"So how do you become a record producer?" During the course of his career, David Foster has been asked that question time and time again, and while his answer might change, depending on the situation, the thought bubble over his head is always the same: "If you have to ask how to become a record producer, you'll never be one."
Expounding on this sentiment, the Canadian-born multiple Grammy winner and Oscar nominee explains that, while his own career path took a series of twists and turns, he was always set on being a musician. "How or in what capacity, I wasn’t quite sure," he says. "But music was the goal that I chased."
In his teens, Foster dreamed of leaving Vancouver Island to play piano in nightclubs. He joined a series of bands, one of which, Skylark, scored a Top 10 hit in 1973 with the song Wildflower. The group had moved to LA to be in the center of the music business, but when they couldn't duplicate Wildflower's success, they broke up and moved back to Canada – all except for Foster, whose skills as a keyboard player were being called upon by the city's hottest producers. "It was exciting being in the room with all of the musicians," he says. "But a lot of the time, I would be looking through the studio glass at the producers and thinking, 'I can do what they do.'"
Foster studied the greats and took mental notes, but he says that some of his biggest lessons – and opportunities – came from working with the not-so-greats. "The bad producers were these 'hang guys' who didn't have any real talent," he notes. "They’d look to me and say, ‘Hey, why don’t you come up with an intro?’ The bad producers would ask me for my opinions, which I was more than happy to offer. If the guy making the record was weak, I would always try to grab control."
And grab control he did. Foster produced the eponymous debut of his own band, Attitudes, and it wasn't long before he was manning the board for other artists. The hits started coming – for The Tubes, Chicago, Kenny Rogers, John Parr, Whitney Houston and a staggering amount of others – with Foster's name appearing on albums that have sold, collectively, in the hundreds of millions. Over the years, his multi-platinum ears would become especially attuned to new and developing artists who would go on to become household names, such as Celine Dion, The Coors, Michael Bublé and Josh Groban.
Foster admits that his criteria for producing an artist can be "a bit of a bouncing ball," but above all else, he looks for superlative vocals. "There’s plenty of people who can sing OK that make terrific records, and I love them from afar," he says. "But when I make a record, I need great voices. That’s always my mandate."
His track record would suggest a man who is seldom wrong, but Foster happily rattles off some of his more notable bad calls: "I told Celine Dion not to record that Titanic song. That's about as big as you can get. Flashdance? I thought, 'Welder by day, disco dancer by night – who wants to see that?'" He also passed on producing Janet Jacket's first album and told Richard Marx to stick with the songwriting but leave the singing to the pros.
"But I told Whitney Houston that she had to record I Will Always Love You for The Bodyguard," he says pointedly. "It probably sounds funny, but I’m actually proud of my failures – they enable me to enjoy my successes. And I’ve been right probably as many times that I’ve been wrong, so I can’t complain.”
On the following pages, Foster, who, in addition to maintaining a busy production career also serves as Chairman of Universal's Verve Music Group, looks back at 16 career-defining records he's had a hand in. Goodness knows there will be more to come.