By Miriam Di Nunzio
David Foster is a hopeless romantic.
He makes no apologies for it.
“I think my music reflects that,” Foster says, phoning from New York. “Most of my music is soft. I’ve had my little share of rock and roll, but when I lay my hands on the keyboard, what comes out is romance. It’s not bullshit.”
Foster has been making romantic hit music for four decades, give or take a few years, composing but most of all producing and arranging orchestrations for some of the biggest pop stars in the business: Celine Dion, Michael Bublé, Josh Groban, Andrea Bocelli, Whitney Houston, Al Jarreau, Lionel Richie, Chaka Khan … an exhaustive list might actually be exhausting to read.
The list of hit songs, too, is ridiculously long: “After the Love Is Gone,” “The Prayer” (his self-proclaimed favorite), “Grown-Up Christmas List,” “I Have Nothing,” and “Love Theme from St. Elmo’s Fire,” to name a few.
These collaborations showed (or, more to the point, didn’t show) Foster as the guy behind the scenes, many times on piano, getting the best out of singers and musicians.
Then came 2008.
That was the year Foster stepped into the limelight, performing front-and-center in concert, putting his own spin on a litany of his songs (co-written and solo compositions) in a world tour (and PBS special) called Hit Man: David Foster and Friends.
He’s now back on the road in a new tour, bringing his hits, his band, and backup singers to Ravinia on August 5 for “An Intimate Evening with David Foster.” He’s also bringing along more of his “old friends”—more of the songs he helped put on the American pop music map. “The songs feel good,” he says.
Born in Victoria, British Columbia, Foster fell in love with music making when he was 12. “I had a perfect upbringing,” he says. “My parents [father Maurice and mother Eleanor May] were great parents. I have six sisters who all love and adore me. My parents took their life savings and bought me a piano and amplifier and let me move to England to join Chuck Berry’s band when I was 16. They had faith that I would not derail my life. I never did drugs or drink, and I think that’s because I never wanted to disappoint my parents.
“You meet people in their 30s nowadays who still don’t know what they want to do for a living. It’s sad. I guess it’s corny but true; if you love what you do it will never be work, right?”
Foster also had “an incredible band teacher in high school,” who helped, well, foster his love for music. “He let me play every instrument [in the band] for three months,” Foster says, “because he recognized that I had talent and wanted a working knowledge of every instrument. So he let me play the trumpet, tuba, flute, bassoon, clarinet, everything. I was good enough that I could keep up with the other kids. Every three months it was another instrument. I wasn’t great, but I got a working knowledge of all the instruments.”
That knowledge would help propel him into a successful and lucrative music career. And to paraphrase that old Stephen Sondheim song, he’s still here. Still succeeding where so many others have been chewed up and spit out by a cutthroat business. It’s a success that affords him the opportunity to walk away from it all. But only because something new and exciting came calling.
“I’m happy in my life right now,” he says, confirming that he is indeed dating actress/singer/Broadway newcomer Katharine McPhee. (That’s all the four-times wed/divorced Foster will say about the relationship.) The two met 12 years ago when he was her mentor on American Idol.
“I am finally sort of relaxed and not working quite as hard as I have been the past,” Foster admits, “though it may not look like that if you look at what I’m doing.”
What Foster is doing is creating his first Broadway musical, a show based on the 1930s’ wide-eyed, Jazz Age flapper animated cartoon character Betty Boop. A creative team of Broadway A-listers has signed on for the project, including director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell, whose work includes the recently premiered Pretty Woman: The Musical, the Gloria Estefan bio-musical On Your Feet, and Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein’s critically acclaimed Kinky Boots (all three of which had their pre-Broadway tryouts in Chicago). Veteran television scribe Sally Robinson is writing the book, and Foster’s score will boast lyrics by Tony Award nominee Susan Birkenhead.
“It’s my first try at Broadway,” Foster says of the musical, whose subject matter demanded a very original story. “There never was a story because [Betty Boop] is a two-minute-at-a-time cartoon. I knew I wanted to make a step toward Broadway and musicals, and honestly Betty Boop was the first person to ask me. [Laughs.] So we had to create the story. It’s currently waiting for the script’s final punch-up. And then hopefully we’ll jump into a reading and then a workshop.”
The stage musical process has included an eye-opening learning curve for Foster. “I have had Susan working with me for the last five or six years. She has taught me a lot about what the songs are supposed to do, which is to propel the show forward,” Foster continues. “Look, I’m in New York [he has set up a homefront in the city] because I don’t want to be that LA guy. You know, that guy. The ‘schmuck-LA-songwriter-who-thinks-he-can-get-a-hit-on-Broadway’ guy. I have immersed myself in the culture to get some respect, like I did in LA, working all those years in the studio. I think I’m a good fit for Broadway because I write good music still—I think—I write good melodies and I know how to move an audience with a melody.”
Even with his musical pedigree, Foster had to work to get the stage gig. Producer Bill Haber and Mark Fleischer, the grandson of the creator of Betty Boop (animator Max Fleischer), put him through some audition paces. “I wrote a couple of songs on spec. I was actually their third composer [to audition]. And that was it. I was in.”
