Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Holiday Gift Guide: Hitman by David Foster

Consider the music producer. Do you know what they do? In the simplest terms, a music producer directs the music, just as a director directs a film. That is, he (or she) brings all aspects of a song to life, from performance to orchestration to mix to final release. Some music producers are famous in their own right; perhaps the most famous is Quincy Jones, who has worked in many different kinds of music, from jazz to pop to film scores.

Interestingly, despite working for so long, Jones doesn’t seem to have a signature style. His work is shaped by the needs of the project. But that can’t be said of every producer. David Foster is one of those who does have an enduring style -- a distinctive voice. For forty-odd years, Foster has been making the music we know and love. He’s worked primarily in pop, though he’s also created memorable instrumental work and composed wonderful film scores. But somehow, even with the variety of genres and the much wider variety of artists he’s worked with, Foster’s music is cohesive. If you listen carefully, you’ll find his style is as distinctive as, say, that of Steven Spielberg.

Over the years, Foster has worked with, oh, let’s just say everybody -- certainly everybody whose name can be reduced to one word: Streisand, Dion, Houston, Groban, Buble, Bocelli, McCartney, Loggins. And then there’s Chicago. Earth, Wind and Fire. I could go on and on. I mean, he discovered Celine Dion, Josh Groban, and Michael Buble. More than perhaps any other producer of the last four decades, David Foster’s work has shaped the sound of our lives. And now he’s collected a lot of his most memorable moments in a new book, Hitman (Simon & Schuster).

This is one fast read. Foster’s life flies by and so does the book. Without dipping into overwhelming detail, he paints his life in choice, telling and fascinating details -- and seems not to hold anything back, even the occasional blemish. Foster is obsessed with work, and he shares his life story in terms of that work. His childhood in British Columbia, when he discovered he had perfect pitch. His first forays into music, playing and traveling with bands. His move to Los Angeles, which is when things really started to happen in a big way. There, he becomes the David Foster we know.

What I love most about his story are the real moments. His preference for milk and cookies at sessions, rather than the drugs of the day. His almost geeky reverence for the iconic performers whose paths he crossed and whose music he helped to create. His awe mirrors our own -- and it makes him comfortably, reassuringly human. In a tough business, that’s pretty meaningful, but his dedication to work and talent and his own values certainly paid off. He’s made music that’s great -- but more, he's made music that counts. And the sales speak for themselves. Fifteen Grammy Awards. Three Oscar nominations. Half a billion records sold.

Part of what’s great about Hitman are the stories about the music that you might know David Foster had a hand in. But even more thrilling was learning about music I love that I didn’t know he’d ever touched. For example, he co-wrote the Cheryl Lynn classic “Got to Be Real.” He produced the Broadway cast recording of Dreamgirls. He created some of Chicago’s career-defining songs, such as “Hard to Say I'm Sorry” and “Hard Habit to Break.” Earth Wind and Fire’s “After the Love is Gone”? His. Whitney Houston’s cover of “I Will Always Love You” from The Bodyguard? His. Natalie Cole’s "Unforgettable" duet with her late father? Foster’s as well.

All this, plus his decades-long work raising money to help Canadian families whose children need organ transplants.

These are the gems that make up a life, but they’re also the gems that make a terrific book. But then, Hitman is more than a book: It’s also a DVD of a new concert, with an accompanying CD. The DVD includes performances by Bocelli, Buble, Dion, Groban, Boz Scaggs, Brian McKnight, and many others. They came out to honor their friend and producer -- and reading his book, learning about his dedication to music, it’s easy to see why. Hitman, indeed.

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