The Dictator of Cheeseland

Music producer David Foster at the unveiling of his star on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood in 2013. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)
The career of music producer David Foster shows it takes an iron hand to create Lite FM.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE ‘A nyone that calls me an a**hole for the things that I’ve done, I think they’re right,” says the music producer David Foster, and it’s a measure of the comprehensiveness of his approach to existence that he could be talking about either his private life or his career. He allows that he repeatedly walked out on wives clutching the small children the pair had made together, and created similar disruption in recording studios. Even today, members of the band Chicago shudder to speak his name. “David made a record that was his impression of what Chicago should be,” says one bandmate, delicately alluding to how Foster brought the band a stack of hits at the cost of its soul. Foster himself doesn’t mince words about his time with Chicago: “It was a dictatorship.”

“Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” “Hard Habit to Break,” “You’re the Inspiration”: You can’t argue with the success. As much as anyone, Foster understood middle American lite-FM taste and made the records that defined it, from the age of Air Supply till Michael Bublé came along. A Foster track is the quintessence of the inoffensive, the sound of standing in line at a Rite Aid in about 1986. You don’t need to buy his music because it’s everywhere anyway, and yet people did, by the millions, because people like things that are easy, and Foster created the easiest of easy listening. Still, it takes an iron fist to generate so much fluff, as we learn in the amusingly frank documentary David Foster: Off the Record, which is streaming on Netflix.

Foster grew up blandly happy in the blandest corner of the known universe (the suburbs of Vancouver), where his mom doted on him so much that he noticed that while his six sisters were getting toast for breakfast, he was served bacon and eggs. Foster evidently feels no guilt about this; he was the special one, the one who called out, “That’s an E” when hearing a note played on the piano at age three or four. He was a teen when his parents cashed in their life savings to buy musical equipment for this child prodigy with perfect pitch. Foster bumped around the world a bit, including a tour in the U.K., but no place felt right until he hit Seventies Los Angeles, where he was first a studio pianist, then a producer and songwriter.

Foster’s bland brand of L.A., all soft sunshine and manicured hills and purring luxury automobiles, the land of silken scarves and pastel blazers, would be the inspiration for the Foster sound, with its sincere, plaintive piano chords and vocals that polished till they gleamed. Foster is Josh Groban and Toni Braxton and Andrea Bocelli. He is the detonation in a syrup factory that is Céline Dion’s cover of “All By Myself.” He is the cherubs-from-outer-space sound of Barbra Streisand’s version of “Somewhere,” and he is Nat and Natalie Cole’s adorable musical séance “Unforgettable.” Foster is, definingly, the act of taking the perfect little gem that is Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” and pumping it up into the mountain of cubic zirconia that is the Whitney Houston version. “When he walks in the room he is Mister Showbiz,” says Lionel Richie, which is a bit like Godzilla calling King Kong intimidating.

Foster, the kind of guy who cocks a finger and points it at you while he says “And that’s the truth,” is an unguarded and shameless fellow, which makes him an excellent subject for a documentarian. He plays a piano covered with his (16) Grammys and proudly holds up the phone so we can see the caller ID when the phone rings: Hey, it’s Stevie Wonder! He is a pure, oleaginous example of the L.A. “industry” “legend,” always happy to discuss his favorite subject.

Foster is reasonably candid about his personal failings (five wives, most recently the starlet Katherine McPhee, who is younger than some of his children), the worst night of his life (when his car struck and nearly killed a raving and disoriented Ben Vereen on an L.A. street in 1992, in an incident that paradoxically saved the hoofer’s life), and the brusque way he rules a studio. “Yes I came in hot, yes I came in arrogant, yes I came in cocky,” Foster says now about his collaboration with Chicago, his assessment seconded by bandmates Robert Lamm, James Pankow, et Cetera. That’s Peter Cetera, accent on the second syllable, the lachrymose balladeer whose style rebuilt the once-horn-heavy band around the bombastic piano chords Foster preferred. “When it gets big, it’s big,” marvels a studio drummer.

Foster directed the band to throw out every song it had in mind for Chicago 16 and start over. “I understand completely why they don’t like what went down,” Foster says, but he has a point about the evident ingratitude. Cetera (and Foster) split with the rest of the band and went on to create another mushterpiece, “Glory of Love,” while the rest of the band fumed. They’re fuming still! “They’re still pissed off about it,” Foster says, though “they’re still working off the backs of those albums right now.” Thanks to him, “they went from 50,000 albums [sold] to 7 million albums.” At the first party to celebrate what turned out to be a cascade of gold records attributable to Foster’s changes, one band member thought, “Yes, but it’s not Chicago.”

Too bad. Foster casts his eye over this empire of cheese, the plains of Velveeta and ridges of Gorgonzola, and is immensely satisfied with all of it. Speaking of Streisand’s version of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s “Somewhere,” he says, “In all modesty, I killed it.” Yes, but you’re not supposed to brag about committing murder. All these years later he is still enraptured by his own work as he describes the sections of his masterpiece/felony “I Will Always Love You.”

Today, nearing 70, Foster is trying to get a Broadway career going, but this means unpleasant trips to New York City: “I don’t like the energy,” speaking the way you’d expect a master of soporifics to think but not necessarily to admit. The energy he prefers is crowd adulation, of which he evidently got less than he feels has been his due. He craves public attention so much that he consented not once but twice to star in train-wreck reality shows (The Princes of Malibu, Real Housewives of Beverly Hills), and he’s willing to go all the way to Asia to have a spotlight trained on him: Over there, he’s a celebrity in his own right and plays for adoring crowds.

Still, it’s hard to begrudge Foster a bit of time playing the star when he spent his entire career cloistered away, working all night like Rumpelstiltskin spinning straw into gold-plated straw. His music may say “It’s 75 and sunny here in Blisstopia” but his actual working life he spent in those recording studios — chilly, darkened, tomb-like places. Notably, he conducts interviews for the doc in one such studio, but says gloomily of his surroundings, “It’s a submarine.” That’s a fine metaphor for the role Foster played in popular music — lurking unseen and firing off his torpedoes of schmaltz.

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