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British Invasion star Peter Asher shares hit songs, history

Peter Asher visits Johnny D’s in Somerville on July 24.

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Peter Asher visits Johnny D’s in Somerville on July 24.

Few people have sustained decades-long careers in the music business, but Peter Asher has been at it for a half-century. During the 1960s, Asher and his schoolmate Gordon Waller regularly made the Top 20 charts as British invaders Peter and Gordon, scoring a Number One hit with Paul McCartney’s “A World Without Love,” and following up with poppy-folky tunes including “I Don’t Want to See You Again” and “I Go to Pieces,” and the good-natured novelty song “Lady Godiva.”

When the duo parted ways in 1968, Asher pursued a dream of becoming a record producer. He went on to manage and produce, among others, James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt. After 38 years apart, Peter and Gordon reconnected in 2005, and played shows until Waller’s death in 2009. Asher is still a busy producer — recent projects include “Love Has Come for You” by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, and updates of songs from Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” for which he worked with Miguel, Ed Sheeran, Hunter Hayes, and others.

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But getting back onstage wasn’t lost on Asher. About a year after Waller died, Asher presented his first version of “Peter Asher: A Musical Memoir of the ’60s and Beyond,” a combination concert and storytelling barrage. He’s since taken it on the road, and visits Johnny D’s in Somerville on July 24. Asher, who turned 70 in June, chatted by phone last week from his home in Malibu.

Q. You and Gordon had both been singing and playing guitar before you met. Did you know right away that you sounded good together?

A. I was more of a jazz and folk fan. I knew every Woody Guthrie song by heart, and he knew every Buddy Holly song by heart. But we coincided in our love for the Everly Brothers. We tried singing together out of curiosity, and it worked. Gordon had this big, rich Elvissy baritone, and I had more of a reedy, white choirboy voice. But combined, they sounded kind of cool. We started with songs we each liked, then put harmonies in them and tried to develop our own sound.

Q. Were you always called Peter and Gordon, or did you have a band name?

A. Oddly enough, at first we were Gordon and Peter. Gordon was the lead singer, and it seemed natural to be called Gordon and Peter. It wasn’t until we got offered a contract with EMI Records that they said, “We think Peter and Gordon sounds better.” I was in the position to say, “Whatever you guys think is best [laughs]. I bow to your wisdom.” And Gordon was fine with it.

‘Gordon had this big, rich Elvissy baritone, and I had more of a reedy, white choirboy voice. But combined, they sounded kind of cool.’

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Q. How did the EMI business happen?

A. We were playing every night at the Pickwick Club, sitting on a couple of bar stools with our acoustic guitars, singing a mixture of pop songs of the day, some Everly Brothers songs, and some folk songs. After one of our sets this man in a shiny suit asked us to have a drink with him. It was Norman Newell, an A&R guy for EMI. He asked us to audition, and we did. I suspect that when EMI gave us a contract, they were thinking of us as perhaps Britain’s answer to the folk boom — that we’d be, as it were, the Kingston Duo or Peter, Paul and Mary, without Mary. But it wasn’t till after our recording session, when we’d included this additional song we found, that they changed their minds and we were destined for pop stardom. And that additional song was “A World Without Love.” Paul McCartney [who was dating Asher’s sister, Jane] and I were sharing the top floor of my family home. He and I had become good friends, and I’d heard a number of songs, including this orphaned song that the Beatles had decided not to record, and that Paul hadn’t even bothered to finish. But I liked it a lot. After a date was set for our first session, Norman said, “If there are any songs that you want to add, let me know.” I asked Paul if “A World Without Love” was still available and if we could record it. He said yes, so I prevailed upon him to finish writing it in time for the session.

Q. Why did you and Gordon call it quits in 1968?

A. We actually didn’t. We called it “on pause.” We never said we’d broken up. We never had a terminal row the way so many duos seem to. We drifted apart. Gordon wanted to make some records on his own, and I had other interests to pursue, which would develop well for me and which is why this pause went on for such a long time.

Q. You produced James Taylor’s first album on Apple Records, then moved to America to continue working with him, and started working with Linda Ronstadt. Did you miss performing?

A. Not really. Back then, performing was fun but kind of weird. You’d do a 20-minute set, the girls were all screaming, you couldn’t hear anything you were singing — nor could the audience, by the way [laughs]. I didn’t miss that. I would have missed singing, but I actually kept singing. On a lot of the records I produced, you’ll find me singing backgrounds.

Q. But did it feel good when you and Gordon got back together?

A. Yes, and I was surprised by that. My friend Paul Shaffer was putting together a benefit show for [Dave Clark Five vocalist] Mike Smith, who had a bad accident. Gordon was good friends with Mike. So Paul called me about playing, and I called Gordon, and he said yes. We had to practice a lot to see if we still sounded like us. Which, thankfully, we did. We did a few more shows per year until Gordon tragically died. So I’m very glad we did that.

Q. How did your current show come about?

A. I was doing some lectures on the Cunard Cruise Line, talking about what happened in the ’60s, and my views of what made that time so special. The show I do now is partly that, with some interesting bits of video and photos, combined with a band of LA musicians and the old songs. I update it, adding things, taking things out. It’s still evolving.

Q. Do you miss the ’60s?

A. I look back on them fondly, but I don’t miss them. One of the things I’m very fortunate about is that I’m not recognized only for what I did back then. Luckily I’m still very active and still working. I’m having a great time here and now.

Interview has been condensed and edited. Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.
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