A real-life music legend who witnessed the birth of the British Invasion is coming to town.
Artist/Producer/Music Executive Peter Asher has one of the greatest resumes in rock and roll. He’s bringing his songs and stories to Boston’s City Winery Wednesday, May 11, and the United Theatre in Westerly, RI Thursday, May 12.
Asher first hit the music scene as a chart-topping artist in 1964 with the #1 song “World Without Love,” (a song written by Paul McCartney), as one-half of the duo Peter & Gordon. He went on to work for The Beatles and later produce over 100 albums, from the likes of James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Neil Diamond, 10,000 Maniacs, and Cher.
I recently spoke to the two-time Grammy winner about his show, “Peter Asher: A Musical Memoir of the 60s and Beyond” which brings a multimedia experience to the stage. Asher shared memories of the Beatles, especially those around McCartney, who spent time living in Asher’s parent’s home in the early 1960s. McCartney even dated Asher’s sister for several years.
One of the greatest stories in rock and roll history centers around how McCartney informally auditioned an early Beatles song in front of Asher in 1964. The Fab Four’s first #1 hit, “I Want to Hand Your Hand” was tested out in Asher’s basement.
“We were sharing the top floor of the house at the time,” explained Asher. “There was a small room in the basement… my mother used to teach piano lessons there and told Paul he could use the piano, a very small upright piano which is now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”
“One day John Lennon came over and the two of them were down there for a couple of hours. As I recall, I was alone in the house, everyone else was out, and Paul called up the stairs to me after a couple of hours and asked if I wanted to come down and hear the song they had just finished,” he continued.
“So I went downstairs to the basement and sat in this little room on a small two-person sofa. They sat side by side on the piano bench, no guitars. They hammered out this version of a brand new song they had just finished called “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and asked me what I thought… I told them I thought it was very good. I was in the right place at the right time.”
Asher later joined The Beatles as an executive when their label Apple Records was founded. He recalls how well the band worked together.
“In my role as Head of A&R at Apple, we used to have weekly meetings, and as many of them as were around would come and take part. What was noticeable and what shows up in the documentary, Get Back, was that their collaboration far exceeded whatever arguments ensued. Whereas previously we had a somewhat reversed picture of that,” he explained.
“They would let each other have their own projects, follow through on their own wishes and intentions. They collaborated very well but they also let each other have the freedom to pursue other projects. In terms of Apple, Paul was the general leader as it appeared in the documentary, but they were generous toward each other – whether John wanted to do a Yoko project or whatever it was. You get the impression that the Apple years were more argument than anything else, but they were generally a very collaborative and generous group to each other,” said Asher.
You’ll hear stories like this one at the show. Asher tours with a band and plays his originals and some covers. “It’s a combination, a multimedia thing with some songs some stories, some video clips, and photos, all kinds of stuff,” he said.
As The Beatles were breaking up, Asher “discovered” a rising singer-songwriter. I asked him what he found so compelling about James Taylor.
“Well, actually everything.” he responded. “His voice itself is impressive enough, warm almost like Bing Crosby, a beautiful, comfortable kind of folky voice. But the phrasing he was using wasn’t folky at all, it was more Ray Charles, Sam Cooke. Clearly, he had learned his phrasing from the masters of soul.”
“His guitar playing, which included elements of classical guitar, was amazing in and of itself, and then, of course, his songwriting,” he continued. “What was so extraordinary was that in each of those separate areas, I clearly thought he was quite exceptional, I thought it was some of the best stuff I had ever heard and it was on that basis when Apple was folding, we decided, James and I, that I would bet my career on his, and moved to America.”
The rest is history. Asher produced several of Taylor’s groundbreaking albums in the 1970’s including Sweet Baby James, One Man Dog and JT, for which he won a Grammy Award for “Producer of the Year.”
“I’m not saying I knew at the time how big he’d become, cover of Time magazine, and presidential awards and everything that’s happened over the years. I certainly thought he’s so good there’s no way people will be able to ignore him.”
Another major star whose career accelerated under Asher was Linda Ronstadt. She had some modest success before Asher arrived to manage her. “I was in New York and someone said you should go hear this girl who is singing at The Bitter End. She’s got an amazing voice, she sings barefoot in these short shorts, amazing looking … so I went. And it was all true, she had a voice like I had never heard before, with incredibly accurate pitch, and great singing. And she was beautiful and charming at the same time.”
“When I got to know her, I discovered she was one of the smartest women I had ever met, incredibly well-read, thoughtful, and articulate,” he explained. “She’s the best straightforward singer I’ve ever been able to work with.”
Asher won Grammy Awards for Producer of the Year for Ronstadt’s Simple Dreams, and Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind. He later went on to produce top-selling albums from artists as diverse as Cher, Steve Martin, Dianna Ross, and Morrissey.
Asher is still making music almost 60 years since “A World Without Love” was released.
“I’m finishing an album with Susanna Hoffs who I’ve always been a big fan of, since the Bangles days,” he shared. “She’s in the process of finishing up an album which will be out in late summer. We’ve done a bunch of tracks it’s great, she sounds amazing.”
Asher swings through the region later this week. “City Winery in Boston is great, we’re certainly looking forward to it … and we’ll see you in Rhode Island too!