David Foster’s Versatility Make Him A Top Session Musician

Foster’s versatility, inventiveness place him in good stead with L.A.’s top guns

David Foster

To most people, the credit typically associated with David Foster is “Produced by.” But even before taking a seat behind the console in the control room, Foster was having an impact on artists as a session musician.

Growing up in Victoria, B.C., in the 1950s, Foster studied classical piano from ages 5 to 13. “Then the Beatles came along and changed my life,” he recalls — not realizing at that age that 12 years later, he would be playing behind one of them. Coincidentally, a good friend also introduced him to great jazz piano players, such as Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson and Chick Corea.

In 1966, at age 16, he quit school and moved to England, and got a job playing piano in Chuck Berry’s touring band. “At the time, I didn’t really understand what an incredible contribution Chuck had made to music. I was a classical snob. I just thought, ‘All the songs are the same three chords.’ He didn’t like me, and I didn’t like him. At that age, I wasn’t gonna get it.”

What he did get, though, was training from a master, something he carried with him, along with his appreciation of the other genres. “By the time I was 16, I had a great base of classical, jazz and rock. I was pretty fluent in all of them. And that’s guided me my whole life, musically.”

In 1972, Valiant Records founder Barry De Vorzon spotted Foster and his band, Skylark, playing in Vancouver and brought them to Los Angeles, where the group was signed to Capitol Records by producer Dino Airali, who would shortly be running George Harrison’s Dark Horse Records label. The group released two albums, “Skylark” in 1972 and “2” two years later.

Skylark broke up in 1974, by which time Foster had gotten a job playing keyboards in the pit band of Lou Adler’s original production of “The Rocky Horror Show” at L.A.’s Roxy Theater. He eventually played on Adler’s cast album — Foster’s first session job. “That was a huge breakthrough for me,” Foster says.

His talent, even then, wasn’t lost on musicians who were beginning to get familiar with him. “I drove him to work several times,” recalls session guitarist Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar (James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt), whose wife was in the show. “One night while driving him there, I told him, ‘Listen, a year from now, you’re gonna have to hire someone to answer the phone, it’s gonna be ringing so much.’ He said, ‘Really? You think so?’ He was obviously phenomenally talented — everyone knew it.”

After playing on a Skylark session in June 1974, session drummer Jim Keltner (George Harrison, John Lennon) invited him to play at the fabled weekly Sunday-night jam sessions at the Record Plant on 3rd Street in L.A., famously known as the Jim Keltner Fan Club. The sessions attracted members of rock royalty, from Lennon to Mick Jagger, Ron Wood, Stevie Wonder and countless others. “Everybody loved playing with David,” says Kortchmar, a regular visitor to the jams. “He just had a mad groove.”

Keltner eventually became enamored enough of Foster’s playing that he began helping the young keyboardist find session work among his famous friends. “I would always recommend David,” the drummer tells Variety. “Fossie was a monster player. He could do anything, for anybody. Any style, anything.”

Adds Foster: “It was Keltner who blew it wide open for me.”

One of the first such sessions was for Gary Wright’s signature hit, “Dream Weaver.” “I asked Jim Keltner who he thought I should use on the album and he told me he knew this kid that had come down from Canada and said, ‘He’s really good,’” the keyboardist recalls.

Foster ended up playing additional keyboard parts on most of Wright’s album. By the end of the sessions, in late February 1975, Wright was trying to decide which of two final songs to record. “I had two songs to choose from. I played David Dream Weaver and another called Empty Inside, and I said, ‘Which one of these two do you think would be the best for the album?’ And he said Dream Weaver.”

“He played it on guitar,” Foster remembers. “I said, ‘Dude, this song needs to be done on piano, not guitar.’ ”

He also made arrangement suggestions, Wright says. “It sounded like something the Band would do. David helped me put it into a shuffle kind of feel. Then he played the Rhodes Piano on it, and I did all the rest,” accompanied by Keltner’s drumming, producing a mammoth, signature hit for Wright. “I’m very grateful that he was part of the instrument that led me to record the song that really made my career.”

Not long after, Foster received a call from one of his childhood heroes. “I was sitting in my little apartment in Westwood and the phone rang, and the voice says, ‘Hello, Dave? This is George Harrison. The lads and I are down here — Jimmy’s (Keltner) here, and he says you’ll play. Come on down.’”

Foster played on Harrison’s 1975 LP, “Extra Texture (Read All About It),” alongside Keltner, Kortchmar and bassist-singer Paul Stallworth, all of whom had bonded at the Fan Club jams. The quartet eventually formed a band, Attitudes, recording their first single, Ain’t Love Enough, in late September of that year. It was followed up by two albums, all released on Harrison’s Dark Horse label before the group disbanded. “We thought we were going to take over the world, but we didn’t quite do that,” Foster says.

Regardless, Foster soon found himself in demand, Kortchmar says. “At that point, David was starting to get established and starting to do dates in town. People began discovering him very quickly. There was no way they wouldn’t. He was very officious, had a winning attitude, didn’t do drugs like everyone else in L.A., and he could just play his ass off. He could do any style — he could play funk like nobody’s business.”

It was enough to get everyone’s attention, notes Barbra Streisand, several of whose albums Foster played on, including 1975’s Lazy Afternoon. “I heard him play a figure on the piano on that session and I said, ‘Who’s playing that?,’ ” she says. “That’s how I met David.”

Foster went on to play on a multitude of hit records, during the ’70s and ’80s, often continuing through current discs he produces. Artists include Streisand, Michael Buble, Celine Dion, Chicago, Earth Wind & Fire, Rod Stewart, Johnny Mathis, the Tubes, Hall & Oates and Average White Band.

Certainly Foster’s inventiveness and versatility didn’t get in the way of landing session gigs. “He’s a brilliant accompanist,” says Kortchmar. “You’d just play him a tune, and he’d find something great to play on it — immediately.”

Wright experienced similar results. “He would just come up with these great piano and organ parts, great string arrangement ideas.” On Love Is Alive, Wright’s other hit from “The Dream Weaver,” “that’s David playing the string parts; again, a signature sound.”

Producer Quincy Jones, for whom Foster has played on a number of memorable sessions, including “Ease on Down the Road” from 1978’s “The Wiz,” agrees. “David knows how to find his place; he knows where he’s supposed to be on a track,” Jones notes. “I played the intro to Just Once, and he got it immediately. He has an amazing sensitivity. He thinks like an orchestrator.”

Foster’s energy level and creativity apparently has remained the same as in his earliest days, says Andrea Bocelli, often backed by his producer, Foster, on promo dates. “He is a stage animal. Greatly instinctive, unrivaled in any given repertoire.”