He had international hit records, worked for the Beatles, lived with Paul McCartney and produced hit albums for some of the biggest stars of the past 50 years, including James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt. But Peter Asher still gets excited when a rock star such as Elton John calls him.
“One of the cool things about Elton is he does (make) calls himself,” Asher said from New York. “We are great friends; I’ve known him forever. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a thrill when you’re sitting drinking your coffee in the morning and answering emails and he goes, ‘Hi, it’s Elton.’”
Asher, who turns 72 next week, was in New York in his role as musical supervisor for “Bright Star,” a Broadway musical scored by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell. Asher comes to Winston-Salem Sunday evening: He will perform a duo show at Muddy Creek Music Hall with Albert Lee, a guitarist who has toured with the Everly Brothers, Joe Cocker, Emmylou Harris and Eric Clapton.
“We kind of mix it up, really,” Lee, 72, said from his home in Southern California. “We do songs mostly by people we were involved with. I’ve been a longtime member of The Crickets, too. That gives me the right to sing a Buddy Holly song, I suppose.”
Lee and Asher share a love for the early rock and roll made by Buddy Holly and The Crickets and the Everly Brothers. Both men grew up in London, and they both started playing music in the 1950s. Asher worked in theater, TV and films as a child actor before becoming a pop star in 1964 with Peter and Gordon, a duo he formed with Gordon Waller, a school friend.
“We started singing together for fun, pretty much imitating the Everlys as much as we could,” Asher said.
Peter and Gordon’s first hit in 1964, “A World Without Love,” was a gift from McCartney. It went to No. 1 in more than 30 countries. McCartney lived with Asher’s family in London during the mid-1960s when he was dating Asher’s sister, Jane, an actress.
“We all dreamed of going to America one day, including the Beatles,” Asher said. “I had a poster of the New York skyline on my wall. I had read every book Raymond Chandler ever wrote about L.A. I had copies of Down Beat (magazine) where I had circled the jazz clubs I wanted to go to one day.”
Did the states live up to his expectations?
“If you’re going to go the land of your dreams, what better way to be greeted than by screaming girls trying to tear your clothes off?” Asher said. “It’s an experience I heartily recommend.”
Asher’s Beatles connections eventually led to a job heading up the talent scout division for Apple Records. That’s how he met James Taylor, the first outside artist Apple signed. Asher eventually became Taylor’s manager, moving to Los Angeles in 1971.
“People ask me the secret of being a great manager,” Asher said. “It’s pathetically simple: a great client.”
Lee’s star ascended at a more modest rate. He focused on learning to play guitar by listening to American records.
“I kept moving the needle back and trying to figure out how to play these solos,” he said. “There was really no one to see doing that stuff.”
His early guitar heroes included Cliff Gallup of Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps; Scotty Moore, who played with Elvis Presley; and James Burton, who played with Ricky Nelson in the ’50s and would later play with Presley, as well. It helped that he already knew how to play piano when he started learning guitar.
“I had all my fingers working,” he said. “So when I picked up a guitar, things came fairly easy. I developed a hybrid finger style, which was certainly helped by having a good right hand on the piano.”
Lee played with a series of bands in London during the 1960s, one of which evolved into Heads, Hands and Feet. That band first toured America around the same time Asher moved to the states and performed at The Troubadour in L.A., where Lee met Phil Everly.
“He took me on my first trip to Disneyland, which was pretty cool,” Lee said. “Of course, I felt terribly guilty because I had two children in England who didn’t get to go.”
Lee would go on to work with Don Everly and replace James Burton in Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band, playing alongside Ricky Skaggs and Rodney Crowell. He toured with Eric Clapton for five years before the Everly Brothers reunited in 1983. Lee toured with the Everlys on and off for the next 26 years. Lee also performed at the George Harrison memorial concert, The Concert for George, at the Royal Albert Hall in 2002 with Clapton, McCartney, Tom Petty and others. He has fronted the band Hogan’s Heroes since the late 1980s.
“He’s such a good guitar player people tend to overlook what a good singer he is,” Asher said.
Asher, meanwhile, produced a string of hit singles and albums, including “Sweet Baby James” and “JT” for Taylor, “Heart Like a Wheel” and “Prisoner in Disguise” for Ronstadt, “In My Tribe” for 10,000 Maniacs, and “Love Has Come for You” by Martin and Brickell, earning several Grammy Awards along the way. He also produced an all-star 40th anniversary tribute to Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” album in 2014.
Asher has focused more on movie soundtrack work in recent years, teaming up with Hans Zimmer, who composed music for “The Lion King,” “The Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Dark Knight” series, and dozens of others. Asher also directs Zimmer’s current concert tours. Queen Elizabeth awarded Asher a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire award in 2015.
Lee and Albert have known each other for years, but only started playing together a couple of years ago. Their managers encouraged them to continue working as a duo after they teamed up for some songs at a Buddy Holly Birthday Bash.
Despite decades of acclaim, Asher remains humble about his musical talents. He jokes about Lee’s superiority as a guitarist.
“I’m just there for contrast,” Asher said.