What Foster has not been “in” for quite some time is the recording studio. The 16-time Grammy Award winner (he has nearly 50 nominations) has apparently closed the door on that part of his life, though he’s currently producing Michael Bublé’s next album. Broadway and touring in concert have become his new passions. Both are exciting, brave new worlds for him.
“I haven’t been in the studio for almost a year and a half,” Foster says excitedly. “I stopped making records almost two years ago. … I just got bored with myself. I needed to recharge. But it’s more than that. I’ve been in the studio some 40 years—in a room with no windows—making some great music, a lot of shitty music, some really good music. I needed to re-evaluate. Broadway is my new mistress, my new temptress. It’s my new muse. I feel like I can be good at it.
“I’m tired of making records,” Foster stresses. “I don’t want to be somewhere where I’m not doing my best. I think I can do my best on Broadway in musicals. And I love touring. I’m just tired of producing artists. It’s not on them. It’s all on me.”
Foster’s command of the music business is unflappable. At 68, he’s completely tuned in to the most relevant contemporary music makers. He cites Justin Bieber, Drake, Rihanna, Pink, and Ed Sheeran as some of his favorites.
“I haven’t lost the passion,” Foster makes clear. “I’m not the guy complaining about the new music. There’s this tiny part of me that would love to hook up with Drake and The Weeknd and Ariana [Grande], and without being heavy-handed, just sprinkle what I know [into their music] and see how that would work. Bieber’s last album [2015’s Purpose] was amazing. Drake is incredible.”
What Foster will concede is how much the music business has changed since he came up in the ranks, most of it for the better (he champions paid music streaming) and some not so (reality show competitions). He’s also the first to admit that his career might not be what it is had streaming been around some 20 years ago. “I don’t think I would have had as successful a career because everything is so disposable now,” Foster says, his tone becoming contemplative. “That’s why there can’t ever be another Beatles. There was less access back then. There are 500 channels now.”
Shows like The Voice and American Idol create a false sense of success, he argues, though he has been spotted as a mentor on American Idol and guest judge on Nashville Star. More to the point, Foster admits, they serve no real purpose other than pure entertainment. “I love those shows as a spectator,” he says. “As a person in the music business, they don’t do me much good. I love to watch Blake [Shelton of The Voice] turn his chair around, and that dynamic between him and [co-host] Adam [Lambert]! And [American Idol judge] Katy Perry is amazing. Simon Cowell is a freak; he’s so good! But here’s why [reality shows] don’t discover stars. These kids come from the bedroom to the stage without putting in the work in between. They make records in their bedrooms on their laptops because for $100 you can get enough equipment to do something that’s good enough to get on the radio. And they don’t do all the ‘in-between work’: They don’t sing in the bars, they don’t join a band. They don’t get thrown out of a band. They don’t have to lug their [keyboards] up stairs and play to an empty house. … Being a good singer is not enough.”
Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, and Jennifer Hudson notwithstanding, Foster is adamant. “Those are three out of thousands of contestants,” he says. But that was what, 15 years ago? And also, singers are not the best people to find stars. That’s why they have producers, like me. … Not to rag on them, but it’s just not their job.”
Finding stars and cultivating careers are among Foster’s key music talents. A hit song becomes a hit because it’s beautifully written and arranged, but it also demands the perfect voice to give it life. “I haven’t done as much discovery as people think,” Foster says with a chuckle. “Because I spend the time making the records. Somebody like [Arista Records founder] Clive Davis, for example—I saw the documentary on him and I thought, shit, I have done nothing! He’s discovered everybody.”
When it comes to his own ability to discover the next great voice, Foster’s not sure what “it” is that’s buried deep within him, that allows him to do just that. He singles out no one in particular as his favorite collaborator, but they’ve all been marvelous revelations to him. “Who knew that Josh Groban loved Radiohead, and was a funny, funny guy who ended up hosting the Tony Awards, writing his own music, playing in a rock band. I was just looking for someone who could sing like Bocelli,” Foster says. “Who knew that Michael Bublé could write hit songs? I just loved the way he sang, and the moment I saw him walk on stage and snap his fingers, I was hooked. … Who knew that Celine Dion would become [the powerhouse singer and businesswoman] she has become? She was a 19-year-old singer who just blew me away.
“I look for slots [in the music world] that are available. In 18 years, nobody has come close to try to challenge Bublé or Groban [in their genres]. Rihanna has to compete with Ariana [Grande] who has to compete with Pink who has to compete with Ed Sheeran for all those Top Ten spots. Name me one person who’s competing with Josh Groban or Michael Bublé? I knew, for example, that the Sinatra ‘slot’ was available because Harry Connick Jr. had started acting and didn’t really want to do that music anymore. And Andrea [Bocelli] didn’t want to do pop music at that time. So I said I’ll make a record that sounds like Bocelli and I’ll find someone who sounds like Bocelli to sing it.” The result was Groban’s 2001 self-titled, chart-topping debut release.
As for his legacy, Foster keeps it simple: He did his best.
“If it has your name on it, it better be the best you can ever do,” Foster says, chuckling. “I got that advice 35 years ago from Quincy Jones.” ▪
Miriam Di Nunzio is the Entertainment Arts Digital Content Editor at the Chicago Sun-Times.