Before he became one of the most successful record producers in music history, creating albums that have collectively sold in the hundreds of millions, David Foster received a valuable piece of advice from legendary music impresario Quincy Jones. It was 1980, and Foster had just handed Jones a copy of an album he had produced that included a few tracks that Foster wasn’t entirely keen on. “Quincy said to me, ‘Either something is exactly the way you think it should be, or don’t put your name on it,’” Foster recalls. “I learned an important lesson that day: Compromise breeds mediocrity. Since then, I have always fought for my artistic vision. I don’t always win, but I know that when someone hires me, it is my job to push him or her toward greatness, and to get something out of them that they didn’t know was there.”

That ethos has shaped the way Foster has approached everything in his more than four decades as a musician, songwriter, composer, arranger, producer, and recording artist. It is what has led an array of perfectionist superstars, like Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Andrea Bocelli, Michael Bublé, Josh Groban, Rod Stewart, and Stevie Wonder, to trust him with their voices. Known as “The Hit Man,” Foster’s “signature sweeping power ballad aesthetic” has “virtually defined the adult contemporary format,” as All-Music has put it.

Indeed, few other songwriters and producers have had their fingerprints on more major moments in popular music. Among Foster’s myriad achievements are shepherding songs and albums by such beloved and best-selling artists as Earth Wind & Fire, Natalie Cole, Michael Bolton, Seal, Chaka Khan, Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Chicago, Hall & Oates, Brandy, ’N Sync, and Gloria Estefan; propelling singers who straddle both pop and classical styles, like Andrea Bocelli and Josh Groban, into the mainstream; creating culture-defining soundtracks for such blockbuster films as The Bodyguard, Urban Cowboy, and St. Elmo’s Fire; and producing five of the best-selling Christmas albums of all time: Celine Dion’s These Are Special Times, Josh Groban’s Noël, Andrea Bocelli’s My Christmas, Michael Bublé’s Christmas, and Rod Stewart’s Merry Christmas, Baby.

For his illustrious work, Foster has won 16 Grammy Awards, including three for Producer of the Year, an Emmy Award, and a Golden Globe, and has been nominated for three Oscars for “Best Original Song.” In June 2010, he was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall Of Fame. He has also earned a reputation as a keen spotter of new talent, playing a key role in the discovery of Celine Dion, Josh Groban, and Michael Bublé, the latter two he signed to his Warner Music imprint 143 Records. Bublé has called Foster “one of the most brilliant musical minds of our time,” Dion has said that “David hears things no other person hears,” while Groban credits him with “single-handedly changing my life.” Says Foster: “I operate under the guiding principle that if I love something, millions of others will love it, too.”

After more than 30 years making records, Foster has been eager to take on new challenges. In 2008 and 2011, he stepped out as a performer in his own right as the host of Foster & Friends — two star-studded concert events in Las Vegas that celebrate the music from Foster’s unparalleled catalog. The shows were filmed for Great Performance on PBS and Hit Man and The Hit Man Returns became PBS’ highest-rated pledge drive shows of the decade. Foster is also a household name as a performer throughout Asia where he tours annually.

In 2012 Foster entered a new phase in his career when he became chairman of Universal’s Verve Music Group. His mission, he says, is to turn the fabled jazz label (founded in 1956 and home to Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, and other jazz luminaries) into the premier label for singing legends and legends in the making. Foster recently signed Grammy-winning artist Sarah McLachlan and R&B-soul great Smokey Robinson, as well as newcomers Yuna and Dirty Loops to the label’s roster, which also includes Andrea Bocelli, Natalie Cole, and Diana Krall. “If you track my trajectory, I’ve done everything but run a label,” Foster says. “As a musician, artist, and producer, I’ve been on both sides of the glass in the studio. I feel like I’ve been prepping for this job for 40 years!”

Music has been a part of Foster’s life since childhood. Born in Victoria, British Columbia, he began studying piano at age four after his mother discovered he had perfect pitch. (While dusting the piano, she hit one of the keys and was shocked when young David called out correctly: “That’s an E!”) The son of a maintenance yard superintendent and a homemaker, Foster chronicles his life in his engaging memoir Hit Man, telling story after story of his uniquely intimate encounters with various music legends. Page-turning anecdotes include his joining Chuck Berry’s backing band at 16, a velvet suit-clad Cat Stevens rolling up in a Rolls-Royce to Foster’s tiny London flat and asking him to be his keyboard player, and Foster sitting in Paul McCartney’s kitchen asking him about the day The Beatles broke up.

He also tells a poignant story of how he first got involved in charitable work after his mother asked him to visit a young girl from his hometown who was awaiting a liver transplant in Los Angeles. Describing the encounter as one of the most intense experiences of his life, Foster was inspired to found The David Foster Foundation, which has provided financial support to Canadian families with children in need of life-saving organ transplants since 1985. Over the past 20 years, Foster has volunteered his time to 400 charities, including Muhammad Ali’s Celebrity Fight Night, The Andre Agassi Foundation, and Carousel of Hope. By tapping into his vast Rolodex of friends and superstar artists, Foster has helped these events raise millions of dollars for worthy causes. “My love of music has brought me many rewards, and I feel the need to give back to others less fortunate as often as possible,” he says.

In May, Foster will receive a star on The Hollywood Walk of Fame. It will be located on Vine Street in front of the iconic Capitol Records building, adjacent to stars honoring Foster’s heroes John, Paul, George, and Ringo — a thrill for the self-described “biggest Beatles fan on the planet.” The location in front of Capitol Records is also appropriate as it’s the label that first signed Foster as an artist with his band Skylark in 1971. (Their single “Wildflower” was a Top 10 hit on the Billboard chart.) “One hundred years from now my great-grandchildren will go ‘Hey, there’s my great-grandpa,’” he says. “But having a star next to The Beatles? Outside the building where I first got signed? That’s perfect.”

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[April 2013]

 

 

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