Hitman: Forty Years Making Music, Topping the Charts, and Winning Grammys

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9781439149508: Hitman: Forty Years Making Music, Topping the Charts, and Winning Grammys

After almost four decades in the music business, David Foster -- producer, arranger, songwriter, performer -- is finally ready to talk. In this compelling and outspoken memoir, Foster shares some of his incredible stories: the first time he met Barbra Streisand, as a young session player in Los Angeles; his first of 15 Grammys® for "After the Love Has Gone," Earth, Wind & Fire's memorable hit; the making of Unison, Celine Dion's English-language debut; the challenges he faced on his way to putting the group Chicago back on the charts; his award-winning contribution to Unforgettable: With Love, Natalie Cole's comeback album; those back-to-back recording sessions with Madonna and Michael Jackson; and the incredible chain of events that spawned Whitney Houston's historic blockbuster, "I Will Always Love You."

Foster has worked with superstars of every decade, including:

Celine Dion - Josh Groban - Whitney Houston - Michael Bublé - Barbra Streisand - Andrea Bocelli - Madonna - Michael Jackson - Natalie Cole - George Harrison - Earth, Wind & Fire - *NSYNC - Chicago - Paul McCartney - All-4-One - Katharine McPhee - Toni Braxton - Alice Cooper - Olivia Newton-John - Michael Bolton

...and many more.

From his unique and privileged vantage point, Foster describes the delicate balancing act between artist and producer, offers revealing portraits of some of those artists at work, and shares his secrets for success in the maddeningly fickle music industry.

At its heart, this is the story of a boy with perfect pitch who grew up to become one of the most influential musical forces of our time -- the solid gold hitman who produced the soundtrack of our lives.

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About the Author:

David Foster is a 15-time Grammy Award winning composer, songwriter, arranger, and record producer whose career began in the early 1970s, with the group Skylark. He then went on to become one of the most sought-after session players in the business, working alongside such musical legends as Barbra Streisand, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Diana Ross, Rod Stewart, and many more. In 1990, Foster met Celine Dion in Quebec, singing under a tent in the rain, and shortly thereafter he introduced her to American audiences. A few years later, he was recruited by Atlantic Records, paving the way for the creation of his own successful label, 143 Records, and in the years since he has discovered a roster of diverse and exceptional talents, including, most recently, Josh Groban and Michael Buble. In addition to his work in the music business, Foster spends much of his time raising money for charity.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


The Comeback

On a stifling summer day in 1990, I made the long drive from my recording studio in Malibu to Glendale, in the San Fernando Valley. I pulled up in front of a drab building that looked about as impressive as a sheet-metal shop, parked on the street, and approached the unprepossessing entrance. It must have been about ninety degrees out, but it was nice and cool indoors. I signed in at the security desk and took the stairs to the second floor, where an older guy was waiting for me. "You the fella that's here about the Nat King Cole recordings?" he asked.

"That would be me," I said.

He turned and made his way down the corridor, and I followed him through a door and into a huge, musty vault that was stacked with ancient tapes. Most of them were in identical metal cases, piled eight and ten deep in places, and I could make out a number of familiar names on some of the fraying labels: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett, Perry Como...

We went deeper into the vault. The place looked like that endless government warehouse in the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the Ark itself -- safe inside a sturdy wooden crate -- is wheeled to its final resting place among tens of thousands of similar crates.

"Let me think," the old man said, shuffling along and mumbling to himself. "I'm pretty sure I know where it is." He slowed suddenly and I almost bumped into him. "Should be right in this here area somewhere," he said, craning his neck, and I thought he was going to tip over backward. "Yup. There it is."

It was on the second shelf from the top. He reached up and grabbed it and blew the dust off the case, and for a moment a cloud hung in the air between us. He then turned abruptly and I followed him back outside, to the end of the corridor and into a tiny, airless room. He transferred the recording onto a twenty-four-track tape and gave me the copy. I signed for it and thanked him and found my way back into the blazing sunlight, and I climbed into my car for the long return drive to the studio.

I wasn't in a great mood, and I wasn't feeling particularly optimistic about the work that lay ahead. For some time now, I'd been in a bit of a slump, and absolutely nothing was clicking. In previous years, it felt like every single time I wrote a song or produced a song I had a chance at a home run, but that wasn't happening anymore. I wasn't in the Top 40 at the time, and life in the music business is measured by your position on the charts. It was grim. No matter what I did, I couldn't pop the charts. I'd lost my edge, my hunger -- whatever the hell you call it.

And it's strange, because over the years, every time I made an album, there was always a point where I would think, This one's no good. This one's not going to happen. And I was wrong, of course. Most of my albums had done very well, and some of them had done spectacularly -- there were five Grammys sitting on my piano -- but where was Number Six? My "sound" had stopped working. I began to wonder whether my career was in the shitter.

Instead of trying to figure out what was wrong, however, to try to fix it, I ran away. I was taking stuff not because it had merit but to keep myself busy, and I was keeping busy because I was trying not to think about the problem. I should have probably gone into therapy, but I didn't want to dig too deep for fear of what I'd find.

