David Foster’s lifelong passion is creating the soundtrack of our lives.
by Marie Speed
Good has never been good enough for David Foster. He wants to be great. Which has worked out pretty well for him for the past 40 years, as he’s made his way to the top of the music industry. Today, Foster is regarded as the king of pop, the hit man, the No. 1 music producer in the country, if not the world. In the course of his career, Foster has worked with every imaginable star in the business. He refers to them casually by their first names: Celine, Whitney, Barbra.
He has 15 Grammys to his name (and 45 nominations), an Emmy, seven Canadian Juno awards, three Oscar nominations and a list of mega-hits that goes on for pages. In October, he starts a 12-city tour that includes a Nov. 1 stop in Miami where he will celebrate his 60th birthday onstage. The show is based on the wildly successful PBS special, Hit Man: David Foster and Friends, in which Foster plays master of ceremony and accompanist to a staggering lineup of stars. He’s also working on an upcoming Broadway musical based on cartoon character Betty Boop, as well as other projects, including a future TV series. It’s hard to believe one human being could do so much in one lifetime— but this isn’t just any guy. This guy has been special from the start.
Born in 1949 to a poor working family in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, Foster was 4 when his parents discovered he had perfect pitch. “I can say unequivocally that I was given a gift,” he tells SUCCESS. “Having perfect pitch is not a key to success, but it is an indicator that you maybe should be doing music. You’ve got to believe that music is passed on in genes, and my father was a musician. My parents encouraged me in a loving way, but not in an overbearing way. Fortunately, I loved it so much it was all I wanted to do.”
When he talks about his parents, the people he’s worked with, even his ex-wives, Foster has the demeanor of a nice guy from a small town who works hard, saves his money, shines his shoes and knows which fork to use. But there is that special thing, that thing that makes him work harder and longer than the next guy, that makes him push artists to deliver their best, that never lets up, not on weekends, not on holidays, not ever. Foster cannot identify exactly what drives him to be the best, but he knows it has something to do with how he was raised—and with not giving up.
A Nurturing Upbringing
“My parents made me feel special,” he says. “I wonder if that’s because I was one boy in a family with six sisters or because I had this God-given talent, or they were just that kind of parents. I think it was a healthy combination of all those things. My childhood, as I recall, was perfect—or near-perfect. Of course we had no money, but somehow they never let us know that. We knew we were poor but we never wanted for food or clothes. So we had the essentials.”
Even as his list of hits continued to grow, Foster never allowed himself to think he could expect the same outcome by exerting any less effort and focus. “I am always worried that I’m not going to measure up to the thing I did last. It’s tenacity, for sure, and upbringing. The reason I never did drugs is that I did not want to disappoint my parents. The reason I have a good work ethic is because my father had a good work ethic. It’s simple; you’re either raised right or you’re not. A lot of people can’t control whether they’re raised right or not—to those people, I would say you just come to the fork in the road and you say, ‘OK, am I going down this road or am I going down that road?’ There is no dress rehearsal. You can either lay in bed all day and feel sorry for yourself or you can get up every morning at 6 and try to make the best of the day. ”
Foster’s career began in 1972 as a keyboardist for the one-hit wonder group Skylark, whose song Wildflower made the charts before the group slid into obscurity. In 1973, he began working as a session musician, performing with people like John Lennon, Diana Ross, George Harrison, Rod Stewart. “I had to start all over again,” he says. “I had to do rehearsal piano at $5 an hour, but I knew the $5 would turn into $10 and the $10 would turn into $20. I’ve always felt—always in my life—that I was moving forward. Always.”
Still, Foster wanted something more. He wanted to be a producer. “As a studio musician, I played on everybody’s records and I played on a lot of hit records, and I watched the producers from the other side of the glass and I’d say, ‘Wow, that’s easy; I can do that.’ ”
In his 2008 memoir, Hitman: Forty Years Making Music, Topping Charts & Winning Grammys, Foster writes that he grew certain about his desire to produce while signed on as one of several keyboard players during a big studio session with Barbra Streisand. Streisand wasn’t happy about the arrangement and made that clear to the producer. As she became more frustrated, they broke for lunch. “Ever the opportunist,” Foster writes, “I didn’t go to lunch.”
Instead, Foster stayed behind, trying to work out the song the way Streisand wanted, based on what he heard her telling the producer. At some point, a familiar voice interrupted him: “Hey you! What is that?” It was Streisand. Foster explained he thought the piece could be simpler, his voice quavering. Then he just played. Streisand was thrilled and ordered the song be played his way.
Despite many bright moments, making the transition to producer wasn’t easy. “In my cockiness, I thought I was going to come right out of the gate with a hit record. I produced three or four albums and they all stiffed. As a studio musician, I went from six figures a year to $5,000 total in my first year of producing. That was the only time that I thought maybe I had made the wrong decision.”
But Foster kept at it, focusing on the work, applying what he learned from one project to the next. “In my heart, I knew I could produce successfully, and I couldn’t do that if I kept working as a studio musician,” he writes in Hitman. “So I did what I had to do: I believed in myself almost to a point of madness.”
