Peter Asher’s legendary music career began in 1964 with the formation of Peter & Gordon. In 1968, Asher became head of A&R for the Beatles newly formed record company, Apple Records. Three years later, Asher decided to literally head in a different direction and moved to the U.S., where he founded Peter Asher Management. Peter Asher Management became one of the most successful artist management companies in America, handling artists such as Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt and Carole King. Asher has produced 12 Grammy Award-winning recordings, and in 1977 and 1989 was honored individually with the Grammy Award for “Producer of the Year.” Playing select dates now, Asher stopped by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, to talk about his recent projects, keeping current, and being among the first people to ever hear the Beatles "I Want to Hold Your Hand" when Paul McCartney was staying at his house.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Tell us about the dates you're playing now...
Peter Asher: It's not really a tour it's just occasional dates. I have so much fun doing it. To be honest, I look on these shows almost as, not a kind of vacation, but certainly a distraction, a day off from whatever project I'm in the middle of or other things I'm worried about because the fun of actually singing the songs, telling the stories and meeting all the people gives a whole different flavor to the other work I do.
RRHOF: You have been doing this for a while though..
PA: As you probably know, Gordon and I didn't sing together for 38 years, which we thought was just going to be a short hiatus, but it grew in length. When we got back together, which we did for a benefit … it was fun so we decided to do a few more shows and I'm glad we did because Gordon died a few years later. One of the things I noticed when we did these shows, people were as interested in the stories that I had to tell as they were in hearing the old songs. Initially, I was even nervous about getting back together and singing the songs. I thought, "This is kind of old news." But I realized once we started doing it that the songs mean a lot to people. You see people actually crying because "that's the song I got engaged to my wife" or whatever. And the stories were of great interest to people and very often to younger people who weren't there. I had this idea of combining all of that and a bunch of multimedia stuff, photos and videos, into a show that I could do by myself with a very good band, which I have. So I tried it out. The first one we did was three or four years ago at the Grammy Museum in L.A. To be honest, it changes a little every night. I think of different things as I'm telling the stories. It takes me back and I remember stuff and every now and then I'll add something.
RRHOF: Like an interesting demo you came across?
PA: I recently found the demo Paul McCartney had made for me of "A World Without Love." Once you find something and put it in the show, it's everywhere the next day, there’re no secrets. We play that now, and I found that about six months ago. I thought the reel–to-reel tape had gone, but I found a DAT transfer, which I had done at the time when DATs were going to be the future, that still hasn't quite happened (laughs). I have added in a couple of poster and photos that I found very recently. In fact, I was just mentioning that we found this poster of us and the Rolling Stones when we toured together, we were co-headlining. They were closing, but we were billed equally. I threw that in somewhere, found a way to fit that into the narrative. [pictured: Paul McCartney and Peter Asher / from Peter Asher Collection]
RRHOF: I heard a story that you were coming downstairs in your house and a couple Beatles were sitting at your piano, having written a rather famous song. Is that true?
PA: No, I came downstairs at their request. In our house, Paul [McCartney] was living in our family home for a couple of years when they weren't on the road. He and I shared the top floor where the guest room and my bedroom were. In the basement, there was a little music room where my mother gave oboe lessons. She taught at the Royal Academy of Music up the road, where she was an oboe professor and she also gave private lessons at home. To digress for a second, one of the interesting facts is that long before I had anything to do with the Beatles or had anything to do with anything, one of my mother’s pupils, whom she taught the oboe, was George Martin. Just weird, couldn't make that stuff up.
Anyway, Paul would sometime use the music room when my mother wasn't teaching there. It had a small upright piano, a music stand and a sofa. One afternoon early on, shortly after he moved in, John [Lennon] came over and they were down there together for a couple of hours. No guitars, sitting at the piano, side by side, and Paul stuck his head out the door and called upstairs and asked me if I wanted to come down. He had the song they finished. So I came down and sat on the sofa, opposite the upright piano, and they played “I Want to Hold Your Hand” for the first time, and they asked me what I thought. “What did you think?” I said it was very good!
