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Hit King

Good has never been good enough for David Foster. He wants to be great. Which has worked out
pretty well for him for the past 40 years, as he’s made his way to the top of the music industry. Today,
Foster is regarded as the king of pop, the hit man, the No. 1 music producer in the country, if not the
world. In the course of his career, Foster has worked with every imaginable star in the business. He
refers to them casually by their first names: Celine, Whitney, Barbra.

He has 15 Grammys to his name (and 45 nominations), an Emmy, seven Canadian Juno awards,
three Oscar nominations and a list of mega-hits that goes on for pages. In October, he starts a 12-city
tour that includes a Nov. 1 stop in Miami where he will celebrate his 60th birthday onstage. The
show is based on the wildly successful PBS special, Hit Man: David Foster and Friends, in which
Foster plays master of ceremony and accompanist to a staggering lineup of stars. He’s also working
on an upcoming Broadway musical based on cartoon character Betty Boop, as well as other projects,
including a future TV series. It’s hard to believe one human being could do so much in one lifetime—
but this isn’t just any guy. This guy has been special from the start.

Born in 1949 to a poor working family in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, Foster was 4 when
his parents discovered he had perfect pitch. “I can say unequivocally that I was given a gift,” he tells
SUCCESS. “Having perfect pitch is not a key to success, but it is an indicator that you maybe should
be doing music. You’ve got to believe that music is passed on in genes, and my father was a musician.
My parents encouraged me in a loving way, but not in an overbearing way. Fortunately, I loved it so
much it was all I wanted to do.”

When he talks about his parents,
the people he’s worked with, even his ex-wives, Foster has the
demeanor of a nice guy from a small town who works hard, saves
his money, shines his shoes and knows which fork to use. But there
is that special thing, that thing that makes him work harder and
longer than the next guy, that makes him push artists to deliver their
best, that never lets up, not on weekends, not on holidays, not ever.
Foster cannot identify exactly what drives him to be the best, but he
knows it has something to do with how he was raised—and with not
giving up.

A Nurturing Upbringing
“My parents made
me feel special,” he says.
“I wonder if that’s because
I was one boy in a family with six sisters or because I had
this God-given talent, or they were just that kind of parents.
I think it was a healthy combination of all those things.
My childhood, as I recall, was perfect—or near-perfect. Of
course we had no money, but somehow they never let us
know that. We knew we were poor but we never wanted for
food or clothes. So we had the essentials.”

“There
is no dress
rehearsal. You
can either lay in
bed all day and
feel sorry for
yourself or you
can get up every
morning at 6 and
try to make the
best of the day.”

Even as his list of hits continued to grow, Foster never
allowed himself to think he could expect the same outcome
by exerting any less effort and focus. “I am always worried
that I’m not going to measure up to the thing I did last. It’s
tenacity, for sure, and upbringing. The reason I never did
drugs is that I did not want to disappoint my parents. The
reason I have a good work ethic is because my father had
a good work ethic. It’s simple; you’re either raised right
or you’re not. A lot of people can’t control whether they’re
raised right or not—to those people, I would say you just
come to the fork in the road and you say, ‘OK, am I going
down this road or am I going down that road?’ There is no
dress rehearsal. You can either lay in bed all day and feel
sorry for yourself or you can get up every morning at 6 and
try to make the best of the day.”

Foster’s career began in 1972 as a keyboardist for the
one-hit wonder group Skylark, whose song Wildflower made
the charts before the group slid into obscurity. In 1973,
he began working as a session musician, performing with
people like John Lennon, Diana Ross, George Harrison, Rod
Stewart. “I had to start all over again,” he says. “I had to do
rehearsal piano at $5 an hour, but I knew the $5 would turn
into $10 and the $10 would turn into $20. I’ve always felt—always
in my life—that I was moving forward. Always.”

Big Breaks
Still, Foster wanted something more. He
wanted to be a producer. “As a studio musician,
I played on everybody’s records and I
played on a lot of hit records, and I watched
the producers from the other side of the
glass and I’d say, ‘Wow, that’s easy; I can
do that.’ ”

In his 2008 memoir, Hitman: Forty Years
Making Music, Topping Charts & Winning
Grammys
, Foster writes that he grew certain
about his desire to produce while signed on
as one of several keyboard players during
a big studio session with Barbra Streisand.
Streisand wasn’t happy about the arrangement
and made that clear to the producer.
As she became more frustrated, they broke
for lunch. “Ever the opportunist,” Foster
writes, “I didn’t go to lunch.”

Instead, Foster stayed behind, trying
to work out the song the way Streisand
wanted, based on what he heard her telling
the producer. At some point, a familiar
voice interrupted him: “Hey you! What is
that?” It was Streisand. Foster explained he
thought the piece could be simpler, his voice
quavering. Then he just played. Streisand
was thrilled and ordered the song be played
his way.

Despite many bright moments, making
the transition to producer wasn’t easy. “In
my cockiness, I thought I was going to
come right out of the gate with a hit record.
I produced three or four albums and they
all stiffed. As a studio musician, I went
from six figures a year to $5,000 total in my
first year of producing. That was the only
time that I thought maybe I had made the
wrong decision.”

But Foster kept at it, focusing on the work,
applying what he learned from one project
to the next. “In my
heart, I knew I could
produce successfully,
and I couldn’t do that
if I kept working as a
studio musician,” he
writes in Hitman. “So
I did what I had to do:
I believed in myself
almost to a point of
madness.”

Hit Man
In the late 1970s,
the tide was turning
for Foster, who won
his first Grammy for
Earth, Wind & Fire’s
After the Love Has
Gone
. The song came
to him in a moment of
panic when Motown
founder Berry Gordy
asked him if he
had something that
combined pop and
R&B. Foster lied and said he did. “I sat
down at the piano, and it was one of those
moments where the chorus for the song just
poured out of me like a gift from heaven.”