This next job seemed unpromising in the extreme: Natalie Cole wanted to sing some classic recordings by her late father, Nat King Cole, to create a string of old standards. But for whom? Did anyone still care about that stuff ? The more I thought about it, however, the more it seemed that it might be a good thing for me. This wasn't the type of stuff the radio stations were ever going to play, and at the end of the day that's precisely why I took the job: Because I didn't feel any real pressure to succeed. I hadn't been near the Billboard charts in almost two years, and at that point I think I was afraid to even aim for them.

In simple terms, doing Natalie's album was more of the same: I was still running away.

To further complicate matters, I was one of three producers on the project. The others were Tommy LiPuma, an industry veteran, and Andre Fischer, Natalie's then-husband. Some weeks earlier, before I made that drive to Glendale, the three of us met for lunch at Du€‘par's, a Hollywood restaurant, to divvy up the songs. There were twenty-one of them, and Tommy had written their names on separate scraps of paper, and we went through them one at a time -- three kids picking straws. When I saw "Mona Lisa," a song I'd always liked, I snagged it, and when I came across "Unforgettable," Nat King Cole's 1961 classic, I reached for that, too.

"I love that song," I said. "I'll take it."

At that point, I didn't know that Natalie intended to create a duet with her late father. (She only told me about this later, and when she did I thought it was an absolutely brilliant idea.) And in fact, I was kind of surprised that Andre hadn't taken "Unforgettable" for himself. As far as I was concerned, it was the only track on the entire retro album that had half a chance of getting any attention, and surely he'd had the inside scoop on that one.

Lesson #1: Always go with what you love.

When I got back to the studio from the vault in Glendale, I handed the tape to David Reitzas, my engineer. He went off to play it for us, and the moment Nat King Cole's voice came over the speakers, filling the room, both of us were completely floored. The quality was beyond anything I had imagined possible. It was just Nat doing vocals -- no orchestra, no piano, no nothing -- just his crystal-clear, perfectly mellifluous voice. I remember thinking, Well, if nothing else, we'll be making some beautiful music.

But I still didn't believe the project was going to do much for Natalie's career -- or for mine.

Natalie turned out to be a dream to work with, and an amazing vocalist in her own right. She had been through plenty of crises at that point in her life, including various addictions and the near-drowning of her son, but she was clean and sober and eager to get to work. She'd had a successful career, but it had stalled out -- something I could definitely relate to at that point -- and she was hoping this was going to turn things around for her. She was also a little worried, wondering whether people would think she was capitalizing on her father's name, but I kept telling her that there was no need for concern. She had lived and breathed that music -- it was in her blood -- and she needed to keep moving forward. She had every right to pay tribute to the father she loved -- and the singer who was loved by us all.

I'd like to tell you that there was a moment when I absolutely knew we had a great album on our hands, but that wouldn't be true. I knew it was good, even better than good, but I didn't see it getting any airplay, and I didn't imagine big sales.

I was about as wrong as I'd ever been.

Unforgettable: With Love was a success on every level. The duet became an unexpected Top 10 hit, and the album sold more than eight million copies. It got Record of the Year, Album of the Year, and Natalie took Best Traditional Pop Performance.

And I went home with the Grammy for Producer of the Year.

I remember thinking, Nobody knows I've been gone, but it sure feels good to be back.

As I walked off the stage with my Grammys, I remember thinking back to my old friend Ronnie Hawkins, with whom I'd played in Toronto when I was still in my teens. "When it stops happening for you, and you lose your touch, and you're not hitting it dead-on anymore, don't bang your head against a brick wall," he'd advised me. "Retreat and attack from another direction."

That's what I'd done, albeit inadvertently. I'd retreated and attacked from another direction. And damn if it hadn't worked! From that day forward, Ronnie's words became my mantra.

This was a heady period for me, and it was about to get even better -- so good, in fact, that it felt almost illegal -- but things at home were increasingly difficult. Linda and I were five years into our relationship, and the issues that had plagued us from the beginning -- how to manage a blended family -- were getting only worse. We were probably in self-denial about the extent of our problems, but at that stage we were still trying to make it work.

At one point, after being locked up in the studio for months, we decided that a change of scenery might help, and we took her two sons, Brandon and Brody, up to Victoria, British Columbia, where I kept my boat. Three days into it, I got a call from Richard Baskin, Barbra Streisand's old beau. "I've got a friend in L.A. who just finished making a movie," Richard said. "He's exhausted, and looking to take a break. He and his wife would love to chill for a couple of days. You'll like them. They're outdoor types. Can you help them out?"

"Sure," I said. I didn't even bother to ask who they were. I wasn't thrilled, though. Linda and I had just had another in a succession of arguments, and I needed a break from my break with Linda, so I turned to her and said, "Why don't you and your boys take the boat for a couple of days, with Richard's friends. I'm sure they're nice people. I'll go chill with my mom."

When Richard called back to tell me that our guests would be Kevin Costner and his then-wife, Cindy, I had a quick change of heart. I wasn't about to leave Linda on my boat with Costner.

On the appointed day, I went to pick up our guests up on the dock, in the dinghy. I hadn't shaved in a few days, and I looked scruffy as hell, and I'm not sure I made a very good first impression. I loaded their bags into the dinghy and then helped them aboard, and we left the dock and made our way into the deep, ominous fog. Cindy later told me that the moment she lost sight of land she was convinced it was all over. "I was sure you were a mass ...

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