Peter Asher Presents James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt

Rolling Stone critics' and readers' producer of the year is a shy romantic at heart

English singer, guitarist and record producer Peter Asher, June 28th,1972 Credit: Michael Putland/Getty

Peter Asher had good news and bad news for Linda Ronstadt. The good news was that she'd been invited to the first 1977 World Series game in Los Angeles. The bad news…well, let Linda tell it:

"Peter came to me and said, 'Listen, all the Dodgers got together and they voted.' And then he looked at me, and he says, 'You know what's coming…' And I thought [Linda re-creates her yipe-gasp], 'They want me to throw out the first ball!' "

And now the bad news: "He said, "They want you to sing the National Anthem!' And I just went: 'Oh, God!' 'Cause it's just the worst song in the world! It's a turkey. Who even knows the words?"

Linda told Peter she didn't think she could do it. But then she thought about the beautiful blue Dodgers warm-up jacket they'd sent her. "And finally I just couldn't say no, because I love the jacket."

Ronstadt had a tough time practicing the star-spangled turkey. "I couldn't play it on the guitar or anything. And I was so nervous. If they'd asked me to pitch I would have been less nervous. And everybody was going, 'Oh, it'll be great, it'll be great!' Well, Peter didn't do any of that stuff." Which brings us to the point of this belated sports report.

"He was just saying, realistically, exactly what was gonna happen. He said, 'Okay, you're gonna have to go stand in center field and it's gonna be like this and like that.' He was thinking about what the problems could possibly be. 'There's gonna be this horrible echo, and watch out for the organ, and watch out for this…'

"Then he said the funniest thing. He said, 'Ha, ha, you're gonna have to stand in center field and sing that all by yourself.' He said, 'I wouldn't do that for all the money in the world, and you're doing it for free!' It cracked me up. He just never is gonna grease me. He just always says exactly how things are gonna be, period."

"He's a very fair person," James Taylor says of Asher. "He's also outspoken and outright. When he wants something, he says he wants it. He doesn't feed you some line about how he deserves it or how it's done this or that. He just says, 'This is what I'm looking for.' You really don't get much bullshit from him at all.

"There's no doubt as far as I can see, from either Linda's or my point of view, that working with Peter Asher is a totally positive thing. That's not to say that we don't get pissed off or fed up sometimes, cause that's also part of his job.

"One time I remember we tape-recorded a gig in Oakland. The people who were recording it really got in the way, and they ended up taping three microphones in front of my face. It was really a trip, it delayed the show, and I really got fed up. He can tell when I feel that way, so there's no sense in my mentioning it. The other thing is, it's my guess that he was disappointed or frustrated when I went to work with [David] Spinozza for that album [Walking Man]." (Asher had produced James' first four: James Taylor, on Apple Records, and, on Warner Bros., Sweet Baby James, which gained him his fame, Mud Slide Slim and One Man Dog.) "And we never really discussed it. It's the kind of thing that since both of us understand, it's like a nod is as good as a couple of paragraphs. A lot of stuff is understood."

Invariably, a story about Peter Asher begins with what others have to say about him. Otherwise, it might never get started at all. Asher, 33, produces, manages and, as he says, is happy to control the records and careers of two of today's most popular recording artists. As a producer, he has accounted for such hits as "Fire and Rain," "You've Got a Friend," "Shower the People" and "Handy Man" with James Taylor, and "You're No Good," "Heat Wave," "That'll Be the Day," "Blue Bayou" and "It's So Easy" with Linda Ronstadt. And he is the winner of both of Rolling Stone's 1977 polls — critics' and readers' — for Producer of the Year.

Like a Phil Spector or a Richard Percy, Asher loves being a grandmaster, in charge of it all. But try and get him to talk about himself and you'd think you'd caught him squirming around in some police lineup or something. He is by nature a reserved sort. "He's a shy person," says Taylor. "He's a very real person. He's not terribly romantic or emotional, although everyone is if you know what's relative to them. But he's reserved and different from a lot of people in this business in that capacity. He's not a terribly flamboyant person."

Asher, then, doesn't tell stories about himself, or anyone else. Asked to recount his childhood — he was born and raised in London — he edits out, or simply neglects to mention, little things, as if a lot of stuff is understood — like how he was a child star in films in London, along with his sister Jane, who gained fame as a Beatle's girlfriend. And how his grandfather was T.E. Lawrence of Arabia's attorney. And how his father, whom he simply recalls being "a doctor," was, as Linda remembers from Peter's telling, "an incredibly brilliant doctor who was responsible for exploding a lot of old-fashioned medical myths. Just little things," as Linda puts it, "you would never find out about him…. His mother played oboe, I think, in the London Philharmonic." His father played piano and sang.

Asked about his childhood, Asher fessed up to having been a star. "When I was eight or so," he said, "both my sister and I evidently looked cute. At any rate, somebody said, 'They oughta be in movies,' and he got us an agent. As it turned out, Jane and I never worked together. I did a few films [including one with Claudette Colbert and Jack Hawkins, now titled Outpost in Malaya], some stage acting and lots of radio acting." At age fourteen, "school interfered. Then I got more interested in music." Peter sang and took piano lessons, picked up the oboe, then tried double bass. "I never played anything well," he said.

