Corporate professionals like to talk about the importance of building a network – a collection of contacts one can call upon when one needs an expert on a topic, a special skill on a project, or when one is looking for a new employment opportunity. Networks are also useful when one is a record company executive looking for new talent, as singer/manager/record producer Peter Asher discovered when he served as head of Artist & Repertoire (or A&R) for the Beatles’ label, Apple Records, in the late 1960s. One of the first artists he signed for the label was a singer/songwriter by the name of James Taylor.
The story begins when Asher was on tour with Peter and Gordon, the pop duo he formed with Gordon Waller. The pair had several hits between 1964 and 1968, including the Paul McCartney-penned "A World Without Love,” which went to No. 1 in both the U.S. and U.K.
“[On] one of our tours of America, we were given bands on the road,” Asher recalled on the Rock & Roll High School with Pete Ganbarg podcast. “The agent would hire a band for us. And they weren’t good musicians – they’d be some cheap local band.
“But in one case it was this band called the King Bees,” Asher continued. “We liked them; in particular I liked the guitar player, Danny Kortchmar, who became a great friend and remains a great friend.”
After the King Bees disbanded, Kortchmar (who went by the nickname “Kootch”) formed another group.
“He was in a band called the Flying Machine with his childhood friend, James Taylor,” Asher said. “The Flying Machine broke up in New York [in late 1967], and James decided to go to London. And Kootch said to him, ‘Oh, I have a friend in London; we correspond all the time. He’s okay; you should give him a call.’ And he gave James my phone number.”
By this time, Asher was head of A&R at Apple, which had put out an open call to solicit submissions for the label – literally anyone could send their work to the Beatles record company, and possibly be considered for a recording contract. Predictably, the label was inundated, if not buried, in tapes and letters sent in response.
“We said, ‘We’re not going to be like those labels that say, “No unsolicited [submissions]. We’ll listen to everything,’” Asher told Ganbarg. “And it was just awful. You forget, you’re going to get 50 pages of lyrics from someone who ‘knows’ John Lennon wants to write music for all of them, and they don’t even scan.”
After “people got sensible” (in Asher’s words) and quietly rescinded the open call, Asher was visited by a friend of a friend, when Taylor showed up in London.
As Asher remembered, Taylor “said, ‘I’m Kootch’s friend,’ and I go, ‘Great. Come on in.’ And he played me these songs. I went crazy.”
Asher gave McCartney and George Harrison a listen to Taylor’s demo, and they responded enthusiastically. Asher then wrote a memo to Apple executives Neil Aspinall and Ron Kass, extolling Taylor’s virtues and letting them know he was signing Taylor to a deal.
“The first line of it says, ‘James Taylor is the new singer and songwriter, who is extremely good,’” Asher recalled. “The rest of [the memo] doesn’t matter … Nobody questioned it.”
Asher went on to produce Taylor’s debut album on Apple, released in 1968, and many of Taylor’s biggest records, including Sweet Baby James (1970), Mudslide Slim and the Blue Horizon (1971), and JT (1977).
Taylor is certainly appreciative of Asher’s championing of his music. In the podcast interview, Pete Ganbarg read a quote from Taylor (included in the liner notes for a reissue of his debut) that sums up their relationship:
“I knew from the first time that we met that he was the right person to steer my career. He had this determination in his eye that I have never seen in anybody before.”