Q&A; WITH DAVID FOSTER : 'I Have My Vision of a Song'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was hard for veteran record producer David Foster to imagine a bigger year than 1991, when he earned two Grammys and collected hefty royalty checks for his work on Natalie Cole's "Unforgettable With Love" album.

But his 1992 accomplishments dwarfed that. Among the year's credits: producing four tracks on Whitney Houston's "The Bodyguard" soundtrack album and co-producing Michael Bolton's "Timeless (The Classics)" album. Combined sales: an estimated 9 million units. He also co-produced two of the songs on Kenny G's "Breathless" album, which is over the 2 million mark.

And Foster may be equally hot in 1993. He currently has three singles in the national Top 25--Houston's "I Will Always Love You" and "I Have Nothing" plus Shanice's "Saving Forever for You"--and he's producing most of the tracks on Barbra Streisand's long-awaited sequel to her 1985 "The Broadway Album." In addition, "I Have Nothing," which Foster wrote with his wife, Linda Thompson, is nominated for an Oscar.

The only damper on Foster's '90s celebration was the nightmarish moment last June when his sport utility vehicle accidentally struck and nearly killed actor Ben Vereen on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. Except for discussing the Vereen affair, Foster, a 43-year-old from British Columbia, was glib and confident as he sat in a Beverly Hills office to talk about his latest hit streak.

Question: How did "I Will Always Love You" get added to "The Bodyguard"?

Answer: It was Kevin Costner's idea. Originally, he wanted "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted," an old (1966) Jimmy Ruffin tune. I did two arrangements of it. Whitney didn't love it, but she (realized) that this was the song Kevin wanted so we were going to make the best of it.

Then I happened to see on the charts that Paul Young had already recorded the song, so we had to find another one. A week later, Kevin came up with "I Will Always Love You," an old Dolly Parton tune.

I got all the various versions that had been recorded and listened to them. All of sudden, I had this clear vision of how I could make it work for Whitney. When she recorded it, I was certain it was going to be a smash hit.

Q: Critics have often accused Whitney Houston of being a record producer's tool--someone without a strong sense of her musical vision. Do you think that's valid?

A: Not really. She did what I asked her to do, but she added a lot of her own vocalizing. The first time she sang "I Feel Nothing," she sang licks different from what I wanted. At first I was saying, "Don't do that there." And then I thought, "What am I doing?"

So I let her sing the song and make it her own. She would have contributed much more to her songs if she hadn't been so tired from making the movie. She was recording at night after working long hours on the set.

Q: In general, do you mostly tell artists what to do or do you encourage them to make creative contributions?

A: It mostly depends on the artist. Working with Natalie Cole or Michael Bolton is different from Celine Dion or Barbra Streisand. I want them to contribute, but I also have my vision of a song. I prefer my vision until the artist shows me otherwise, which they often do. What I do is I make a demo tape of a song using some other singer, and then show the artist exactly how I want the vocals to sound.

Q: Barbra Streisand is a notorious perfectionist with her own strong independent vision. How is it working with her?

A: I know how to work with her because I've worked with her before--on "Somewhere" on her first "Broadway" album. I work on the musical tracks and she works out her own vocals. She sings them the way she wants to sing them, which is fine with me. Broadway material is not my forte, but it is hers. It's hard for me to say, "Barbra, sing it this way."

Q: What songs will be on the album?

A: I don't want to say yet, but I can say she's doing some Andrew Lloyd Webber tunes, some Stephen Sondheim tunes and some older tunes that are favorites of hers from shows like "Guys and Dolls" and "Annie Get Your Gun." She's doing a duet with Johnny Mathis on a medley from "West Side Story." I'm producing eight or nine tracks and she's doing the rest. We're modernizing the music, but not too much.

Q: The kind of easy listening, middle-of-the-road music that you do is often a favorite target of critics. Does that bother you?

A: I'd like them to judge the music on its own terms, but many of them don't. It's good music but not the hip music critics tend to like. Some of the criticism is vicious, but I don't take it as seriously as someone like Michael Bolton, who is really bothered by it. If I had listened to the critics, I'd have left the business years ago.

Q: Are you still serious about a solo career? You've made several albums, but none of them have really taken off.

A: I haven't given up on that. Strangely, my albums sell very well in the Pacific Rim. I've been there doing promotion and it's paid off. I'm going to make another one later this year. I've been signed by Interscope records to do a Christmas album. I plan to do classic Christmas songs with some of the singers I've produced over the years. Maybe that's the kind of album that might get my solo career going in this country.

Q: What about the Ben Vereen accident?

A: That whole thing was a nightmare. I almost killed Ben. It was the worse time of my life, other than when my father died. I was comatose, in bed for five days.

Q: How did you finally adjust?

A: My whole recovery was parallel to Ben's. As he got better, I got better. I shudder to think of what would have happened if he hadn't (survived). They would have had to put me away. The best thing that came out of this is that Ben has turned out to be a friend. But I'm sure he would have preferred to get friendly under other circumstances.

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