Fred Foster

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Country producer and mogul instrumental in rise of Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton, and many others.
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Music entrepreneur Fred Foster contributed a great deal to Nashville country-pop of the 1960s and '70s as a producer and as the head of one of the city's strongest independent labels, Monument. He is best known for producing most of the biggest and best classic hits by Roy Orbison, whom Foster produced for the first half of the '60s. He also played a vital role in the career of Kris Kristofferson, and worked with Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Ray Stevens, and others.

Foster entered the music business in retail, distribution, and promotion, including a stint as a representative for ABC-Paramount. In 1958, while working for a distributor in Baltimore, he simultaneously began Monument Records and the publishing company Combine Music. After having some success with records by Billy Grammer, Billy Graves, Dick Flood, Jerry Byrd, and Bob Moore, Foster moved Monument to Nashville in 1959. The following year, he began producing Roy Orbison for Monument, landing Orbison's first big hit, "Only the Lonely."

From 1960 to 1964, Foster produced the overwhelming bulk of the hit songs with which Orbison is associated: "Only the Lonely," "In Dreams," "Running Scared," "Blue Bayou," "Blue Angel," "Dream Baby," "Crying," "Candy Man," "Mean Woman Blues," "It's Over," and "Oh, Pretty Woman." Of course, the main factor in the hits' success was Orbison, who had a great operatic voice and combined country, pop, and rock masterfully, on both songs he wrote and songs by other composers. As a producer, Foster was also instrumental to the records' brilliance, often bringing in symphonic orchestration and heavenly choral backup vocalists. Like Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller on the Drifters' hits and Phil Spector with his Wall of Sound, Foster thus expanded rock & roll's sonic scope to include a wider range of instrumentation, although he is not credited nearly as often as those other pioneers are. Additionally, Foster and Orbison knew when a song did not need such embellishments, and could work with standard rock instrumentation, particularly on his bluesier material, such as "Mean Woman Blues," "Oh, Pretty Woman," and "Candy Man." Foster was more open to using emerging session musicians than many other Nashville producers were, giving such noted players as guitarist Jerry Kennedy and Charlie McCoy early experience, which in turn made Monument's dates more interesting and varied than many of the other sessions in Nashville during this time.

Foster lost Orbison in the mid-'60s to MGM Records. Although Foster was willing to try and match the money MGM was offering, he couldn't match the film contract MGM was also offering the singer. Orbison's career immediately went into a commercial tailspin when he began recording for MGM in 1965, and although his early MGM releases really don't sound too different from the ones he did for Monument, it is unquestionable that he was never able to recapture the excellence of his Monument work.

Other than Orbison, Monument actually did not record much rock. Foster and Monument's sensibilities seemed to run more along the lines of country-pop, rather than rock-country-pop, as Orbison's output might have been categorized. Still, with Monument, Foster worked with various major and notable minor country-pop figures throughout the '60s and '70s, including for various periods of time Dolly Parton, Tony Joe White, and Willie Nelson. Foster was more sympathetic than most Nashville figures were to somewhat unconventional singer/songwriters, whether they were White, Nelson, Parton, or more cultish figures like Chris Gantry. He motivated Ray Stevens, most well-known for his comic novelties, to also do serious songs. He had the foresight to sign Kris Kristofferson as both a writer and a recording artist, although Kristofferson's vocal limitations made most people in the industry believe that the composer should work only as a songwriter.

Foster also formed an R&B subsidiary of Monument, Sound Stage 7, which had big hits by Joe Simon, although John Richbourg did Sound Stage 7's A&R. Like many record business moguls, Foster was canny enough to reinforce and consolidate his holdings by running a publishing company, Combine Music, that many of Monument's recording artists were signed to, and which in turn supplied material for many Monument releases.

In the early '80s, Foster ran into deep financial trouble, related to bank investment rather than the record industry. This forced him to sell Monument to Sony, and Combine to SBK. In the '90s, however, Foster remained active in the music business in a low-key fashion with his Sunstone production company. Fred Foster died in Nashville on February 20, 2019 after a short illness; he was 87 years old.