hope you do it!” So I did it, and you have to listen to it to know what it is. I tell stories and fill in bits of history and play Beatle records and other stuff that’s Beatle related.
PKM: What music are you listening to these days?
Peter Asher: Let’s see…yesterday I was listening to some Iris DeMent because somebody was talking about her and I realized she had a new record out. She’s great. I listen to Pop Radio, I listen to the bluegrass station I listen to the jazz station on XM, I listen to the Beatles station sometimes, so it’s a pretty broad spectrum. A lot of the time I listen to BBC World Service and that’s not music at all, but I do listen in the car pretty much all the time. I just bounce around between different stations.
PKM: What is your take on analog versus digital?
Peter Asher: I think there’s very little difference these days. When digital was first introduced, it had some real deficiencies. To my mind it sounds just fine. I mean, I understand the affection for vinyl records. Does it really make a big difference sonically? No. And it only makes a difference if you really look after your vinyl records anyway, and I was never one of those people who did that…the people who carefully wiped them down and put them back in the sleeves and all that. I was more of the ‘let them all lie on the floor in a mess’ school of thought, which didn’t make them sound very good. So I’m entirely happy in the digital world. As far as recording goes, I don’t use tape at all. I get people who say “Oh you’re so lucky, you made all your records in the tape age” I don’t see it that way at all. I think I’m lucky now that I’m making them in the digital age.
Check out Peter’s radio show Peter Asher: From Me To You on the Sirius XM Beatles Channel: