November 2008

Singing the City’s Praises

A music mogul muses on a seven-decade affair with the lady of his dreams


David Foster with Earth, Wind and Fire, 1979 David Foster with Earth, Wind and Fire, 1979

Born on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, I’ve lived my entire adult life in Los Angeles, but I remain a big Canadian flag waver. Victoria may be the greatest city in which to grow up, but L.A. may well be the greatest city to live out your dreams. Let the love story begin...

Not much to write about—I’m not born until November ’49. Bummer that I can’t say I was born in the ’50s. Lately, though, I’ve been lying—born in the ’50s sounds so much more, well, youthful.

Slowly but surely, bits of info are trickling into my consciousness about this magical place. My neighbors return from a trip to Disneyland and bring me the best present: a string of lollipops individually wrapped in plastic. This is big—Disneyland must be the greatest place in the world. I’m studying to be a classical pianist, but I’m not a complete nerd. We don’t have TV, though our neighbors do. I notice I Love Lucy is made at the Desilu Studios—in Los Angeles! And my favorite show of all time, The Price Is Right, is filmed in “Television City,” not to mention The Three Stooges. Holy crap—Los Angeles must really be something.

With Chuck Berry, 1965 With Chuck Berry, 1965

By now I’m obsessed with music—I know it’s my passion. I have my own band by age 12. I’m doing gigs, making more money than my hardworking father and listening to music 24/7. I’m also reading the liner notes on every musician I love, and everyone who plays on the records I love is making that music in—you guessed it—L.A. My dad’s favorite TV show, Gunsmoke; my older sisters’ fave show, American Bandstand; and my favorite music show (don’t laugh), The Lawrence Welk Show—all made in L.A. Movie stars, music, television, recording studios—I must get there. But how?

In 1970, I’m 21 and still in Vancouver. I’ve had some local success. A man named Barry De Vorzon hears Skylark, the band my future ex-wife (of three) and I put together—and he loves it. He invites me to...Los Angeles. Barry has cred. He discovered and nurtured the pop group the Association, wrote “Nadia’s Theme” (the opener for The Young and the Restless)...and he was taking me to the land of opportunity.

When we land, Barry picks us up in a brand-new Jaguar, takes us to Sunset Boulevard, points up to a billboard for the movie Bless the Beasts & Children, and there in huge letters: “Music by Barry De Vorzon.” I have arrived. Then something even more spectacular happens: Barry takes us to a restaurant where the food is cooked at your table—Benihana! This is the big time. Cut to...we get a recording contract with Capitol Records, and she and I move lock, stock and barrel to L.A. My Volks-wagen van is packed to the hilt with clothes, guitars, keyboards, records (that vinyl stuff), sewing machine, furniture—everything we own. After the 24-hour nonstop drive from Vancouver, we arrive at the Carlton Lodge on Highland Avenue in Hollywood. We go for lunch, and when we get back, every single thing we own is gone, stolen in broad daylight one hour after our arrival. Welcome to L.A. Or maybe more like Guns N’ Roses—welcome to the jungle.

But the decade plays out well. We get a one-bedroom apartment in the Valley (I love the Valley), we have a hit record, we move to a bigger apartment on Coldwater Canyon. The band breaks up, but I’m where I belong. I audition to play in the band for The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Roxy. I get the job and meet some great musicians. We buy a house on Blix Street in North Hollywood. By 1976, I’m a studio musician, playing piano with the Fifth Dimension, Rod Stewart, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Glenn Campbell, Lynyrd Skynyrd—an endless line of recording day and night. I’m making six figures, and I’m now one of those guys someone else is dreaming about becoming. Life is good and about to get even better. It’s what I dreamed about as a child.

I realize the guy on the other side of the glass—the producer—is having way more fun than I am. He’s calling the shots, hanging with the artists, having dinner with them at the Brown Derby. That’s my next target, and I go after it with a vengeance. By 1980, I’ve cowritten “After the Love Has Gone” for Earth, Wind & Fire and produced Alice Cooper and Hall & Oates. Now I’m rolling with a couple of Grammys under my belt as a full-fledged record producer. In fact, that’s what I start putting on the form you fill out at the doctor’s office.