In the mid-Fifties, he listened to jazz (be-bop) and folk (Woody Guthrie). He also picked up guitar and at fifteen played a few dates with a skiffle group. By 1960 he'd become a fan of American rock & roll. A friend, Gordon Waller, had turned him on to Elvis, Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers, and in 1962 he and Waller became Peter and Gordon, imitating the harmonies of the Everlys. They played the club circuit for almost two years before they met a recording manager from EMI at the Pickwick Club and signed a contract.

Neither Peter nor Gordon was a serious songwriter. One of the first songs they cut was by Paul McCartney, whom sister Jane had met. Paul had offered a song called "World without Love" to Billy J. Kramer, who rejected it. Peter and Gordon cut it and it became their first — and biggest — hit. Their second-biggest, "Lady Godiva," came near the end; Peter and Gordon split up in 1967. "We did a few tours and got fed up," said Asher. "We had management problems — just amazing incompetence and lack of planning. Our manager never came on the road with us. We'd get to a place and the tour wasn't what it was supposed to be. Also, Gordon wanted to go out and be a star on his own."

Asher wasn't exactly broken up by the split. He never enjoyed being onstage and preferred the recording studio. At Peter and Gordon sessions he would stick around long after the musicians had left so he could learn how records got produced.

His own first production work consisted of three singles with ex-Manfred Mann lead singer Paul Jones, among them the Bee Gees song "And the Sun Will Shine," a minor hit with Jeff Beck and Paul Samwell-Smith of the Yardbirds on guitar and bass and Paul McCartney on drums. ("He's a very good drummer," said Asher. "Simple, but very good.")

McCartney asked Asher to join Apple Records as a producer. Then he was asked to be head of A&R — to scout and sign talent, basically. And two days later there was James Taylor. James, in London following the breakup of his group, the Flying Machine, got Asher's number from a friend, Danny "Kootch" Kortchmar, who'd played guitar behind Peter and Gordon. Asher heard a Taylor tape and made him Apple's first signing.

After a debut album, both Asher and Taylor decided to leave the label. Asher said his job was impossible. "I was theoretically head of A&R," he said, "but I was answering to a board of governors [the Beatles] who were never in the same place at the same time. Sometimes I would sign someone and nothing would happen. At the same time, one of the Beatles would sign someone and I didn't know about it. And they'd always be arguing with each other, and I was on the periphery of all the arguments….

"When we decided to leave, it was clear that James would come back here anyway. It became clear that it would be better to base a career here. And the question of management arose spontaneously, because I didn't really know anybody else that would particularly want to do it, and I had some ideas of what to do, if only based on mistakes that had been made in our career."

(After moving to Los Angeles, making a deal for Taylor with Warner Bros. and producing Sweet Baby James, Asher took on numerous other projects, including management and production of James' sister Kate, comanagement, with Nat Weiss, of Cat Stevens and production jobs with Tony Joe White and John Stewart, among others. In 1973, when Kate Taylor decided to quit, Asher agreed to help Linda Ronstadt finish her long-suffering Don't Cry Now album and became her manager. Since then, he's limited himself to Ronstadt and Taylor.)

James Taylor, himself not given to florid speechmaking, has a tough time explaining just what it is that Asher does. "His technique has changed somewhat over the amount of time that I've worked with him. He's been working with [engineer] Val Garay for the past two years, and he and Val seem to be really tight, and he just has an efficiency about recording that really seems to keep things moving along."

Taylor's most recent album, JT, took only six weeks to make, compared with In the Pocket and four or five months. "I must have wasted a lot of energy on different things," he says, "and where Peter might have urged me to keep it simple, Russ [Titelman] and Lenny [Waronker] — we worked a lot, threw a lot of stuff together. It taught me a lesson: if you spread it out, you can't keep the intensity of it up. After I was finished with this latest album, I was exhausted, and I think I probably hit that spot somewhere in the middle of In the Pocket."

"What Peter does," says Ronstadt, "is to act as both editor and contributor. I might come up with five ideas and four of them will be turkeys, and Peter will know instinctively which is gonna be the most appropriate one and how to latch on to some of these developing ideas in their embryonic stage and allow them to bloom.

"It's so difficult," continues Linda, "to describe exactly what a producer does. I mean, a producer can do absolutely nothing, or he can do everything, like Burt Bacharach used to do, and tell everybody exactly what to sing and what to play. But he can do the other thing, which is just float around, as Peter does, and get into every facet of the record so that it's always a team effort. He's also able to deal with everybody's delicate temperaments — and I'm telling you, there are some delicate temperaments going on in there. And it's handled by everybody being fair. Peter's real out front with people. The hardest thing to do is when you ask somebody to come and do something and it's not working, and rather than grease them by keeping them doing it over and over again, trying to pretend that you're gonna use it, he's real good at saying very clearly, 'This doesn't work because of this reason.' He keeps a very journalistic tone so nobody has to feel personally rejected if an idea is rejected."

