FORBES INTERVIEW: David Foster – The Enduring Impact of Talent
I have witnessed several decades of the latest fads and newest genres in the music industry. I have seen the one-hit wonders, the birth of new stars manufactured by the recording industry and the artists that have come and gone with the changing times. Whatever is popular today may not be popular tomorrow, not to mention 30 or even 300 years from now. Is it even possible to say if we have any Mozarts or Da Vincis in our midst today? One might be able to fathom the Beatles, Baryshnikov or Bowie qualifying for such a distinction, but we will never really know in our lifetime.
To even qualify for consideration, one must have talent. Talent is a powerful force, but it isn’t talent alone that breeds success. Creators must be willing to constantly challenge themselves and adapt their talent over time. A strong will and drive are also hallmarks of lasting success.
Over the past decade, I have come to respect and admire David Foster. He is first and foremost a composer, songwriter and producer. He is also a performer, arranger, host and bon-vivant. He is a tireless force of nature and the modern manifestation of multi-faceted talent. His name may not role off of everyone’s tongue, but he has almost five decades of hits and Grammys under his belt. He has also been responsible for mentoring and launching the career of many a star and pop-icon.
David Foster – Photo: Courtesy of Air Asia
Composers and songwriters are the unsung heroes of the modern music world. In our society today, celebrity is everything. Almost anyone young or old recognizes who Barbara Streisand, Beyonce, Katy Perry, Whitney Houston or Frank Sinatra is. Many don’t know however who wrote or produced the music and lyrics that made their performances come to life. I would venture to guess that very few millennials actually know who Cole Porter, Irving Berlin or Dianne Warren is.
In comparison, we really only remember the composers from music history. Most everyone with a little bit of music education knows who Bach, Beethoven or Chopin is. One would however need to be a devotee to know the celebrity performers who actually played or sang their music during their lifetimes.
In an ironic twist of fate, David Foster has become more of a mainstream celebrity over the past couple of years for reasons having nothing to do with his musical talent. His status as the husband of Yolanda Hadid, one of the characters on the popular reality show, “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills”, thrust him into the pop culture limelight. Further adding fuel to the paparazzi-driven fire is the fact that David is the stepfather of Bella and Gigi Hadid, the young IT models of the moment.
Last December, the announcement of David and Yolanda Foster’s impending marital split triggered an unprecedented amount of speculation and rumor mongering. I asked David about this during our interviews for this piece. He didn’t want to comment on the situation other than to express bewilderment about the fact that a reality show and his separation from Yolanda rather than his storied career had thrown him into the spotlight. It has subjected his personal life to the tabloid sharks looking only for the most salacious details.
David Foster with Celine Dion and Barbra Streisand
David Foster’s career as a composer, pianist, producer and songwriter spans five decades. He has won 16 Grammy Awards and has a dizzying list of other distinctions and awards too long to list from the Order of Canada to several honorary doctorates and a Hollywood Walk of Fame Star. Foster has produced or written for Christina Aguilera, Seal, Barbra Streisand, Andrea Bocelli, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Buble, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Rod Stewart, Madonna, Donna Summer, Olivia Newton-John, Natalie Cole, Josh Groban, Toni Braxton and Alice Cooper, to name a few.
Originally hailing from British Columbia, Foster moved to England as a 16 year-old teenager to perform with the rock band the Strangers. The Strangers became the back-up band for Chuck Berry for a couple of tours and in Foster’s own words: “I saw a lot of sex, drugs and rock and roll at 16, but didn’t partake!”. He moved back to Canada and then settled in Los Angeles in the early 1970s with his band Skylark, whose song “Wildflower” was a top 10 hit. After playing keyboards on various albums in the 1970s, Foster had his first major breakthroughs in 1978 and 1979 with Hall & Oates’ album “Along the Red Ledge” and with Earth, Wind and Fire’s album “I Am”. Foster co-wrote several songs on the Earth, Wind and Fire album, including the hit “After the Love Has Gone”, for which he won his first Grammy in 1980.
The 1980s were a decade of important collaborations for David Foster. His major partnerships with Boz Scaggs, Chicago and Peter Cetera, Chaka Kahn, Kenny Loggins and Kenny Rogers as a producer and songwriter produced hit after chart-topping hit. Number one hits such as Chicago’s “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” and “You’re the Inspiration” have left an indelible mark on the history of American pop music culture. Foster also successfully scored several films including “St. Elmo’s Fire” and the Michael J. Fox film “The Secret of My Success”.