The decade is a whirlwind. I hook up with the band Chicago, and we do three successful albums. All the Kennys— Kenny Rogers, Kenny Loggins, Kenny G—Chaka Khan, more Earth, Wind & Fire, the Dreamgirls cast album, Barbra Streisand. It feels like I live in the studio—the food slides under the door, the music slides out, more food slides in. This is my life. I’m on my second marriage (hmmm, workaholic?)—to Rebecca—I now have four beautiful daughters and a bigger house in Toluca Lake. Then I move to an even bigger house in Malibu with my own studio. Even with the two-year nosedive at the end of the decade—which maybe I’m the only one who notices—Los Angeles is paying dividends like Berkshire Hathaway!

Top: with Neil Diamond, 1989; bottom: with Nicole Kidman, 2001 Top: with Neil Diamond, 1989; bottom: with Nicole Kidman, 2001

I do the Natalie Cole Unforgettable album, find Celine Dion singing in a tent in Montreal and do probably the biggest project of my life, The Bodyguard—all the time never leaving L.A. Now I’m with wife number three and her two sons, and we buy the Bodyguard house—22 acres in Malibu. Holy s--t: from a one-bedroom apartment to this in 20 years. Malibu is a wonderful place. I build a studio compound, and every artist loves coming to work there, including Toni Braxton, ’N Sync, Celine, Whitney, Mariah, Madonna—blah, blah, blah. I know the most interesting thing about me is the people I have produced. That’s why I’m dropping these names. Even though it’s such bull, how do I get around it? Even artists I don’t produce, like Cher, come and use my studio. It is a slice of heaven on earth. It is this decade when my then wife Linda and I meet Barbara and Marvin Davis—they introduce us to spectacular parties and interesting and important people from every walk of life. Forget about the backs of album covers—I’m reading about these people in Time, the Hollywood Reporter and the Wall Street Journal. Randy Newman gets it right in his song “I Love L.A.” The decade closes with more Grammys, more friends and more success, but it comes at a price—like the night I hit Ben Vereen on PCH at 2:30 a.m., all but killing him, or a third marriage about to go south. But you gotta buy my autobiography to get those details! (Ridiculous, shameless plug—I hope the editors don’t leave that in!)

What do you call it—the oughts? The 2000s? So confusing! In any case, these last eight years have been probably the most interesting of my life. My children are all grown and doing great. It’s said that you’re only as happy as your saddest child—if this is true, then, boy, am I happy. At this point, there’s only one thing that matters to me: that my children all have happy, healthy, productive lives and that they all find true love. I’m still making a lot of music, thankfully, in a business that is changing weekly. My artists Josh Groban and Michael Bublé have both become superstars. Seal and I have just finished a CD of ’60s covers—Sam Cooke, Otis Redding—and I think it is one of the finest albums I have ever been a part of. I am stunned at how incredibly he handled this material—paying the utmost respect to its heritage but making it uniquely his own. My own DVD and PBS special are out this month. I’m collaborating on a new Broadway musical (15 Grammys and no Tonys—I want one!), Betty Boop, and then, of course, there’s the new book. My story bores the hell out of me, but based on some early verdicts, apparently others find it interesting. But back to this great city, the real reason for this tale.

I owe a lot of what has come my way to my wonderful parents, my Canadian upbringing, my music teachers and the talent I was blessed with, but on reflection, it is pleasantly and surprisingly due in no small part to this incredible town we call home.

Where else on the planet can you be fishing in the ocean in 80-degree weather in the morning and be snow skiing in the afternoon? We have the most wonderful and diverse people, and we’re a short flight or drive from Mexico, Canada, Sin City and the best wine country anywhere. Come on, this is the greatest city in the world. I’m putting Canada on hold and will now only wave the Los Angeles flag. (Do we have one?)

I myself have now come full circle. I’m back in an apartment, albeit on the Wilshire corridor. I have a 213 area code just like I had in the ’70s, only now it’s on my BlackBerry. I have no plans to live anywhere else. Sinatra got it right: L.A. is my lady—and if I do ever leave her, she’ll be the only lady in my life who gave and never took anything!

DAVID FOSTER is a 15-time Grammy-winning producer. His memoir, Hitman, is out, as is David Foster and Friends, a star-filled concert DVD that also airs in December on PBS’ Great Performances.