As this year’s recipient of the Asper School of Business’s International Distinguished Entrepreneur Award, David Foster would make a good subject for the old Sesame Street song, One of These Things (Is Not Like the Others).
The super successful songwriter, producer and philanthropist would be the first to point out that unlike him, past winners such as Israel Asper, Richard Branson, Paul Desmarais, Akio Morita, Ross Perot, Gerald Schwartz and Martha Stewart all seem to have things in common.
"I credit the organizers of the event for thinking outside the box with me," Foster said in an interview. "And by the way, let’s just see Gerry Schwartz get up here and play the piano."
In an impromptu songwriting workshop — and retrospective of his career — for a group of Asper School students (and some University of Manitoba music students) on Tuesday afternoon, Foster dashed to the piano, playing a brief flourish before the unveiling of a plaque honouring the occasion.
"I bet I’m the only award winner who played himself on," he said.
Before Tuesday night’s gala event that raises money for the Asper School of Business, Foster charmed the crowd with several references in mock hubris to his 16 Grammy Awards and repeated reminders that he was indeed the guy who wrote songs like the Earth Wind & Fire hit After the Love is Gone; The Prayer, a hit for Céline Dion and Andrea Bocelli; as well as others.
(He believes that’s now one of the most popular songs at both weddings and funerals.)
But the Victoria, B.C.-born Foster has forged a career — starting as a 16 year-old piano player for Chuck Berry — that’s likely unparallelled in a business known for fads and burn-outs. Over his 50 years in the business, he’s written for and produced records for countless stars.
The 67-year-old may not even be all that aware of his accomplishments as an entrepreneur in that he’s still very productive and active with new projects, including writing 25 songs for a Betty Boop musical that’s been in the works for a few years.
"I have focused — not purposely, maybe by accident — on longevity. That’s something that’s difficult to do in any business.
"But let’s be honest," he said. "I am not on the cutting edge of writing what Beyoncé sings."
His own style has made him a Hollywood celebrity of sorts and his advice stressed networking — probably not something top of mind for struggling musicians.
But taken in totality, Foster is one-of-a-kind. From rock ’n’ roll piano player and high-priced L.A. session man in the 1970s, to hit record producer for acts including Chicago, Hall & Oates, Whitney Houston, Barbra Streisand, Alice Cooper and Michael Jackson in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as stage managing Dion’s biggest hits, he continues to find huge audiences producing the likes of Michael Bublé and Bocelli recordings.
He’s also an unlikely superstar in Asia where his David Foster and Friends shows sell out arena tours and where Foster is the global ambassador for the Malaysian airline Air Asia.
"If I was a complete narcissist and egomaniac, I would just live in Asia full time," he said.
But he’s not. In fact, in addition to a busy schedule — on Thursday he’s got to write a song for Betty Boop called You Held Up the Mirror and he says he’ll stay at it until he gets it right — he is also the founder of the David Foster Foundation that has raised money to cover non-medical expenses for Canadian families with children in need of organ transplants for close to 30 years.
He’s performed hundreds of fundraisers for the foundation — including one in Winnipeg last September — that currently has an endowment of $27 million. He wants to see it hit $50 million.
"It sounds corny, but it’s all of our responsibilities to give back," he said. "You’re kind of an a--hole if you don’t."