Bully. Tyrant. Genius: 8 Things We Learned From New Doc on Producer David Foster
It’s been virtually impossible to avoid David Foster for close to five decades. No matter the era, he’s been part of your pop life. Grew up in the Seventies? You probably remember his first hit, “Wildflower,” when he was in Canadian pop-R&B band Skylark; the Tubes’ “She’s a Beauty,” which he co-wrote and produced; and Earth, Wind & Fire’s “After the Love Has Gone,” which Foster co-wrote. In the Eighties, there was Boz Scaggs’ “Jojo,” a slew of Chicago comeback power ballads (“Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” “You’re the Inspiration”), and John Parr’s semi-immortal St. Elmo’s Fire theme, “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion).”
The Nineties brought an onslaught of other Foster production fare: Toni Braxton’s “Un-Break My Heart,” Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me.” Like we say, you couldn’t avoid the guy. Then again, you may also know him as one of the husbands on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills or as the guy who hit singer and dancer Ben Vereen with his car. (Vereen, who had suffered a stroke after his own car crash that same day, survived.)
Foster explores and reminisces about his wild life in David Foster: Off the Record, a new documentary premiering Wednesday on Netflix. Here are eight of the most fascinating things we learned.
1. He played with Chuck Berry, who was an “asshole” to him
Originally hailing from Canada, Foster relocated to London in the mid-Sixties as part of the Strangers, whom he describes as “a clean-cut, horrible dance band.” While there, the Strangers took at least one gig with Berry, who routinely hired local bands to back him up, even if he’d never played with them before. In Off the Record, Foster admits he was classically trained and “didn’t really know much about rock and roll, so I didn’t play [Berry’s] music very well.” But he’s equally critical of his temp boss. “Chuck was just an asshole,” he says. “There’s no other way of putting it.” Foster says Berry’s guitar was always “out of tune” and that the rock and roll pioneer would just “crank away … He didn’t really care what was going on behind him. It was just not a good fit.”
2. Even when he tried to be a rocker, Foster just wasn’t born to be one
After relocating to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, Foster landed a job as the keyboardist in a Rocky Horror Picture Show stage production, where he met L.A. studio players. That, in turn, resulted in his participation in legendary all-night jams at the Record Plant studio, where former Beatles and current Rolling Stones would routinely show up. In the movie, Foster recalls how he fit in – and didn’t – during some of those jams. Playing a piano that faced a wall, he noticed how he would hear other instruments drop in and out, sometimes leaving him to solo alone. “I thought they were just letting me play,” he recalls. “But they actually were going and doing drugs.” (Foster himself says he never partook.)
3. He once tried to tell Neil Young how to sing
In 1985, Foster oversaw “Tears Are Not Enough,” Canada’s answer to “We Are the World”; the benefit single brought together Great White North pop stars old (Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, the Guess Who’s Burton Cummings) and new (Bryan Adams, Loverboy). By then, Foster was a chart-regular pop producer who demanded perfection, making a clip of Neil Young’s contribution even more hilarious. Listening to Young in the studio, Foster tells him he’s singing “a little flat.” Young – then in country-singer mode as evidenced by his bandana and brown leather vest — flashes a wry-stoner smile and says, “That’s my sound, man.” Give Foster credit, though, for laughing along with Young.
4. Foster was the Yoko when it came to the Chicago/Peter Cetera breakup
By the time Foster was recruited to produce Chicago in the early Eighties, that once-ubiquitous band had been hitless for years. In what amounted to what he calls a “dictatorship,” Foster rejected the songs they’d written, downplayed the horn section that had become a recognizable part of the Chicago brand, and even recruited outside musicians to play their parts. The situation still stings: “I was pretty upset for a while,” says trombonist James Pankow, who flashes the most ire. The pairing worked commercially, but as keyboardist and singer Robert Lamm recalls when he received gold records for their hits, “In the back of my mind, I’m thinking … it’s not Chicago.”
During that period, Foster and the band’s singer-bassist Peter Cetera proved a natural match, especially when it came to wide-screen ballads that gave Chicago their comeback hits. With his band members chafing at their softer sound, Cetera wound up leaving — and to continue working with Foster on hits like “Glory of Love” from The Karate Kid Part II. “We didn’t have any use for anybody who didn’t want to be a team player,” Pankow says of Cetera. But Foster gets the last word. He admits he was “arrogant” and that Chicago are “still pissed off about it.” But then we see Chicago onstage now, and Foster adds, “They’re still working on the backs of those albums right now.” Oof.
5. He tormented Celine Dion
Although Dion was already a star in her native Canada, Foster co-produced her 1990 English language debut Unison. One day, he made her hit that impossibly long, strung-out note at the climax of her version of Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself.” Then, in what he calls a “horrible story,” he had her attempt that note seven more times. “It was one of the days when she really hated me, I know that,” he says. Asked about it in the doc, Dion, her face thin and tight, says, “It’s true, it was great,” adding a sideways glance that makes you wonder what she really wants to say.
6. He cursed out Clive Davis over “I Will Always Love You”
When Davis felt that more music was needed for The Bodyguard soundtrack, he brought in Foster. According to Off the Record, it was Foster’s idea to have Houston tackle Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” (complete with a verse that Linda Ronstadt hadn’t included in her own remake). Kevin Costner and Clive Davis felt the song should start a cappella; Foster disagreed, thinking radio would never play a song that opened with a solo voice. During one phone call, Davis says Foster “repeated more obscenities in this conversation than I had ever heard” before suggesting they end the talk before it went too far. With the deadline approaching, Davis got his way, and Foster now admits it was the right decision.
7. He has mixed feelings about being a reality TV star
For many people, Foster is known less for making the power ballad a part of everyday life than being the father or husband on reality TV. As the stepfather of Brody and Brandon Jenner, Foster appeared in The Princes of Malibu (“we were ahead of our time,” he boasts of that short-lived series). Foster made a larger public impression on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, which co-starred his then-wife (a recurring phrase in Foster’s life) Yolanda.
Foster says he took the job to give Yolanda something to do, but he’s clearly someone who doesn’t shy from the camera. Still, Foster admits that the exposure he received from that series rankles him: “I would get — and still get — ‘I know you — you’re on the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.’ What I want to say is, ‘Hey, I got 16 fucking Grammys. I’ve sold half a billion records. Fuck that show.’”
8. By his own admission, he can be a “a cold-hearted motherfucker”
Off the Record stays very much on the record when it comes to Foster’s life outside the recording studio. He’s been married five times and has numerous children, and describes himself in the film as a “runner” — as soon as problems emerge in a relationship, he’s out the door. (As he says, “It’s more like, ‘Hey, there’s a shiny new thing over there … This is not working, so it looks a lot better to me over there.’”) He left his wife Rebecca for another woman when they had three children in the house, one seven months old. Foster admits his kids have “scar tissue,” which is more or less confirmed when his daughter Amy says, “I have 10 siblings and I’m an only child. That’s really fucked up.”
Although Foster admits “I have been an asshole a lot,” he asserts that he did not leave Yolanda when she contracted Lyme disease (as the tabloids had it), but for reasons “which I will never disclose.” At movie’s end, he’s now happily married to the 34-years-younger Katharine McPhee, who seems eager to call him out for his past behavior and lack of interest in discussing his feelings (which includes avoiding therapy). Asked if he is tired of running, Foster says, “I’m not tired of running, no, no. But I’m very happy where I am.”
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