In the late 1970s, the tide was turning for Foster, who won his first Grammy for Earth, Wind & Fire’s After the Love Has Gone. The song came to him in a moment of panic when Motown founder Berry Gordy asked him if he had something that combined pop and R&B. Foster lied and said he did. “I sat down at the piano, and it was one of those moments where the chorus for the song just poured out of me like a gift from heaven.”
In the 1980s, more No. 1 hits came, including Chicago’s Hard to Say I’m Sorry and Peter Cetera’s The Glory of Love. There were songs on soundtracks to St. Elmo’s Fire, Ghostbusters, Footloose. There was writing and producing with artists like Al Jareau, Boz Scaggs, Olivia Newton-John, Kenny Rogers. The 1990s brought Celine Dion’s The Power of Love and Natalie Cole’s Unforgettable. There was Barbra, too, and Toni Braxton and Whitney Houston and more Celine. By the end of the 1990s, Foster had started his own record label, 143 (I Love You) with Warner Bros.
The next phase of Foster’s career would be the one he is probably best known for: discovering new talent. Foster discovered and signed Josh Groban and Michael Bublé, among others, and continued to work with giants like Andrea Bocelli, Madonna and Michael Jackson.
Through it all, Foster appears to have avoided becoming Hollywood-phony. Although he has a deep respect for the talented people he’s worked with, he is not particularly star-struck, nor overly impressed by the trappings of wealth and fabulosity. Again, he is all about the work.
“I’ve had my moments of being a jerk,” he says, pushing to get the very best performances out of people. “But I have a lot of repeat performance in my work. I’ve had four albums with Michael Bublé, three albums with Bocelli, four albums with Chicago. I’m doing something right. There’s something to be said about the slow, steady climb. At the end of the day, my job is to get a great vocal out of a singer and in my egotistical mind, to be the one who can get a better vocal out of him than any other producer on the planet. That is my mantra. I don’t hit that mark every time, but as my friend Paul Anka says, ‘Good is the enemy of great.’ And I try to be great every day of my life. Every day.”
Of course, not everyone thinks Foster’s music is great. A Time magazine article described “the unmistakable Foster touch” as replete with “soaring vocals, the lush arrangements dripping with strings and keyboards, the crescendos built on crescendos.” He’s been called schmaltzy, a producer of elevator music.
“Twenty years ago, those comments used to sort of hurt me, but the truth of the matter is, when I lay my hands down on the keyboard, what comes out is what comes out,” he says. “I am built to do romantic music. My emotion comes out of my fingers at the piano, and what comes out is what comes out. That is not to say I don’t love every kind of music. I truly love everything. The last type of music I had to learn to love was opera. And now I love it. Country music, rap, Jay-Z, Beyonce, 50 Cent—I truly love it all. I just don’t know how to make that kind of music. There was a joke that I don’t take elevators because I am afraid I will hear my own music in there. There are a lot of composers who would love to hear their music in elevators. Pop stands for popular. Hard-core critics don’t mind giving credit to a pop musician until he becomes popular, then they want to blast them. It’s like they’ve ‘sold out.’ Sold out what? They’ve sold out an arena instead of a club.”
Foster may make romantic music, but it has not translated to a particularly successful love life. With three failed marriages and years of haphazard contact with his children, Foster acknowledges the downside of being driven. He’s tried to make up for lost time. “Fortunately for me, my daughters and my new stepsons are very forgiving, and I’ve done more parenting the last three years than I have in the last 30.”
‘Go with What You Love’
Still, Foster believes he has stayed pretty much on point when it comes to following his heart. “Lesson No. 1” to becoming a success, he says, is to “go with what you love. And you have to be good at it.
“Most people do what they are taught to do—not what they love doing,” he says. “It’s so screwed up. At 17 or 18, you are thrust off to college and at that point in your life you are supposed to make a decision about what you are going to be the rest of your life. Isn’t that weird? I got lucky because, by the age of 10, I knew I wanted to do music—for sure, without a shadow of a doubt. I didn’t know I’d be successful, but I knew I wanted to do it.”
In addition to his career, Foster attends to his David Foster Foundation, which he started 23 years ago, inspired by fellow Canadian Wayne Gretzky’s foundation. The David Foster Foundation raises millions of dollars through events he produces to help the families of children in need of organ transplants. Foster sees philanthropy as the next logical step in his life’s journey.
“Honestly, I believe there is something hugely philanthropic left for me in my life—where that would be my life. I sort of know what it is, but I don’t know how to articulate it. And I know that sounds trite, but it’s been on my mind for two to three years, much the same as when Wayne Gretzky influenced me to start my foundation. But this would be in an all-consuming way. And it’s kind of not a bad way to spend your last round.”
That last round is a long way off. Living alone for the first time in his adult life, he is reconnecting with his children. In addition to the Foster and Friends tour and his Broadway and TV work, he has albums in the works with opera singer Katherine Jenkins, Andrea Bocelli, Michael Bublé and newcomer Charice. He still works seven days a week; he says he’s not interested in just “sipping martinis somewhere.”
And, as far as advice goes, it’s back to that greatness thing.
“Good is just good,” he says. “It’s so easy to be good. I can be good any day of the week. I know how to do this job inside and out—I know how to play the piano very well, I know how to write songs pretty good, but greatness is what everybody should aspire to. I am gifted, but I believe in my heart that if I didn’t have music and I was a shoe salesman, I would be the best shoe salesman in the country.”