David Foster

As head of Verve, proven hitmaker doesn’t view art and commerce as mutually exclusive

When David Foster assumed the title of chairman at the Verve Music Group a year and a half ago, some naysayers may have worried that the hiring of a consummate adult-contemporary hitmaker bore bad tidings for the label’s future as a jazz mecca. Little did they know they may have an ally on the inside.

“Most of my favorite artists growing up were on Verve,” Foster says. “I have of photo of myself with Stan Getz when I was 13; I snuck backstage, and he let me hold his saxophone. There’s also a letter that Oscar Peterson sent me when I was 14, saying ‘keep up the good work.’ It’s framed in my office — I’m looking at it right now.”

In other words, Foster is well aware of the legacy he inherited when Universal Music Group honcho Lucian Grainge gave him carte blanche to renovate the label group. He’s also aware that his presence brings a certain commercial expectation.

A tireless songwriter, producer, arranger and gimlet-eyed talent scout, Foster may not command the popular imagination as he did in the 1980s, when his hits for Chicago, Chaka Khan, Barbra Streisand, Kenny Rogers and Earth Wind & Fire made him one of the industry’s most in-demand talents. Or in the mid-1990s, when his work with Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, Toni Braxton and others rendered him literally inescapable for anyone who dared turn on the radio or visit the local multiplex.

But peek a little bit behind the curtain, and the 16-time Grammy winner’s grip on his particular brand of pop has hardly loosened. Already this year, two of his latter-day discoveries — Josh Groban and Michael Buble — have notched No. 1 albums, while Andrea Bocelli’s “Passione,” which Foster produced top-to-bottom, bowed at No. 2 in January.

“We are acutely aware of our responsibility to keep jazz alive,” he says, noting Verve’s continued successes with Diana Krall and Trombone Shorty, as well as new act Dirty Loops, a Foster-signed young jazz trio from Sweden.

Yet his name always brings with it a certain aesthetic, and the producer has hardly been shy about Fostering the label’s offerings. Called upon to breathe new life into the venerable if faded label, Foster has given himself a three-year span in which to turn things around. He spent much of his first year assembling his team — a lean 14-person staff — and the fruits of his labor are beginning to ripen.

Perhaps his biggest coup thus far was the capture of Rod Stewart, whose yuletide collection “Merry Christmas, Baby” has moved more than 2 million copies for Verve since last fall. He recently tapped Natalie Cole — whose multiplatinum “Unforgettable” album was a Foster project from the start — to do a collection of her father’s Spanish-language songs. He was also behind the signing of Motown great Smokey Robinson, who will release a duets album through Verve later this fall. And Bocelli remains an evergreen moneymaker for the label, one whose best English-language projects have tended to have Foster’s name behind them.

Granted, of these four, only Cole could be considered a real jazz artist. But if the push-pull between traditional jazz and adult contemporary at Verve seems like it could be a delicate balancing act, Foster would argue that a shake-up was needed.

“If you analyze what’s happened with jazz, smooth jazz is pretty much dead,” he says. “There used to be a hundred smooth jazz stations, now there’s nine, I think — and that was a year ago, so there’s probably even less. Bebop is almost nonexistent except for us freaks who want to go back and listen to our Miles records all the time.”

And whatever form his personal freakdom may take, Foster is aware he has a different calling as a label head than a simple music fan.

“Even though you could argue that maybe Rod Stewart wasn’t the exact right fit for Verve, he does have that jazzy side to him, so I could argue back that he is,” Foster says. “But I wanted to come out swinging, and we did. I know that sales are not everything, but 2 million-plus is an indication that you’re doing something right. And I’m all about selling. I don’t want to make records for 50,000 people. I’m not interested in that at all.”

Here he pauses, then asks: “Does that annoy you that I said that? You could argue that, well hey, some of these great jazz artists are only going to ever sell 50,000. But I would say that I want to try and bring that music, whatever it is, to the masses.”

Bringing music to the masses has always been Foster’s imperative. Appropriately enough, when asked to name his personal desert island records, Foster chooses works by Puccini and the Beatles — and not “Aida” or “Abbey Road” but rather an aria compilation from the former and the “1” greatest hits collection from the latter. Foster is not a deep-cut kind of guy. As the title of his own memoir attests, he’s a Hit Man.

And of course, Foster’s chosen mode of delivering those hits — the soaring, string-drenched power ballad — is about as far from critical catnip as one can get, which has led to a decades-long siege with music critics.

Whether it’s fair that Foster has endured years of derision for the seemingly unpardonable crime of creating massively popular music for an often-underserved audience is a fair question. And whether Foster ought to even care about such sniping when his record sales leave those of more critically accepted songwriters and producers in the dust is another. (Though he could easily laugh his way to the bank, Foster does rattle off a quote from a particularly vicious Rolling Stone review of his work with Boz Scaggs almost word-for-word.)

Cheesy, schmaltzy, schlocky — whatever adjectives one chooses to attach to Foster’s music, perhaps its biggest defining characteristic is its elevation of emotion over attitude. From “Through the Fire” to “The Prayer” and “I Will Always Love You,” Foster’s music engages with sentimentality and effusive earnestness head-on, unconcerned with the subtleties and irony that his edgier peers embrace. Foster is cavalier about where posterity will place him — “I can’t imagine my music is still going to be around” in future decades, he says offhandedly — but he’s part of a long lineage that dates back to parlor song and light opera; the weepy, theatrical, broad-gesture tradition of music that will never cease to be popular among the many and despised by the vocal few.

“I do ponder it,” Foster says of his critics. “We get the shit kicked out of us, and I always have. My answer to that is that when I lay my hands on the piano, what comes out is what comes out. I can’t be anything else. I listen to Pearl Jam, Van Halen, Yes, the Stones. I like all that stuff. I like rap music. But when I sit at the piano, I have no idea how to make that music.”

It’s a strange sort of logic that would insist Foster’s work is somehow venal for no reason other than its degree of popularity and the audience among whom it’s popular. In fact, Foster’s music changes little in response to trends, nor does it often employ the easy cultural signifiers that allegedly hipper acts put on display to indicate contemporariness.

“Most of the stuff that I’ve done I didn’t do for money at all,” he insists. “The few things that I have done for money, way early in my career, were always just whoring: It never turned out right, it was crap. I think the first time I learned to really do something for art was when I did the ‘Unforgettable’ album for Natalie. I didn’t think there was a chance in hell that it would sell one copy, but I just loved the project so much, and I loved her, and I loved the music. So that taught me a number of lessons.”

Given the benefit of hindsight, of course, the appeal of “Unforgettable” to record-buyers and Grammy voters seems obvious. But it required the kind of risk-taking that often gets forgotten precisely because it’s so successful. And it’s that sort of low-visibility risk-taking that’s powered so many of Foster’s successes.

When he first began working with Groban, for example, his popera-derived singing style was so far outside contemporary tastes that Foster was wary of letting him sing in English. Likewise, it was hardly a safe bet that record buyers would swoon for a knowingly ersatz latter-day Bobby Darin in the 2000s. But Buble and Groban both have notched No. 1 albums already this year.

For Foster, it all comes down to his gut, his instincts and his work ethic — a powerful combination that has kept him near the top of the pop music pack for going on four decades.

“Some people love to dissect,” he notes, “like, ‘why did he go to the C chord there?’ We don’t think about that stuff. We just do it. There’s no magic really, it’s just hard work.

“After I finish talking to you, I’m going to walk downstairs and I’m gonna go work on the new Bryan Adams album, then I’m gonna work on a string arrangement. I’m going to sit there all day until I get it right. Two bars at a time.”

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