Peter Asher is a legend with whom you may or may not be familiar. Regardless, somewhere along the line, his artistry has likely touched your life. Over the course of a career spanning five decades he’s been an actor, a pop star, an A&R rep, and a manager and producer of some of the most well known names in popular music.
Asher is currently promoting the PBS special American Masters: Troubadours Carole King/James Taylor and the Rise of the Singer/Songwriter, and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to speak with him this week by phone. During our conversation we discussed his long journey through the music business.
You may know him as Peter from the ’60s U.K. pop duo Peter and Gordon. While in school, he and Gordon Waller met, started out playing music for fun and “lurched into the pop music scene.” A talent scout from EMI heard them and signed them. It wouldn’t be the last time fate would aid the talented Asher and propel his career forward.
While Waller was more interested in singing and performing, Asher immersed himself in the craft of producing records. “I was fascinated by production as well as the creative process. Producing was also a way to tell artists who are way better than you are what to do,” he says with a laugh. At their recording sessions, Asher would sit at the boards and assist the producer until he got good enough to do the work himself.
The duo had a number of huge hits including “Nobody I Know” and “Lady Godiva.” Asher’s sister, actress Jane Asher, was Paul McCartney’s girlfriend at the time, which led to McCartney penning “World Without Love” for the duo.
“We used to hang out with Paul at his house,” Asher recalls. “One time I asked him to finish writing “World Without Love” so we could record it.” Paul wrote the bridge and the song became one of Peter and Gordon’s biggest hits.
Asher and McCartney would often lament the state of the record industry. “In those days record companies were formal, not ‘groovy’, unlike today where they try to be more open to what new artists have to offer.” McCartney wanted to establish a company that would be less for big business and more for the artist. Eventually he and the other Beatles would form Apple Records. Despite its eventual financial and legal woes, McCartney stayed true to his vision and Apple was first and foremost for the artist.
Asher was asked by McCartney to be Apple’s first A&R man. Not long after Asher took the reins, a young songwriter named James Taylor contacted him. “He didn’t know I worked for Apple and the Beatles. I was very impressed by his tape and immediately wanted to produce him.” He adds, “I feel very lucky to have discovered him.”
Taylor was a rare breed: not a true folk artist but neither was he a rocker. The term “singer-songwriter” had not yet been coined and Taylor became the archetype for this new type of artist, landing on the cover of Time Magazine because of it.
The advent of the singer/songwriter was a fine way to welcome the new decade of the 1970s. Taylor was the first. But artists like Carole King, Elton John, Joni Mitchell, and Cat Stevens also came into prominence at around the same time.
Taylor’s debut record was his self-titled release or the “Apple Album,” as it came to be known. “I wasn’t pleased with the “Apple Album,” Asher says. “It was overproduced, overcooked, but it got James attention and helped make him a major singer-songwriter.”
Asher went on to produce Taylor’s breakout record, Sweet Baby James, which included the powerful, plaintive hit, “Fire and Rain.” The record made Taylor a superstar and from the early to mid seventies he created what are arguably his finest recordings, his discipline and drive never flagging despite having a heroin addiction. At the time, Asher wasn’t aware of Taylor’s drug problem. “I just thought he was this moody American who spent a lot of time in the bathroom,” Asher admits. When Asher finally did find out about Taylor’s addiction he tried to help him overcome it as much as he could but ultimately, he says, “it was up to him to work through his addictions on his own.”
Asher has worked with many other artists over the years. Natalie Merchant, Linda Ronstadt, Andrew Gold, Neil Diamond, and Bonnie Raitt are just a few of the well known singer/songwriters who have benefited from Asher’s studio expertise. I asked if there was a hunger evident in these artists when they first came onto the scene, a hunger that might have lessened over time. “A hunger for success plays a role in finding success as an artist,” Asher says, “but even established artists have a drive to do good work.”
Through the years, Asher has seen many changes in the music business. “In some ways,” he says, “the business has changed for the better since these days artists have the power to do things the way they want. But the basics haven’t changed, only the mechanics have.” These days, music can be shared through the touch of a key, and while this facet of the business has been in many ways “a nightmare,” the upside is that the music reaches more people. The fact that the money is not what it used to be is, of course, a disappointment. “The days are gone when an artist can depend on his record making millions of dollars.” Asher doubts those days will ever return.
He is pleased, however, with the how far technology has come over the past forty years and enthuses over what he can do in the studio now as opposed to then.
What about the advent of televised competition shows like American Idol and X-Factor opening doors for new talent? “They’re okay but they’re nothing new,” he says. “Mary Hopkin was discovered on a TV show called Opportunity Knocks back in the ’60s. Occasionally there’ll be a good singer who gets noticed.”
Lately, Asher’s been listening to groups like Muse and The Script, who he calls “amazing.” He also enthuses about a band called Cobra Starship. The dance-pop group had an international hit with a song called “Good Girls Go Bad,” and the band’s keytarist just happens to be Asher’s daughter, Victoria Asher.
Finally, what advice would Asher give to someone wanting to make it as a musician? “Take every opportunity available to you, whether you think it’s worthwhile or not. And most importantly, never stop writing and performing.”
American Masters: Troubadours James Taylor/Carole King & the Rise of the Singer-Songwriter will debut on PBS stations March 1st. The soundtrack CD/DVD set will be released March 2nd on Concord Records.