In the 1980s, more No. 1 hits came,
including Chicago’s Hard to Say I’m Sorry
and Peter Cetera’s The Glory of Love. There
were songs on soundtracks to St. Elmo’s
Fire, Ghostbusters, Footloose
. There was
writing and producing with artists like Al
Jareau, Boz Scaggs, Olivia Newton-John,
Kenny Rogers. The 1990s brought Celine
Dion’s The Power of Love and Natalie Cole’s
Unforgettable. There was Barbra, too, and
Toni Braxton and Whitney Houston and
more Celine. By the end of the 1990s, Foster
had started his own record label, 143 (I Love
You) with Warner Bros.

“I
believed in myself
almost to a point of
madness.”

The next phase of Foster’s career would
be the one he is probably best known for:
discovering new talent. Foster discovered
and signed Josh Groban and Michael Bublé,
among others, and continued to work with
giants like Andrea Bocelli, Madonna and
Michael Jackson.

Through it all, Foster appears to have
avoided becoming Hollywood-phony.
Although he has a deep respect for the
talented people he’s worked with, he is
not particularly star-struck, nor overly
impressed by the trappings of wealth and
fabulosity. Again, he is all about the work.

“I’ve had my moments of being a jerk,”
he says, pushing to get the very best performances
out of people. “But I have a lot of
repeat performance in my work. I’ve had
four albums with Michael Bublé, three
albums with Bocelli, four albums with
Chicago. I’m doing something right. There’s
something to be said about the slow, steady
climb. At the end of the day, my job is to
get a great vocal out of a singer and in my
egotistical mind, to be the one
who can get a better vocal out of
him than any other producer on
the planet. That is my mantra. I
don’t hit that mark every time,
but as my friend Paul Anka says,
‘Good is the enemy of great.’
And I try to be great every day
of my life. Every day.”

Incurably Romantic
Of course, not everyone thinks
Foster’s music is great. A Time
magazine article described “the
unmistakable Foster touch” as
replete with “soaring vocals,
the lush arrangements dripping
with strings and keyboards, the
crescendos built on crescendos.”
He’s been called schmaltzy, a
producer of elevator music.

“Twenty years ago, those
comments used to sort of hurt
me, but the truth of the matter
is, when I lay my hands down
on the keyboard, what comes
out is what comes out,” he
says. “I am built to do romantic
music. My emotion comes out
of my fingers at the piano, and
what comes out is what comes
out. That is not to say I don’t
love every kind of music. I truly
love everything. The last type
of music I had to learn to love
was opera. And now I love
it. Country music, rap, Jay-Z,
Beyonce, 50 Cent—I truly love
it all. I just don’t know how to
make that kind of music. There
was a joke that I don’t take elevators
because I am afraid I will
hear my own music in there.
There are a lot of composers
who would love to hear their
music in elevators. Pop stands
for popular. Hard-core critics
don’t mind giving credit to a
pop musician until he becomes
popular, then they want to blast
them. It’s like they’ve ‘sold out.’
Sold out what? They’ve sold out
an arena instead of a club.”

Foster may make romantic
music, but it has not translated
to a particularly successful love
life. With three failed marriages
and years of haphazard contact
with his children, Foster
acknowledges the downside of
being driven. He’s tried to make
up for lost time. “Fortunately for
me, my daughters and my new
stepsons are very forgiving, and
I’ve done more parenting the
last three years than I have in
the last 30.”

‘Go with What You Love’
Still, Foster believes he has
stayed pretty much on point
when it comes to following
his heart. “Lesson No. 1” to
becoming a success, he says, is
to “go with what you love. And
you have to be good at it.

“Most people do what they
are taught to do—not what
they love doing,” he says. “It’s
so screwed up. At 17 or 18, you
are thrust off to college and at
that point in your life you are
supposed to make a decision
about what you are going to be
the rest of your life. Isn’t that
weird? I got lucky because, by
the age of 10, I knew I wanted
to do music—for sure, without
a shadow of a doubt. I didn’t
know I’d be successful, but I
knew I wanted to do it.”

In addition to his career,
Foster attends to his David
Foster Foundation, which he
started 23 years ago, inspired
by fellow Canadian Wayne
Gretzky’s foundation. The
David Foster Foundation raises
millions of dollars through
events he produces to help the
families of children in need of
organ transplants. Foster sees
philanthropy as the next logical
step in his life’s journey.

“Honestly, I believe there is
something hugely philanthropic
left for me in my life—where that
would be my life
. I sort of know
what it is, but I don’t know how
to articulate it. And I know that
sounds trite, but it’s been on
my mind for two to three years,
much the same as when Wayne
Gretzky influenced me to start
my foundation. But this would
be in an all-consuming way.
And it’s kind of not a bad way to
spend your last round.”

That last round is a long
way off. Living alone for the
first time in his adult life,
he is reconnecting with his
children. In addition to the
Foster and Friends tour and his
Broadway and TV work, he
has albums in the works with
opera singer Katherine Jenkins,
Andrea Bocelli, Michael Bublé
and newcomer Charice. He still
works seven days a week; he
says he’s not interested in just
“sipping martinis somewhere.”

And, as far as advice goes, it’s
back to that greatness thing.

“Good is just good,” he says.
“It’s so easy to be good. I can
be good any day of the week. I
know how to do this job inside
and out—I know how to play
the piano very well, I know how
to write songs pretty good, but
greatness is what everybody
should aspire to. I am gifted,
but I believe in my heart that
if I didn’t have music and I was
a shoe salesman, I would be
the best shoe salesman in the
country.”

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