And Ronstadt credits Asher for her own increasing comfort in the studios, in participating strongly in choosing and arranging material, and in working with the latest technical frills. "It's a fascinating process and he loves it," she says. "His enthusiasm for it is real contagious, so he explains stuff to me. As I start to understand how things work, it makes it easier for me to communicate what I'm trying to say."

As for her increasingly authoritative singing: "I guess he really just encourages me. I know Peter has good taste. I like his values in every other aspect of his life, so sometimes it's the hardest thing for me to believe that he thinks I'm good, but I think, 'Well, if he likes all this other stuff and it's good, then there must be something to it. I can't be that awful.' "

Asher, she says, "integrates himself thoroughly in every process" while not intruding in his musicians' turf. "He's never gonna run any little nasty games down on you," says Ronstadt. "I never have the feeling that he's trying to flesh out his frail identity by everybody else's, and I think a lot of producers do. They try to live vicariously and they try to live out their fantasies of what they would be as artists through their artists. Peter is a producer." And a manager.

"The funniest thing he talks about is making deals with himself. He says, 'In my producer's hat, I would make this deal, but in my manager's hat, I couldn't give myself that many points [percentage figures or royalties from a record].' He always comes out being overly generous to me in terms of going out of his way to not have a conflict of interests there." Asher admits, "I'm not good at asking for as much as I might be entitled to, because you know where the money's coming from — out of the pockets of friends." Is he cheating himself, then? "Yes, My business manager tends to think I'm screwing myself. I tend to think I'm not. In the long run, I'm making lots of money."

Asher works for it. What there is of a home life is spent with wife Betsy, but there isn't much. "I'm never there," he says, "and it does give rise to misunderstandings and discomforts." Asher denies being a workaholic. "But there seems to be work all the time. And I like working and being in the studio a lot."

Right now, he has his manager's hat on, and is on the road with Linda, taking care of a woman who is still, after all these gold records, a traveling case of nerves. "Out on the road," says Linda, "if I'm having a bad time, he has to keep the political dynamics of the relationship between me and the band; the band between each other; the band and the crew; me and the crew; the tour manager and the band; the tour manager and the crew and the truck drivers. It's staggering when I think about the actual amount of workload he has to handle. It's like being the president. When we're performing someplace he has to deal with all the people that want to get to me. He's real good at dealing with those people but keeping them from moving in on me like a herd of barracudas until there's no flesh left on my bones."

It is evident that Asher learned from his times as a pop star and with Apple. "One thing that is still applicable to today," he says, "is attention to detail — and not believing everything someone tells you." So, today, Asher is a worrywart. "I mean, I really try to worry about everything, the songs and the set and the sound and everything, lighting, the exact structure of the tour, and the band, and the record, and the ads and the timing of the radio buys." Which is why Asher is content with just two clients. "By doing two people I really can worry about all that stuff and I don't think I'd be able to bear not doing that. Some people do seem to be able to manage a lot of people, and they have a staff doing some of that other stuff, but I'm not good at trusting other people."

"The thing I've admired," says Linda Ronstadt, "is how he's resisted the temptation to build up a giant stable of racehorses. There are just so many people that have asked him to manage them that he genuinely wanted to — and he could just keep all those acts on the road and count up the bucks — but when he thought about it he felt that he wouldn't be able to do as high quality a job."

In 1971, Linda Ronstadt was wallowing in the first throes of her solo career, bouncing aimlessly from producer to producer and hating everything she recorded. James Taylor was on the cover of Time, all fire and rain, the toast of Troubadour rock. In the intervening years, Ronstadt has become the unquestioned top woman rock (and country, and pop) singer. And she made the cover of Time this year. James, meanwhile, has taken a low profile, making records almost casually, having two kids with Carly Simon and doing only slightly more touring than Carly does (which is none at all). While helping shape Ronstadt's career, Asher hasn't pushed Taylor. Says Ronstadt: "He could have pushed James real hard if he'd wanted to, and probably sold him onto the cover of every magazine there was and sold him out for this, that and the other thing, but he never did. He took a longer approach and he let James pace himself and spend time developing his family, so as a result he gets to be a whole person." Taylor himself adds: "It's my opinion that he played no small role in my success and also in my being able to maintain some kind of a career that I can stand to live with. He and I both see it as being something that has to last for more than a flash, and it has to be more of a life's work. Some managers, some agents really end up creating something that they can't live with. I think Presley was like that, Presley's life was like that, and to some extent, this is a manager's heaviest task — to make the artist compatible with his image."

Ronstadt also thinks in long-view terms. "I can't imagine working with someone else," she says. "There are things that he has to tolerate about me — my insecurities, I'm disorganized, I'm late or whatever. Sometimes it's hard for me when he gets shy, times he has his own insecurity to overcome. We've worked past those things. We have developed tolerance in the sterling sense of the word for each other's faults, and sometimes we get angry at each other, but we pass over it. It's like a marriage."