David Foster’s biography: “The Hitman”
By Shanon Cook
NEW YORK (CNN) — The title of record producer David Foster’s memoir says it all: Hitman
Although he’s no gun-for-hire (though his critics might argue that he knows how to murder a melody), teaming with Foster can make a hit single an easy target.
Known for his power ballads — songs that dip and soar to all-out crescendos intended to “make people crazy with emotion” (his words) — Hitman ‘s effect on popular music has been felt not as ripples but as tidal waves.
Foster’s work has boosted the wattage of stars like Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, Andrea Bocelli and Michael Bublé. He was also the man behind the mixing desk on one of the biggest-selling albums of the last year, Josh Groban’s “Noel,” and urged Whitney Houston to go for that killer key change in “I Will Always Love You.”
The 15-time Grammy winner, 59, charts four decades in the business in “Hitman.” Though he rose from a session musician to one of the most sought-after producers in the business, not everyone fell for his charms: Foster humorously describes some awkward encounters with a prickly Frank Sinatra and a less-than-enthused Sting.
Other nuggets range from the sweet (an innocent crush on Olivia Newton-John) to the slightly disturbing (Lionel Richie claimed he’d spent a night in the hospital caring for a heart attack-stricken Foster; not only had Foster not had a heart attack, he hadn’t been in the hospital).
Foster can’t resist tickling the ivories intermittently while making conversation, so it’s hardly surprising that a CD/DVD was released at the same time as his memoir. “Hit Man: David Foster and Friends” is a tribute to Foster and his music recorded as a concert in Las Vegas in the Spring. It features a Groban duet with Brian McKnight on “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Celine Dion sings “Because You Loved Me,” and Foster plays his 1980s hit “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)” with an appearance by Kenny G.
Go ahead. Call him cheesy.
“It’s OK,” Foster says amiably. “That’s why I’m very rich.”
CNN caught up with an often light-hearted Foster piano-side (“where I’m most comfortable”) to find out what makes him a control freak and why he should host his own game show. The following is an edited version of the interview.
CNN: Why write your memoir at this point in your career?
David Foster: I guess you’re supposed to wait until you’re 80, although I am 59 so that’s pretty old. And I’ve lived a lot, and I’ve done a lot. And if you think about the fact that I was playing with Chuck Berry when I was 16 … that’s 43 years ago. So you can do a lot in 43 years. And I had a life before that, too. At home.
How to be a great music producer like Hitman David Foster
CNN: What does it take to be a great record producer?
Foster: There’s only one requirement: You have to have a great love of music. … Pop stands for popular, so you just have to be a guy who is in tune with what the masses would like. I’m just trying to think like the average person.
CNN: Do you mean to suggest that there are producers out there who don’t have an undying love of music?
Foster: When I used to be a studio musician in the 70s, I would watch them through the glass, and I learned more from the bad ones than I did from the good ones. Because the bad ones, this is what they would do: They’d go “All right, let’s go again from the top.” And then the artist would go — to the producer — “I don’t like the intro.” And then the producer would go “David, you on piano there. Come up with a new intro.” That’s a bad producer.
Whereas me, if the artist said “I don’t like that intro,” I would go to the piano and say, “Do it like this.” Maybe I’m a control freak.
CNN: Well, are you a control freak?
Foster: Without a shadow of a doubt, I’m a control freak. (chuckles)
CNN: So what’s your M.O. when you’re in the studio working with an artist? Are you uncompromising?
Foster: I am uncompromising to the point of huge dissention in the studio. And it’s served me very well. My theory and my philosophy is, “compromise breeds mediocrity.” Obviously, you have to pick your battles, and the more success an artist has, the more they want to be involved in their own career, which is not necessarily a good thing.
Commerce and art are natural enemies. And also the enemy of good is great. And the enemy of great is good, so there’s this huge juggling that’s going on all the time.
But I will fight to the last inch for what I believe in. Always. And that causes problems in the studio.
I did three albums with the group Chicago. And we had huge success. I was playing piano; I was co-writing the songs; I was playing the bass; I was arranging it. I was doing everything. And they wrote on the liner notes of their new album that “He was such a control freak and an egomaniac, he wanted his name on everything.” And then they went, “But it’s the most success we’ve ever had.” They weren’t happy, but their pocketbooks were.
CNN: Which song are you most proud of?
Foster: I don’t think anybody’s ever asked me that. … The song I’m most proud of probably is, I guess, a song called “The Prayer,” because this is a song that gets played at weddings and funerals. … The only other song that I know of in the history of the world that’s played at weddings and funerals is “Ave Maria.” And I don’t even know why that does. It’s kind of strange.
CNN: All these ballads suggest that you might be a romantic person. Are you?
Foster: I think that most of my romance comes out in my music. And if you look at my track record of three ex-wives, maybe there’s something to that.
I love all kinds of music … but when I lay my hands on the piano, 99 times out of 100, what comes out will be this (plays a slow, sweet melody). That’s what comes out. That’s just who I am. I can’t help it! I can’t sit down and go (plays a loud, upbeat melody). It’s just not what comes out. So I’ve just gotta go with what feels natural.
CNN: Does it upset you when people call your music schmaltzy?
Foster: I just did the new Seal album, and it’s an album of ’60s retro [soul] music. … It’s amazing. [He’s] born to sing this material. And a lot of the reviews have been good, but some of them have been aimed at me and not at him. Like “Seal, you’re so amazing, but why him? He’s too schlocky!” and bagging on me for Seal’s album. So that kind of thing kind of bothers me.
Hitman says: Pop stands for popular
But for my own … no. With Celine Dion, we were selling 25 million records a pop. Pop stands for popular. It means we’re plugging into the masses. So all the hipsters that are selling 300,000 [copies] and they’re on [a rock station] and all that … it’s great. And I like that kind of music, but so what? They’re not making any money. And it is about making money, too, right? Like Cher said, “I’ve been rich; I’ve been poor. Rich is better.”
CNN: Do you plan to produce records forever, or do you want to try something else?
Foster: I’d like to be on television, and I make no bones about that. I think that I’m comfortable and relaxed when I’m in a certain environment on television. I love game shows. I’d love to host a game show or an “American Idol”-type of program.
I don’t see me making records. If somebody said, “OK, you can never play the piano again, and you can never write another song again,” I’d be OK with it. Like (wipes hands) OK. Fine. Give me something else to do.
CNN: Really? I mean, come on …
Foster: Really, really. Swear to God. Because I’ve made a lot of music. I’ve been in a room like this [studio] for 35 years.