How Peter Asher, a jack-of-all-trades in music, mastered them all
By Bob Mehr
In December 1977, in an exceptionally rare move, Rolling Stone put a producer and a manager on its cover: Peter Asher, a bespectacled, copper-haired Brit, photographed sandwiched between his artists James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt.
Asher was at his zenith then, having guided the careers of two of the decade’s defining stars, and about to pick up his first producer of the year Grammy. “People always ask, ‘What does it take to become a great manager or a great producer?’” Asher said recently. “And the answer is tragically simple: great clients.”
Of course there’s more to the story, which Asher detailed over breakfast on a breezy fall morning at a beachside club in the Los Angeles enclave he has called home for the past 40 years. His journey is the subject of a new biography by David Jacks, “Peter Asher: A Life in Music,” out Tuesday.
Asher — peering through tortoiseshell glasses, framed by tufts of faded red hair — was initially dubious at the prospect of a book. “I told David, ‘I wouldn’t count on selling it,’” he noted, in a musically lilting accent. “Because I don’t think I’m all that interesting.”
At 78, Asher remains a fascinating music business anomaly. In an industry filled with specialists, he has moved between roles with a remarkable ease. A pop star during the British Invasion, he became the head of A&R for the Beatles’ Apple Records label in the late ’60s, before segueing to a career as a top artist manager and record producer in the ’70s and ’80s. He spent a decade as a label executive before returning to management, producing, and even performing, as well as finding new avenues as the author of a Beatles book and radio broadcaster.
“Anybody can get a bunch of different jobs,” Ronstadt said in a phone interview. “The question is whether they can do them well. And Peter has done every single one of them to the utmost.”
Steve Martin, the comedian and musician, said he first heard Asher’s name floating around the Troubadour nightclub in the 1970s, “and he was already legendary then.”
“Peter’s just one of those people who knows the exact right thing to say, whether you’re at dinner together or working in the studio,” he added in a phone interview.
That thoughtfulness has helped ensure Asher’s enduring success, including 60 gold and platinum albums for clients and collaborators including Randy Newman, Carole King, Neil Diamond and 10,000 Maniacs. “I’ve never been someone who reacts with his gut; I tend to think about things in great detail,” Asher said. “That’s what’s always helped me to spot the opportunities and move forward.”
Born in London in 1944, Asher came from an accomplished family. His mother, Margaret Eliot, was a teacher at the Royal Academy of Music whose private pupils included future Beatles producer George Martin. His father, Dr. Richard Asher, was a pioneering medical theorist, who first identified and named Munchausen’s Syndrome.
Peter Asher and his younger sisters, Jane and Clare, were scouted by an agent, leading to childhood acting careers. His first film role came opposite Claudette Colbert in “The Planter’s Wife” (1952), but he focused on his studies at the prestigious Westminster School, where he would meet his future musical partner Gordon Waller. The lanky, sonorous Waller and the diminutive choirboy Asher were a stark visual and vocal contrast, but they clicked instantly. The fledgling folk-pop duo Peter & Gordon landed a deal with EMI Records in 1963.
By then, Jane Asher was dating Paul McCartney, who moved into the Asher family residence and offered “A World Without Love,” rejected by John Lennon, to Peter & Gordon. It became their debut single and a worldwide hit.
Peter Asher’s first unofficial producing experience came as he helped shape the song at EMI Studios. “I wanted to be a producer straightaway,” he recalled. “To be able to try things out in this beautiful studio and get to tell brilliant musicians, much better than yourself, what do to — that struck me as a fabulous job.”
When the Beatles tapped him to head A&R operations for their newly established Apple Records in 1968, Asher quickly discovered an American singer-songwriter visiting London named James Taylor, produced his self-titled debut, then moved to America with him, seeking a fresh start.
“When people talk about what a producer does, there are numerous answers,” Asher said of the early lessons he learned behind the board. “But one of them is knowing when to stop recording,” noting that the title track to Taylor’s third album, “Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon,” was the result of more than 100 takes.
In 1973, Asher took on managerial duties for Ronstadt, kicking off one of the longest and most successful artist-producer partnerships in history.
Asher’s work with Ronstadt — starting with pristinely produced, multiplatinum pop smashes like “Simple Dreams” and “Living in the USA” — evolved in the 1980s as she began exploring the Great American Songbook on “What’s New,” the first of three Nelson Riddle-arranged albums of standards. “I did not believe it would be a big hit, let alone sell 4 million copies,” Asher said. “It was purely a belief in Linda.”
The faith ran both ways. Ronstadt tapped Asher to produce her 1987 album “Canciones de Mi Padre,” a deeply personal exploration of her Mexican heritage, and their success helped make him a go-to producer for top women artists, including Bonnie Raitt, Diana Ross, Cher and Natalie Merchant. “I didn’t seek it out,” Asher said, “but have no objection to the fact that I ended up working with so many brilliant women.”
Asher’s current assignment, an as-yet-untitled solo record for Bangles singer Susanna Hoffs, is a sophisticated song collection in the mold of his ’70 albums for Ronstadt. Nearly 60 years after he first set foot in the studio, Asher’s enthusiasm remains palpable. “On a day like today, when I know I’m going into the studio,” he said, “I wake up excited.”
Just two weeks after our conversation in Malibu, however, Asher woke up in the intensive care unit of Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, following an emergency brain surgery. Over the summer, while in London, he had fallen and suffered a concussion. Doctors in Britain initially cleared him, but weeks later, he began experience disquieting symptoms, including difficulty walking and playing guitar. Asher had just completed a second brain scan in early October, and was on his way home when the doctors called in a panic.
“They said, ‘Turn right back around, you are in surgery as soon as you get here,’” said Asher, who was suffering a massive brain bleed and in critical danger. “They had to drill a few holes in my head.”
Surviving a near-death experience left Asher unfazed. “I’m not one of those people whose own mortality suddenly dawned on them — it’s never been any question,” he said. “As the son of a doctor, I suppose I took some refuge in being fascinated by the science of it all. Though I wish I had not been the subject of this particular experiment.”
The extended recovery time did force Asher to take a rare break, during which he finally began reading David Jacks’ biography of him in full. “I did,” he said, chuckling. “And, you know, I realize that perhaps my life has been a bit more interesting than I thought.”