Peter Asher brings music history and humor to the Cutting Room
Peter and Gordon's "True Love Ways"
To understand what happened in the 1960s, Peter Asher told his SRO audience Friday night at the Cutting Room, you have to start in the '50s.
The remarkably enduring and endearing '60s music luminary, who moved from British Invasion stardom in Peter and Gordon to become a top music producer and manager, then proceeded to bring a good chunk of post-World War II pop music history to life in a set that began with "I Go to Pieces," Peter and Gordon's Top 10 hit from 1965 that was penned by Del Shannon.
The show was the latest installment of his autobiographical multimedia presentation A Musical Memoir of the 60s and Beyond featuring the music of Peter and Gordon.
Beneath a video screen backdrop showing a Union Jack with a caricature of Asher's early '60s red hair and signature square Buddy Holly eyeglasses, Asher, who was backed by a four-piece band, recalled how he and partner Gordon Waller, fellow Brit Invasion band The Searchers and Shannon were touring Australia together when the Searchers "inexplicably" rejected Shnanon's offer to record "I Go to Pieces," opening the door for Peter and Gordon's hit cover.
But Peter and Gordon's first hits--"A World Without Love," "Nobody I Know" and "I Don't Want To See You Again" were Lennon-McCartney songs, as Paul McCartney was famously dating Asher's actress sister Jane Asher and living with the Asher family at the time: Asher reconstructed the instant when McCartney, holed up with John Lennon in the Asher's music room, summoned him to hear their latest Beatles composition, "I Want to Hold Your Hand," freshly hashed out on the piano.
But before music, Asher was a child actor. He rewarded a box of Godiva chocolates to the knowledgeable fan in the audience who correctly identified the three players in a clip from 1952 film The Planter's Wife—Asher being the young boy, Claudette Colbert his mother, and Jack Hawkins his father. It was a time when the U.K. was a gloomy and depressed black-and-white bombed-out country, Asher said, while the U.S. was booming: "Our positions had changed [and] we knew who the 'big cheese' was—across the ocean."
"I knew about America through its music," Asher said, though he did point out how obviously "ridiculous and absurd" it was that Pat Boone's watered-down cover of Little Richard's pioneering "Tutti Frutti" became the bigger hit.
Another American music legend, Joan Baez, appeared on the projection screen when Asher ran tape of her singing with Peter and Gordon in 2008 on "500 Miles," as it was her version of the folk standard that had inspired them to record it as the demo that landed them their record deal. Footage of "I Don't Want to See You Again" from The Ed Sullivan Show was followed by a Peter and Gordon Hullabaloo performance of Beatles' "Eight Days a Week" together with the Supremes, Frankie Avalon and Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs.
A guest spot on The Jackie Gleason Show was less fun, Asher related, as Gleason turned out to be a most unpleasant drunk. "Then I saw The Honeymooners [and realized] he had the right to be as drunk and [unpleasant] as he wanted!" Red Skelton, on the other hand, was the exact opposite, even if Peter and Gordon were forced to perform in a cornball hillbilly hoedown version of Roger Miller's "You Don't Want My Love."
But a most pleasant surprise at the Cutting Room came when Asher brought out fellow British Invasion star Billy J. Kramer to sing his hit "Bad to Me"—another Lennon-McCartney copyright. Asher's musical director Jeff Alan Ross also took a lead vocal turn, on Badfinger's "Day After Day"--he having been a Badfinger member in a later incarnation, Asher having signed them to the Beatles' Apple label after his hitmaking days with Waller ended.
Asher, of course, went on to a star-making career managing and producing the likes of James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt—and he spoke warmly about his experiences with them and other artists including Carole King, Diana Ross, Elton John and Ed Sheeran.
A touching moment came when Asher sang to a relatively recent video of Peter and Gordon singing their hit version of Buddy Holly's "True Love Ways." He called out Paul Shaffer in the audience, crediting him for reuniting Peter and Gordon in 2005—after 35 years—to participate in a benefit in New York for the Dave Clark Five's Mike Smith, who had been paralyzed in an accident and died in 2008. Asher continued to play with Waller up until Waller's death the following year.
Other celebs in the crowd included Nile Rodgers, Lou Christie and Steve Martin, whose 2013 Grammy-winning Asher-produced bluegrass album with Edie Brickell Love Has Come for You inspired the award-winning musical Bright Star, whose cast album, which Asher co-produced (he served as musical supervisor for the show), is now up for the Best Musical Theater Grammy.
The set ended with Peter and Gordon's last big hit "Lady Godiva" (1966), which Asher, playing a little banjolele cross between banjo and ukulele, said he hated upon first hearing, only to appraise it as "a great piece of art" when it became an international hit. Encore "A World Without Love," their first hit that topped the charts in 1964, was prefaced by an especially sweet intro: Conceding that Asher now looks quite different than he did 53 years ago, he pulled out the exact pair of glasses he wore back then.
"As soon as I put them on, "he said, "I look exactly the same—and more importantly, so do all of you!"