GRAMMY Hall Of Fame Inspirations: Peter Asher
(To commemorate the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame's 40th Anniversary in 2013, GRAMMY.com has launched GRAMMY Hall Of Fame Inspirations. The ongoing series will feature conversations with various GRAMMY winners who will identify GRAMMY Hall Of Fame recordings that have influenced them and helped shape their careers.)
The evolution of Peter Asher's relationship with music is quite impressive.
It began with a series of harmonized hits in the '60s with friend Gordon Waller as part of the British duo Peter & Gordon, with whom he recorded the John Lennon/Paul McCartney-penned No. 1 hit "A World Without Love." He then served as head of A&R for the Beatles' Apple Records label where he signed James Taylor and produced the GRAMMY winner's 1968 self-titled debut. Asher would ultimately become a three-time GRAMMY winner for his work as a producer.
Interestingly, when it comes to his musical DNA, Asher's influences stretch far beyond pop.
"Initially, I was listening to classical music at home," he says of growing up in London. Asher's mother, who was an oboe professor at the Royal Academy of Music, gave lessons to a young George Martin.
"When I started discovering other music, I fell in love with American folk music," he says. "Woody Guthrie is [a] great example. And American jazz — I'm equally a fan of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, [and] Max Roach as I am of Woody and Lead Belly."
In reviewing the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame recordings roster, Asher had no trouble coming up with a rich quintet of recordings that were crucial to his development.
Dust Bowl Ballads, Volumes 1 & 2
"Woody Guthrie songs were the first time I realized how significant lyrics could be, how they could tell stories — long before I knew someone like James Taylor or anyone from the singer/songwriter era, a term that didn't exist then. John Steinbeck said that Woody told the story of Tom Joad [from Steinbeck's The Grapes Of Wrath] in five minutes better than he did in 500 pages. Dustbowl Ballads is a great album, and every song has a great story and great melodies. 'Vigilante Man' [with] that modal, gloomy melody. [And] 'Do Re Mi' [is] truer now than ever."
Charlie Parker With Strings
"Even though I'm a great admirer of [Charlie Parker's] compositions, [on Charlie Parker With Strings] he's doing classic songs, in some cases probably the first time I heard them. It was also a crossover for me in that I already loved the sound of the orchestra. It influenced me in that I realized all the other roles strings could play. Of course, I heard them on R&B and pop records, but hearing Charlie Parker's genius against those great Norman Granz arrangements … it got very mixed reactions. 'Oh! They're trying to make Charlie Parker sell out!' I don't think that at all. This is some of his greatest playing. I don't know what his attitude was. No one does. But it influenced the records I made in the sense that I used strings a lot."
"Bye Bye Love"
The Everly Brothers
Rock & Roll (Single)
"When I met Gordon [Waller] we were at school together in Westminster. I was a jazz [fan] and folkie, and he was more of a rocker and introduced me to Buddy Holly and Elvis, beyond the hits. It was Gordon who probably first played for me the Everly Brothers and we were in awe of the accuracy and joy of the harmony singing. If anybody inspired us to sing together it was them. I'd [played] with Andrew [Irvine] and in skiffle groups, but the first actual duo singing I tried was with Gordon, inspired by the Everly Brothers.
"At the time this seemed wholly original. It wasn't until later on that Linda Ronstadt gave me my country education and played the Louvin Brothers. 'Oh! The Everly Brothers didn't write it!' Well, we all start off sounding like someone. Bob Dylan was Woody. The Everly Brothers sounded like the Louvins. And we tried to sound like the Everly Brothers — and failed.
"And David Crosby once [told] me about when he and [the Byrds co-founder] Chris Hillman started singing together. I said, 'Oh, you must have tried to sound like the Everly Brothers.' He said, 'No, we tried to sound like you guys! English.' I was so flattered."
"The history of 'Hey Jude' is a little roundabout. There's a reason I remember it so clearly. I heard it just as they finished it. As you may know, it was the first record they did with eight tracks. I had done James Taylor's record at Trident [Studios]. Paul came over and played on 'Carolina In My Mind' for me. That was the first time he'd seen eight tracks in action. We later found that EMI studios had one all the time, but they were testing it. So when Paul came over and played on James' record, that was the first time to my knowledge he saw that and decided to bring the Beatles over and track there.
"I remember hearing ['Hey Jude'] the first time in Trident Studios with these big Tannoy speakers. It just sounded so amazing. Never been another pop record like it in history. Hall Of Fame [worthy] on numerous levels: too long [and] too complicated, all the things pop singles weren't supposed to be. And I was fortunate [to be] there at the time."
"You've Got A Friend"
Warner Bros. (1971)
"Obviously, it's difficult to put in a record I produced. But I remember standing with James in the balcony of the Troubadour in L.A. during soundcheck [for his] first show with Carole King [in 1970]. It was not the first time he'd played there, but after Sweet Baby James was a hit, I decided to assemble the same band except the bass player, as we had found Lee Sklar at the time. I had [drummer] Russ Kunkel, [guitarist] Danny Kortchmar and on piano Carole King.
"I'd always been a fan of hers when it was just [her name] on records as a songwriter. I didn't know who she was. [I] met her through Danny and asked her to play on the album. At the show we prevailed on Carole, who had never done a show before, to open [and perform] songs others had made famous for her. She also [performed] the songs she had been writing for herself, which would turn into Tapestry. At soundcheck she played this song she had just finished, 'You've Got A Friend,' and James and I were in the balcony with our mouths open. James asked her to play it again and asked if she minded if he learned it. And we asked if she would mind us recording it. She was outrageously generous and said fine.
"I remember distinctly how much fun it was making that record. We didn't necessarily follow the rules of what would be a great record. We were just trying to capture how well James sang this incredible song Carole had written. And in this case I'd have to say we got it right."
(In the course of his career, Peter Asher has earned three GRAMMY Awards, including Producer Of The Year in 1977 and 1989. Asher has established himself as one of pop music's most accomplished producers, overseeing hits by artists such as Cher, Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, and 10,000 Maniacs, among others.)
(Steve Hochman has been covering the music world since 1985. He can be heard regularly discussing new music releases on KPCC-FM's "Take Two" and the KQED-FM-produced show "The California Report," and he is also a regular contributor to the former station's arts blog "Without A Net." For 25 years he was a mainstay of the pop music team at the Los Angeles Times and his work has appeared in many other publications.)