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David Foster: Master of Many Styles

Posted in MusicWorld on October 28, 2008 by

In the 1970s, an aspiring Hollywood songwriter named David Foster finagled an audience with the pope of Motown soul music, Berry Gordy. Cutting to the chase, Gordy asked what kind of songs Foster might create for his artists. In a nervy panic, Foster made a beeline for the piano and hastily improvised. “I just sat down and began singing this line, ‘after the love has gone’,” recalls Foster. “It just fell out like a gift from heaven. And at the end, Gordy goes, ‘Whoa! That’s pretty damn good.”

Foster’s on-the-spot melody evolved into “After The Love Has Gone,” the Earth, Wind & Fire hit that would capture the 1979 Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues song. Today, some 30 years after his fateful meeting with Gordy, Foster is renowned worldwide as a go-to man for the regal likes of Barbra Streisand, Whitney Houston, Chaka Khan, Mariah Carey, Andrea Bocelli, Natalie Cole and more. A three-time Oscar nominee, Foster’s mantle veritably buckles under the weight of 15 Grammys and seven Juno awards. He has performed on — and/or composed songs for — some the world’s best-selling albums, including Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Lionel Richie’s Can’t Slow Down and The Bodyguard original soundtrack. A key player in the discovery and development of Celine Dion and Josh Groban, Foster’s WEA-distributed 143 Records label is home to Groban, Michael Bublé and American Idol alumna Katherine McPhee, among distinguished others.

In short, music has been very good to David Foster. But while he remains an in-demand producer, arranger, keyboardist and songwriter, some critics have labeled Foster a purveyor of “elevator music,” an accusation the composer himself shrugs off. “I’m not apologetic for it at all,” Foster says of his balladeer reputation. “What better honor than to hear your music in an elevator? That’s the melodies that people are humming.”

While Foster is probably the world’s premier producer and writer of hit serenades, the record shows he is a master composer of many styles. His 1978 breakthrough hit, “Got To Be Real,” is a timeless funk jam that launched the career of r&b vocalist Cheryl Lynn. Foster also co-composed The Tubes’ 1983 Top 10 rock hit, “She’s A Beauty,” as well as Al Jarreau’s bouyant soul-pop hit, “Mornin’.” As these and other up-tempo tracks attest, Foster is no One-Note Johnny.

But in a contemporary music world increasingly dominated by the rough-and-tumble sounds of rock, hip-hop and country, Foster has stepped in to fill the void for unabashedly sentimental pop. His pianistic songs hearken back to the starlight balladry of George Gershwin and Irving Berlin, while Foster’s symphonic arrangements and epic productions reconcile pop with neo-romantic classical music. Indeed, his melodies reflect an admiration for European composers such as Beethoven, Rachmaninoff and Puccini. “I grew up with classical music, and it’s just my take on things,” Foster says. “Just as when Bruce Springsteen picks up a guitar and pounds out this three chord jam, when I sit down at the piano, what comes out is what comes out.”

Foster’s method of operation is elegantly simple: Find the world’s finest vocalists, supply them with the most caressing, hummable melodies possible, then collaborate with acclaimed lyricists including Cynthia Weil, Carole Bayer Sager, Linda Thompson and Tom Keane. “For my soul, I need to work with great singers,” Foster says. “If you look at my history — Peter Cetera, Kenny Loggins, Chaka Khan, Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, Josh Groban, Michael Bublé, Natalie Cole, Justin Timberlake — you’ll hardly find anybody in there that’s not a great singer. And that’s by design.”

Of the dozens of hit melodies he has composed, Foster is partial to the 1999 ballad “The Prayer,” which has been interpreted by Celine Dion, Andrea Bocelli and Josh Groban (“It’s the closest to a real classical piece that I’ll ever write,” he says). He also confesses a soft spot for the 1980 Boz Scaggs hit, “Look What You’ve Done To Me” (“It’s my favorite melody that I’ve ever been a part of… I just love what Boz did with the lyric.”). Foster is so enamored of Chicago hits like “You’re The Inspiration,” “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” and “Love Me Tomorrow” that he’s hard-pressed to pick an absolute favorite.

Going forward, Foster’s star is set to rise even higher. He’s currently working with Seal, mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins and newcomer Charice Pempengco. Foster is also the star of his very own PBS career retrospective, David Foster & Friends, featuring live performances by Peter Cetera, Boz Scaggs, Katherine McPhee, Josh Groban, Andrea Bocelli and more.

Says Foster with a laugh: “It’s basically my funeral while I’m still alive.”