It does sound a bit pretentious because it's only rock and roll, but there actually is something extraordinary about being present at the moment of the creation of great art. Your first reaction is you want to hear it again because it is just so incredibly good. You do wonder if you are losing your mind or if it's about the best song you ever heard or both, but it was. At that point I was 20.
RRHOF: Linda Ronstadt is a 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominee. You worked with her…
PA: Best girl singer I ever worked with in my life. Should be in The Rock and Roll hall of Fame, it's a shame, but she will be. Not that I would have voted for my own friends of course, but I did cast my vote thoughtfully.
RRHOF: James Taylor is one Hall of Fame Inductee you’ve also worked with…
PA: Amazing. I mean I owe James a great debt of thanks, because I bet my career on his. After I left Apple, I wrote a letter of resignation and suggested to James that we should leave. He wanted to go back to America anyway. So, we left Apple, and I agreed to become his manager, and we both came over to America. He went to the East Coast for a little bit of rehab, which he was in need of at the time. I came to California and made a new record deal for him with Warner Brothers, and we prepared to make the next album. Essentially I took a gamble, but I didn't have much to lose. I was young, and I didn't have any money because back then, as you know, no one made money being a pop singer – even the Beatles. They made their money later. So, I didn't have much of anything, and I just really bet on my belief in James, which turned out to be a good bet, I'm happy to say. I owe him a debt of gratitude for that.
RRHOF: Do you remember the first time you heard Taylor perform?
PA: The first time I heard him sing I was totally knocked out, because here was someone who looked like he was just going to be an ordinary strumming folkie [but] he played the guitar with the skill of a classical guitarist. He had been listening to Segovia and Julian Bream as well as pop music. Even though he had an almost folkie-ish flavor to his voice, his phrasing owed more to Sam Cooke and Ray Charles. He played classical guitar, but with sort of jazz voicing as well as all the folkie [suspended] chords and stuff. Then he wrote these incredible songs. I was extremely impressed and still am. [Peter & Gordon circa 1964 / Courtesy Capitol/EMI]
RRHOF: How do you stay current?
PA: I probably don't really. We were just talking about how Elton [John] is probably the best at that. He knows which is the best track and all that stuff; he's amazing. I wait for someone to tell me, to be honest. I listen if somebody says you have to hear so-and-so's record or I talk to my daughter, of course, who is in a band herself and loves music and will often point me in the direction of something cool. I don't go out scouring the clubs or buying every record that comes out, but I still am very excited about new music. I am certainly not one of those, "They don't write songs like that anymore" people. I think there is some amazing stuff out there. There are great people out there, and I'm always excited when you find someone new.
RRHOF: And you’re currently working on a project with Elton John?
PA: It's the 40th anniversary of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. It's always been one of my favorite Elton records, and everyone else's, too. Universal is doing a big celebration of the 40th anniversary and putting out a whole repackaged and remastered version. Elton asked me if I wanted to cut eight of the songs off that album with current artists. I got to do “Candle in The Wind” with Ed Sheeran, “Benny and The Jets” with Miguel and “Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting” with Fallout Boy, which was just fantastic. I knew Patrick Stump already through my daughter Victoria because they're friends, and he had done a track for this Buddy Holly project I did. He's incredible, amazing musician, and they all are. So I got to work with all of them … on these incredible and legendary songs that Bernie [Taupin] and Elton wrote.
RRHOF: Is there someone new that you would like to work with that you haven't yet?
PA: I would love to work with someone like Bruno Mars. He's such a great singer, but he is such a great producer himself, so I don't think he needs me. The people I work with tend to be a series of haphazard connections. When I produced the soundtrack for Pirates of the Caribbean 4, Hans [Zimmer] suggested bringing in Rodrigo Y Gabriella who are these unbelievably great guitar players. People either know them and love them or don't know them at all. During the course of that they asked me if I would produce their next album, which we went and did in Cuba with Cuban percussionist and all that, and that was amazing.