David Foster’s work on the “Bodyguard” with Whitney Houston, “Unforgettable” with Natalie Cole and the launch of Celine Dion’s career kicked the 1990s off with a bang. He continued his work as a producer collaborating with Celine, Barbra Streisand, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and N’ Sync.
David Foster with Natalie Cole
More recently, David Foster has been credited with discovering and developing the talents of Josh Groban and Michael Buble, producing several of their albums. The last decade has included multiple new projects including new albums and television specials with Andrea Bocelli, Mary J. Blige, Diana Krall, Jackie Evancho and Seal.
Never content to sit on the sidelines, Foster has begun to actively perform as an artist again on his “David Foster and Friends” tours. Foster collaborates with multiple artists he has worked with over the years on these tours that have taken him across Asia, the US and beyond. Always entertaining, “Foster and Friends” gives a simultaneous glimpse of his work with iconic artists from the past and his new discoveries as well.
In 2015, David Foster joined the television talent search show “Asia’s Got Talent” as a judge. Known for his ability to spot and promote new talent, Foster has become a hit on the show and has demonstrated his insight into the search for the stars of the future.
In speaking with Foster, it is the future that excites him the most. He is always looking for the next new challenge, and his firm belief is that the next stage of his artistic development is on Broadway. According to Foster, Broadway and its theatrical elements allow him to explore his creative talents as a composer and storyteller and to be involved at the inception when taking on a project. Unlike his lifetime exploits as a producer and developer of careers, writing for and developing a Broadway show allows him to focus on what he does best unconstrained by any one individual artist.
David Foster’s first new project is to bring to life the early 20th century cartoon character Betty Boop. Although Betty Boop’s character appeared in cartoons, it was never fully developed into a book, feature-length film or TV show. Licensing the character from Max Fleischer’s estate, Foster’s partners in the project are producer Bill Haber and director Jerry Mitchell. Their target is to workshop the project this coming winter with the goal of launching a touring show by the end of 2017.
David Foster is also concurrently working on his one man show, an autobiographical sketch tracking his life and work as a producer and songwriter. Inspired by Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundays, Foster’s project will feature himself as the main character, performer and pianist working with four singers who are meant to loosely represent Whitney Houston, Brian McKnight, Celine Dion and Josh Groban. Directed by Kelly Devine, the show will be in development this coming winter. Foster’s hope is to launch the show in second half of 2017.
Aside from David Foster’s artistic life and performing career, he has been a tireless force in the philanthropic world. Foster has built his own foundation, the David Foster Foundation, which has for the last 28 years helped give financial support to families with children in need of major organ transplants. Foster and many of the aritsts he has collaborated with over the years have put on gala concert after gala concert raising money for the cause, which has helped over 1000 families.
PHOENIX, AZ – MARCH 24: Muhammad Ali and musician David Foster (R) onstage during Muhammad Ali’s Celebrity Fight Night XVIII held at JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa on March 24, 2012 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for CFN)
In addition to his own Foundation, Foster has supported and produced the music for Celebrity Fight Night over several decades. The event, which honors Muhammad Ali and has supported his efforts to fight Parkinson’s disease, is a star-studded gala and fund-raiser that takes place in Phoenix every spring. Jimmy Walker, the founder and Chairman of Celebrity Fight Night, told me that the event would not have developed as it did without David Foster and his influence on the artists that have attended and performed over the years.
David Foster has also participated and helped to produce the music program for Barbara Davis’ Carrousel of Hope over many years. The event is a glamorous one supporting the Children’s Diabetes Foundation. He has also been an ardent music contributor to Haim Saban’s Friends of Israeli Defense Forces foundation.
In today’s world of the importance and influence of social media, it seems like almost anyone with the will and the cosmetic attributes to back it up can make a mark and be “famous”. Given all the distractions we live amongst and the emphasis on the banal from reality shows to the mundanity of much of the electronic music being produced today, we somehow have to reflect upon what enduring talent really is. Learning about and understanding the lifelong achievements of David Foster and artists like him is important not only for us as a society, but also for our children and future generations.