WORKING WITH ANDRE
By Jerry Fink, Las Vegas Sun
Las Vegas Sun
Tennis superstar Andre Agassi retired a year ago, but his foundation and the charitable event that helps support it and other organizations are as busy as ever.
The Andre Agassi Grand Slam for Children returned to the MGM Grand Garden Arena with a cast that included Carlos Santana, Tony Bennett, Kelly Clarkson, Matchbox Twenty and comedians Jerry Seinfeld and George Wallace.
The Grand Slam, which began in 1995 and took 2000 off, has raised more than $60 million for charities. It’s a perfect marriage between Agassi and music impressario David Foster, who returned for the 12th time as the benefit’s musical director.
Foster, a winner of 14 Grammy Awards, is a brilliant musician and songwriter who has discovered and nurtured performers such as Josh Groban and Michael Buble. Along the way, he has raised millions of dollars for hundreds of charities, including his David Foster Foundation, which helps children who need organ transplants.
Drawing from his deep well of entertainment contacts, he puts together world-class shows for Agassi and organizations such as the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Research Center and the Carousel of Hope in Los Angeles. His charitable work includes combating cancer, diabetes , AIDS and famine.
When he isn’t helping the needy, he’s helping the talented, sometimes showcasing them at charitable events. His latest discovery is 24-year-old Peter Cincotti, jazz vocalist and pianist from New York City, who performed at last year’s Grand Slam.
Foster, founder of 143 Records (Warner Bros.), began making a name for himself in the early 1970s when he was with Skylark, whose song “Wildflower” was a hit in 1972.
He talked with the Sun about the Andre Agassi Grand Slam for Children.
Q: What’s your role in the fundraising event?
In the early years I helped bring in the talent and, to some extent, I still do. But it’s largely built on people’s love and respect for Andre … I’ve been able to showcase some of my new talent there. I’ve been able to help them with Celine (Dion) and Josh Groban and Michael Buble and Kenny G and (Michael) Bolton and people like that. When you get a call from Andre Agassi, everyone pays attention to that.
Have you been involved in all of the Grand Slams, since the first one in 1995?
I’ve been there from Day One. They took one year off (2000). I don’t want to say it was because of me, maybe it was just a coincidence, but there was just one year when I was overloaded with the typical stuff, and they didn’t do it that year . So I think I’m a lifer. But gladly. Andre is one of those rare humans, along with Perry (Rogers, president of Agassi Enterprises). They almost redefine generosity. The greatest thing about Andre and Perry is that they figured it out at such a young age. I had dinner with Perry the other day and he said, “Now that I’m 38…” So they were both like 25, 26, 27 when they started this thing. That’s pretty incredible. I can tell you honestly I didn’t care about anybody when I was 25 except myself.
How were you recruited to put together the entertainment?
I had just produced a Michael Bolton album and I was at a concert, and that’s how I met Andre. He was backstage at the concert. He was a big, huge tennis star, 24 years old probably. There was a piano backstage and Michael and I were goofing around, and I started playing some of my songs, and Andre started singing them. I thought, “How random is it that this young guy would know my songs?” I’ve been writing music since the ’70s. So that’s how we became friends. It was probably a year or two after that he got going on this thing. He’s so dedicated. It’s such an amazing thing. I think it’s a great platform that other people should copy. And he has an amazing board of directors that we all sit on ; and it’s a board of doers – not just a board of people sitting around doing nothing.
How do you decide who’s going to perform?
I have my own foundation in Canada, and I’m always amazed at the media. I brought in Paul Anka, Kenny G and Celine Dion and the press was still going, “Who’s the surprise guest?” It’s like, “God, are you kidding me?” I think with the Agassi event we started off so big and we’ve maintained that standard so long I think our objective every year is just to see if we can go that big every year … I think we’ve achieved that every year, almost impossibly. But Julie (Pippenger, the foundation’s executive director) reminds me this is Las Vegas, and Las Vegas expects a lot of talent. They can go next door and see anything they want, practically. I think we pride ourselves in that every year we give a show that you can’t see everywhere else. This year it’s Jerry Seinfeld onstage with Santana and the Goo Goo Dolls and Tony Bennett. You can’t see that show unless it’s on television somewhere.
Have there been any changes since Agassi’s retirement?
I see less of Andre since he retired than I did when he was playing. His fervor for the work is the same. I’m sure he probably is putting even more time in now. To build a school, going from grade 1 to grade 12, is pretty amazing. But no, I haven’t seen anything change. The benefit might look like the same every year to some people. It’s a beautiful thing. More than 1,500 people on the floor before the show. Tuxedoes. Huge stage and lighting. More than 10,000 more people come in for the concert, or whatever that number is. Julie spends enormous time, with Andre and Perry and myself, just trying to put a twist on it every year – different staging this year, an orchestra next year or no orchestra. This year three bands, last year no bands. Just mixing it up and again providing a show that you can’t see everywhere.
How does it compare with other such events?
It’s a special event. I’ve done probably, I’d safely say, 300 charities in the last 10 years, where I put the show together, and none of them is spectacular the way this one is, including the ones in Los Angeles. The Phoenix event (in honor of Ali) has become my second favorite in terms of being spectacular, and in Los Angeles the Carousel of Hope. But Las Vegas, it’s rare air they have created there. It’s an extraordinary event.