Mix Master

updated 11/07/1994 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/07/1994 01:00AM

AFTER 25 YEARS IN THE MUSIC business, producer and part-time songwriter David Foster can do his job in his sleep. Well, almost. Minutes" after waking in his Malibu home, he's on the phone, setting up a string session for Michael Jackson's new album. Then he's all sympathy with Michael Bolton, saying that the singer got "a raw deal" when he lost a costly plagiarism suit filed by the Isley Brothers last April. Later, working with British singer Lisa Stansfield in a Hollywood recording studio, Foster is interrupted by a distraught Jay Landers, producer of Barbra Streisand's newest album. "I need a moment from the master," says Landers, explaining that the perfectionist La Barbra has just called to complain about the sound of several words on one of her songs. After some careful listening, Foster fine-tunes the bass and treble on the console and then, supremely confident, calls Streisand with the happy news. "I fixed everything," he tells her. "It's awesome." Landers is happy to agree. "Thank you," he says, playfully handing over a wad of cash.

Landers isn't the only one who deems Foster a master at the board. With an A-list roster of singers soliciting his technical savvy, the 44-year-old producer has become the pied piper of pop. In addition to Jackson and Bolton, he has spun gold and platinum for Whitney Houston and Natalie Cole. This year he produced Celine Dion's No. 1 hit "The Power of Love" and All 4 One's blockbuster "I Swear." In 1992 he masterminded Houston's smash "I Will Always Love You," which sold 26 million copies and earned Foster his third Grammy—he has 12 in all—for Producer of the Year. "It's no accident he's hot," says Bolton. "David's technically sharp, but he's also acutely aware of how a song emotionally affects people."

Unfortunately, Foster's professional wizardry isn't his only claim to fame. It was Foster who, while driving his Chevy Suburban on a dimly lit stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway one evening in 1992, struck and nearly killed entertainer Ben Vereen as he was walking on the road. Foster, who had worked with Vereen several years before, held his limp body in his arms until paramedics arrived. Guilt-stricken over the accident, Foster, who was never sued by Vereen, spent the next several days in bed, debilitated by nerves and worry.

Though only family members were permitted to visit Vereen at the hospital, Foster and his wife, Linda Thompson, did keep close track of his condition. "We found a friend who knew a nurse, and I befriended Ben's musical director," says Foster. "We knew everything—down to when he changed rooms." Suffering from internal injuries and a broken femur, Vereen recovered painfully and slowly. "Every day he got better, I did too," says Foster. Two months after the accident, Vereen rang him up. "He said, 'Good hit, man.' And when I heard that, I knew he was going to be okay," says Foster.

The ordeal with Vereen—who remains a friend—strengthened Foster's already solid relationship with Thompson, 43, a former Hee Haw actress who lived with Elvis Presley for five years in the '70s before marrying Olympian Bruce Jenner, from whom she was divorced in 1986. After dating for five years, Foster and Thompson married in 1991, merging their two families. (He has four daughters—Amy, 21, Sara, 13, Erin, 12, and Jordan, 9—from two previous marriages; she has two sons—Brandon, 13, and Brody, 11, by Jenner.) Raising children, however, isn't their only collaborative effort; Thompson occasionally writes lyrics for Foster's melodies.

Foster began impressing people with his musical gifts at an early age. Growing up on Canada's Vancouver Island, he was a gifted piano player at 5; at 13, he earned a scholarship to study music at the University of Washington. Three years later he quit school and traveled through Europe as a pianist for Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, but within two years ended up broke in London when gigs became scarce. In 1971 he moved to Los Angeles and formed Skylark, an ear-candy band that scored a single hit, "Wildfire." He then began writing songs for other artists and won his first Grammy in 1979 for cowriting Earth, Wind and Fire's "After the Love Has Gone." By the '80s, Foster was writing and producing hits for Chicago, Lionel Richie and Kenny Loggins; in the '90s, he produced Streisand's Back to Broadway album and Natalie Cole's "Unforgettable" single. Coddling big talents and bigger egos means his job falls somewhere between directing and psychiatry. "You're mother, father, sister, brother, friend and doctor," he says.

Not to mention fairy godfather. Perhaps the best measure of Foster's clout as a producer is the fact that his children's nanny, Kofi, a 25-year-old West African musician, has his own Christmas reggae album coming out this November. "I've already had a few people ask if they can be our nanny too," says Foster. "They'll drive the kids—if I get them a record deal!"

PETER CASTRO
TODD GOLD in Los Angeles

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