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FRED FOSTER,
1931-2019

Fred Foster, the songwriter and producer who founded Monument Records and played a pivotal role in the careers of Kris Kristofferson, Roy Orbison and Dolly Parton, died Wednesday. He was 87.

Foster, who also founded Combine Music, produced and released almost all of Orbison’s early 1960s music, signed Parton as a recording artist and songwriter prior to her joining Porter Wagoner, and had Kristofferson signed to Combine when he wrote some of his best-known songs, among them “Me And Bobby McGee” on which Foster shares writer’s credit.

Monument and its subsidiary labels such as Sound Stage 7, Nashville’s most prominent soul music–oriented label of the 1960s, would release music by Joe Simon, Arthur Alexander, Allen Toussaint, Boots Randolph, Tony Joe White,  and Billy Swan

Combine would publish Cindy Walker’s Orbison smash “Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream”), Arthur Smith’s “Dueling Banjos,” and Tony Joe White’s “Polk Salad Annie” and “Rainy Night in Georgia.”

“Throughout his illustrious 60-year career, Fred helped launch many iconic artists into the spotlight,” said Recording Academy President/CEO Neil Portnow. “In 2016, the Recording Academy honored Fred with the Trustees Award for his significant achievements and notable contributions to the field of recording. Fred will be deeply missed by many, but remembered as a pioneer within our industry.”

After working at a record store, Irving Music, where he helped Jimmy Dean get his start, Foster moved into the business in the Washington, D.C./Baltimore area working for Mercury Records and then ABC-Paramount where he helped launch George Hamilton IV’s career and record Lloyd Price. He also worked for J&F, an independent record distributor in Baltimore, turning The Elegants’ “Little Star” into a hit.  He started Monument in 1958, scoring a hit in its first year with Billy Grammer’s “Gotta Travel On.”

While enjoying his early success and moving to Nashville in 1960, Foster was alerted that RCA had dropped Orbison.

 “I understood why RCA had turned them down,” Foster told Michael Sigman in HITSHistory of the Music Biz. “Roy’s voice was real thin and almost tentative.” 

They re-recorded songs he had cut for RCA and then did “Uptown” and “Only the Lonely.”

“When we finished the ‘Only the Lonely’ session, I said, ‘Roy, this will be your first huge hit.’ He wanted to know how sure I was, and I said, ‘I’ll call the office and have them bring down a check for a million sales, and if you take it, you can never audit my books or ask me how many it sold. My advice as your friend is, don’t take it.’ That impressed him. It went way over a million, of course, and we were off and running.” 

“Only the Lonely” reached #2 and started a string of hits on Monument that included “In Dreams,” “Running Scared,” “Blue Bayou,” “Blue Angel,” “Dream Baby,” “Crying,” “It’s Over,” and “Oh, Pretty Woman.” 

With Orbison, Foster varied his sound from nearly operatic with strings and choral groups to gritty, lowdown blues. He often chose to work with young session musicians eager to prove themselves, which helped give Monument sessions and extra edge.

In 1963,  Hank Cochran brought Willie Nelson to Foster, whom he promptly signed after hearing his ”Pretty Paper.” Orbison had a hit with the Christmas song and Nelson asked Foster to produce him in Austin, Texas. Foster found Wayne Carson’s “Always on My Mind” for Nelson and wound up producing  seven of Nelson’s albums.

Foster signed Parton in 1965, producing her first hit, “Dumb Blonde,” and her first album, Hello, I'm Dolly, before she left for RCA.

“I am heartbroken that my friend Fred Foster has passed on,” Parton wrote on her Facebook page. “Fred was one of the very first people to believe in me and me chances no one else would or could. We’ve stayed friends through the years and I will miss him. I will always love him.”

Kristofferson came on his radar when he asked for more than the standard $100 per week. 

“Then he sang me four songs, and by the time he got to song three, I was positive I was hallucinating,” Foster recalled in History of the Music Biz, relating the story behind one of Combine’s biggest hits. “He was by far the greatest writer who ever walked into my office. There was no way anybody this great could be free and clear. I said, ‘Kris, I’ll approve your writing deal with Combine for $125 a week if you sign with Monument.’ He said, ‘I can’t sing. I sound like a frog.’ 

Boudleaux Bryant had restored a building in Nashville, and we had a suite there. His secretary had resigned and he’d hired a new girl. He was only 50 feet away from me, and one time I ran in and he said, ‘I don’t think you’re comin’ to see me. I think you’re comin’ to see Bobby.’ I said I didn’t know what he was talking about. He said, ‘Haven’t you heard about me and Bobby McKee?’ 

“I got a chill and went right upstairs and called Kris, who was having a dry spell, and told him to write it. He said he’d see what he could do. He was coming back through Baton Rouge and got caught in a bad storm, and that’s how he wrote the line about the windshield wipers.”

Foster struck a distribution deal with CBS Records in 1971 after then-chief Clive Davis asked to purchase Kristofferson’s contract, which Foster wouldn’t sell.

Foster sold Combine in 1986, and CBS Special Projects acquired the Monument masters. He remained active as a producer overseeing Nelson’s You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker and the Nelson/Merle Haggard/Ray Price collaboration Last of the Breed.

Foster was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2016.

 Fred Foster, left, with Charlie Daniels and Randy Travis at the Country Music Hall of Fame.

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