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PETER ASHER BACK IN THE SPOTLIGHT

Peter Asher and Albert Lee
Peter Asher and Albert Lee

Peter Asher is in full flight. He tells a great tale. He is talking about (Beatles manager) Brian Epstein and how hindsight plays tricks on us. Asher, that ’60s pop star and then Grammy winning producer and top flight manager, recalls that when he took over the reins Epstein told anyone who would listen that The Beatles would be bigger than Elvis. Now it is not only plausible (depending on which side of that fence you sit), then it was laughable. “It’s easy to say that anybody could have spotted that,” he pauses, to deliver a punchline you suspect he has delivered many times before, “but they didn’t.”

“…there is something to be said for acclaim. It would be silly to pretend that ego wasn’t part of it. If a song goes really well and the audience loves it and the people are clapping and you are bowing it feels great and I am not going to pretend it doesn’t.”

Peter Asher

That kind of wise-after-the-event view has coloured Asher’s lengthy career in the music business a little. Because it has worked so spectacularly for so long, because maybe he made it look so easy. Being in the right place at the right time is of course an important ingredient but when that door opens you have to be ready and more importantly be able to do what’s required.

Hindsight has suggested that Asher’s great success had a measure of luck involved. He agrees but that does not mean there was not a lot of hard work too. He and childhood friend Gordon Waller began playing London’s coffee houses in 1962 as, naturally enough, Peter and Gordon. They were spotted and signed by EMI in 1963. By the time they were set to head into the Abbey Road Studios for their first sessions in early 1964, Asher had showed producer Norman Newell a song he wanted to record. It was written by the boarder who shared a bedroom in his parents’ home. This roommate, who was going out with his sister Jane, was on the edge of unimaginable fame and had songs to burn. Or at least too many to record. Paul McCartney’s World Without Love was a world wide smash for Peter and Gordon (although it had been dismissed as not good enough for The Beatles to record) and set the duo on a solid career that would last another four years.

McCartney would also provide their next two singles before they searched further afield for their material. Peter and Jane Asher are possibly the only people intimately connected to the Beatles who have not penned books about their time with them. When asked why he hasn’t recounted those heady days he says rather dismissively (of book publishers), “you know what they want… For some reason I just don’t want to.”

Peter and Gordon toured the world and racked up the hits but could not withstand the rising tide of hippiedom and by 1967 they were feeling the strain. By 1968 they were exhausted and short on ideas.

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With a little more good luck at this time, Asher was appointed head of A&R at The Beatles’ newly formed Apple label.

He soon added another title to his name when he was given the task of producing the debut album by transplanted American James Taylor. Despite having such gems as Something In The Way She Moves (the title of which gave George Harrison a great idea for a whole different song) and Taylor’s first stab at Carolina In My Mind, the album bombed.

Asher had loved the experience and was so convinced of Taylor’s talent he jumped ship and crossed the Atlantic with the singer songwriter. Soon he was to find himself not only Taylor’s producer but also his manager.

“When Apple fell apart and James Taylor was heading back to America I bet my career on his completely. ‘I will be his manager and figure it out as I go.’ I believed absolutely in how good James Taylor was. And, by the way, I still do. History bears me out, I wasn’t wrong. The man’s a genius.” They would have a 30 year career together, for much of this Asher wearing both hats.

“Management, I only did because of James. At the point he was leaving to go back to America he didn’t have a manager and we didn’t know who we could trust to do it. I was inspired again to some degree by Brian Epstein. He wasn’t a manager, he ran a record shop. The main attribute is to be an decent, honest person and have an absolute conviction in how good your act is. To allow them to make the records and do the gigs they want to do and invite the public to come on board, believing they would because the act is so good. That’s what happened with The Beatles and that’s what happened with James.

“The only thing I do really take credit for is making the jump at the right time. Every time a good opportunity came along I leapt at it wholeheartedly and didn’t hesitate. That happened repeatedly, obviously. I gave myself credit for that but the presence of those opportunities was miraculous.”

Asher steered Taylor’s career to the top of the charts from his California base. As the ’70s rolled along he came across an exceptional singer who seemed to never quite get the break she deserved. Linda Ronstadt had struck Asher in much the same way as Taylor. Here was a major talent hiding in plain view. Why aren’t these great records selling? Why isn’t she a star? It looked like a job for a man who already had his hands full.

As with Taylor, Asher took on Ronstadt as both producer and manager. By the late 1970s, in the music industry’s glory days, the three of them shared a Rolling Stone magazine cover. His transition from in the spotlight to behind the curtains was complete. Asher says he was comfortable there in the shadows, with no great desire to perform again.

“I just felt very glad to have helped. It is a real sign of accomplishment that together as partners you’ve come so far. It is great to be standing in a sold out arena watching a singer that you told everyone for years how good they were and then between their ability and your help this has been achieved.

And the dual roles never brought problems?

“I found it really easy,” he says with a laugh. “The manager and producer didn’t disagree. I always respected the artist and their wishes and my job was to help them in the studio and in their career in general and not to be some Svengali telling them what to do. I was lucky to have two exceptionally charming and intelligent artists who were also extremely talented.”

It does not take much to scratch that veneer though. When asked if there’s nothing he missed when standing side of stage while someone else took the bows and felt the warm glow of a rapturous crowd, he says, “mostly the music of course,” and then pauses before continuing “but there is something to be said for acclaim. It would be silly to pretend that ego wasn’t part of it. If a song goes really well and the audience loves it and the people are clapping and you are bowing it feels great and I am not going to pretend it doesn’t. There is a bit of (he adopts a Sally Field at the Oscars’ tone) ‘they like me, they really like me’, it’s a real part of it, no question. When people see you in the street and say they saw your concert the other night, it feels good.”

In the early part of this century Asher got back in touch with Waller and the pair of them played a couple of charity gigs. This led to more shows up to Waller’s untimely death in 2009. He has teamed up with Jeremy Clyde from their ’60s competitors Chad and Jeremy for several tours but more recently he has been working with one of the UK’s greatest ever guitarists, Albert Lee, in a show that features both songs and stories that trace their musical origins all the way back to their youth and a mutual love of close harmony singing.

“We did a couple of benefits together and we learned we had a lot in common,” Asher says. “Like we both knew every Everly Brothers song by heart. He of course played with them for many years. We tried singing together to see what happened and we liked it and the audiences liked it. It was somebody else’s idea at first who said why don’t you two guys put together an acoustic night of stories and songs. We asked if people really would want to see two old men rambling away.

“We aren’t playing huge places and if people want to yell out, we can hear them and it’s fine. It becomes a very collaborative evening.

“Albert is amazing, whether he’s playing a million miles an hour on a Telecaster or more thoughtfully on an acoustic. People tend to overlook what a great singer he is and what a great pianist he is. I gave up performing for 27 years and I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t fun. Albert and I look forward to it every night because we always have a good time.”

Head to the Astor Theatre on Sunday, August 25, and hear Peter Asher and Albert Lee share stories and songs from their long and illustrious careers. Tickets from Ticketek.

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