David Foster is dissatisfied. It doesn’t make sense though since he seems to have everything .
As a producer/writer/arranger of pop middle-of-the-road records, Foster is at the top of the heap. There is no one better. He has worked with, to name a few, Lionel Richie, Kenny Rogers, Hall & Oates and Paul McCartney. A short while ago, he worked with Barbra Streisand, producing and arranging “Somewhere,” her new single and by far the best cut on her smash hit “Broadway Album.”
He’s largely responsible for the rejuvenation of the veteran group Chicago, whose last two albums, “Chicago 16" and “Chicago 17,” have been huge hits with Foster as producer and co-writer. His triumphs aren’t all behind-the-scenes. Last fall his instrumental single, “Love Theme From “St. Elmo’s Fire,” made Billboard magazine’s pop Top 20.
Last week he was nominated for six Grammys. Though excited, he wasn’t floored. His nomination total is 19. Last year he was nominated for six and won two, bringing his total of awards to four.
His private life is just as glittering. He lives in Malibu with his wife and children, flies small planes as a hobby and co-owns a hockey team with Wayne Gretzky.
So what else could he possibly want? All of things, he’s consumed by a gnawing urge to be a performer.
That hit single from his “St. Elmo’s Fire” sound track is the culprit. It changed him. His contentment evaporated when a door that had been closed to him suddenly swung open again.
In the early ‘70s, Foster, born in Victoria, British Columbia, was in a Canadian group called Skylark, which failed. So did Airplay, which recorded one album six years ago. But this hit single gave him another chance.
“I just want to be an artist and a piano player,” said Foster, who plans to tour this summer. “The prospect of reaching people though performing is exciting to me. I don’t want to leave producing entirely. I just want success as a performer.”
Playing his hit single as a surprise guest on a Kenny Loggins show a few months ago in Santa Barbara whetted his appetite for performing. “What an incredible rush,” he recalled rapturously about his first time on stage, not including TV, in 10 years. “There’s nothing more gratifying than being out there playing live and having people recognize what you’re playing and love it. I love that feeling.”
His enthusiasm for performing is partly rooted in a fear that, as a producer, he’ll be a has-been at 40. So Foster, now 36, is anxious to have another option when the “ravages of age” short-circuit his producing career.
“I’m fully preparing for the fact that when I’m 40, things won’t be happening for me as a producer,” he said. “With a few exceptions, like Quincy Jones, Arif Mardin and some others, not many guys over 40 make it big as producers.”
This isn’t the first time insecurity about one career drove him to another. In the late-'70s, he was a prominent session pianist, working constantly on recording dates and commercials, and earning about $80,000 a year, extraordinary wages in those days.
“It seemed too good to be true,” he recalled. “I thought the session work had to end one day. I thought there would be a time when I wasn’t in demand as a session musician.”
In those days producing seemed a more stable career. Now he’s having the same reservations about producing.
His lust for stardom somewhat embarrassed him. As he discussed it he kept wincing: “It must sound so egotistical. I don’t really want to be a star but I do want to be an artist. I feel driven to do this. Stardom isn’t important but I do want to be recognized as an artist. That must sound like double-talk but there is a difference.”
The odds are against him. Instrumentalists rarely become pop stars because radio stations seldom play singles that have no vocals. But such logic hasn’t made a dent in his fierce optimism.
His first solo album won’t be ready until March but he’ll have at least one single on the market in the meantime. His next is the theme from “The Color Purple"--not one of his compositions, incidentally--on Atlantic. Also he has a song, “tapDance,” on another sound track--"White Nights"--that he’s trying to convince Atlantic to release as a single. So far no luck.
Foster naturally thinks Atlantic is making a mistake, citing the label’s initial attitude toward the single release of his “St. Elmo’s Fire” instrumental.
“I had to beg them to put that out,” he recalled. “They didn’t think an instrumental would sell.”
According to Foster, when he signed with Atlantic the company hoped he’d sing and not restrict himself to instrumentals. But he’s shunned singing for a sound reason.
“I can’t sing,” he said.
Foster’s producing career began slowly and uneventfully. His disastrous debut as a producer--a 1978 Jaye P. Morgan album that was never released--didn’t discourage him. Neither did the subsequent commercial flops he produced--albums by Danny Peck, the Keane Brothers and Bill Champlain.
His lone ‘70s triumph was producing Alice Cooper’s 1978 single, “How You Gonna See Me Now,” which made the Billboard magazine pop Top 15. But that didn’t make him a hot producer. Even winning his first Grammy in 1980 for Earth, Wind and Fire’s “After the Love Has Gone"--named best R&B; song--didn’t instantly change his career.
“I was very unhappy that year,” he recalled. “I was putting my heart into albums and not having hits. But my situation wasn’t bad because there was never a lack of studio work.”
One of Foster’s notable failures, Peter Allen’s “Bicoastal,” was one of his favorite producing efforts. Mention of that admirable, ignored album prompted him to muse about the elusive qualities of a successful album. Soon he came to a predictable conclusion:
“I don’t know what makes a hit any more than anybody else. You just do something and it works.”
Chicago’s revival might have happened sooner if the band had hired Foster sooner. His request to produce the ‘Chicago 14" album was denied. When that album didn’t sell, Columbia Records finally gave up on the band.
Chicago didn’t have a record deal when it relented and selected Foster to produce “Chicago 16.” Eventually Warner Brothers signed the group and picked up the album, which has sold more than 1.5 million copies, spurred by the hit single, “Hard to Say I’m Sorry.” “Chicago 17,” an even bigger hit, has sold more than five million.
Foster is scheduled to begin “Chicago 18" this month. But things are different now. Pete Cetera, who co-wrote the bulk of Chicago’s material with him, left for a solo career. Cetera wanted him to produce and co-write the solo album but Foster declined.
“I had make a choice between him and Chicago,” Foster said. “I couldn’t do both. So I just threw in with the group.”
By Foster’s admission, he and Cetera didn’t get along. Their conflicts certainly were no secret to industry insiders. Still, Cetera wanted to work with Foster.
“We’re a great writing team,” Foster said. “He knows that. He’s the best writing partner I’ve ever had. We don’t get along but we write well together. He doesn’t like me. He’s badmouthing me all over the place. But it’s not just me that doesn’t get along with him. Some other guys in the group didn’t get along with him either.”
Cetera quit Chicago abruptly, in a way that rankled Foster. “He and I were writing together all week in Vancouver,” Foster recalled. “Then he went back to L.A. and I turned on ‘Entertainment Tonight’ and found out he had quit the group. We were together all week and he had already made up his mind but he didn’t tell me.”
Even that didn’t turn Foster against him. “I begged him to stay,” Foster said. “I begged him to do one more album. It’s hard to imagine Chicago without him. But it has to be that way. I’m going to try writing with some other guys in the band.”
Working with Chicago offers one particular bonus to Foster, the aspiring artist: “They talked about taking me on the road to open some shows. I’d make a great opening act, don’t you think?”