Birth: 1931-07-26 - Death: 2019-02-20 | Birthplace: Rutherford County, North Carolina
As founder of Monument Records and publishing company Combine Music, Fred Foster played a pivotal role in the careers of Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton, and Kris Kristofferson, among many other singular talents. Most of Orbison’s classic hits of the early 1960s were produced by Foster and released on Monument. At the outset of her career, Parton signed with both Monument and Combine. And Kristofferson wrote some of his best-known songs for Combine and recorded them for Monument, including “Me and Bobby McGee,” on which Foster shares writer’s credit.
Other Combine hits include Orbison’s “Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream”), written by Cindy Walker; “Dueling Banjos,” popularized in the film Deliverance (1972); “Polk Salad Annie,” a Top Ten 1968 pop hit written and recorded by Tony Joe White; and “Rainy Night in Georgia,” a #4 pop hit for soul singer Brook Benton in 1970.
Foster was born in Rutherford County, North Carolina, on July 26, 1931. His father was a harmonica player and a music aficionado, and Fred was fascinated by music from the age of three. At eighteen, Foster left the family farm and headed to Washington, D.C., to work in the record industry. Wearied by the roadwork required of a record promoter, he convinced J&F Distributors to let him start a pop division for the company. His first duty for J&F was to supervise future Country Music Hall of Fame member Jimmy Dean’s first recording, “Bumming Around,” which became a Top Five country hit in 1953.
Foster later worked for Mercury Records, ABC-Paramount, and for an independent record distributor in Baltimore. While at ABC-Paramount, he helped to launch George Hamilton IV’s career by picking up the master to Hamilton’s recording of “A Rose and a Baby Ruth” from the tiny Colonial label and helping to push it to #6 on the pop charts.
In 1958, with very little capital, Foster started Monument Records, which he named for the Washington Monument. Later that year, Billy Grammer’s “Gotta Travel On,” recorded in Nashville, became Monument’s first hit.
Foster moved his label to Nashville and began working with Orbison, whose first Monument smash, “Only the Lonely (Know the Way I Feel),” was released in 1960. Foster and Orbison went on to record enduring hits including “Running Scared,” “Crying,” “Blue Bayou,” and “Oh, Pretty Woman.”
Under Foster’s leadership, Monument also released memorable instrumentals, including steel guitar player Jerry Byrd’s “Theme from Adventures in Paradise,” Lloyd Green’s “I Can See Clearly Now,” and saxophonist Boots Randolph’s “Yakety Sax.”
In 1963 Foster started Sound Stage 7, Nashville’s most prominent soul–oriented label of the 1960s, and the home to singer Joe Simon, of “The Chokin’ Kind” fame.
Foster signed Dolly Parton to Monument when, in her words, she was “just a country sow’s ear that Fred tried to make into a silk purse . . . Fred believed in me when nobody else did.”
“Sometimes you just know…sometimes,” Foster said of Parton. “And that makes up for all the times you had to guess.”
Foster and Monument were also integral in the careers of Larry Gatlin (“Broken Lady”), Jeannie Seely (“Don’t Touch Me”), and Billy Swan (“I Can Help”).
With Bob Beckham as its dynamic president and co-owner, Foster’s publishing company, Combine Music, helped birth a new, gritty, and literate form of country songwriting. Combine was the proving ground and playground for a crew of writers including Kristofferson, who had a craggy voice that seemed commercially untenable. Foster gave Kristofferson a record deal, despite the songwriter’s opinion that he himself sang more like a frog than like a country star. Foster said, “Yes, but like a frog that can communicate.”
Foster sold Monument and Combine in the 1980s, but remained active as a producer. He produced the Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Ray Price album Last of the Breed (2007), which featured Price and Nelson’s Grammy-winning “Lost Highway.” Foster steered Nelson’s You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker, and he produced Price’s final recordings for the album Beauty Is.
“All my philosophy could be boiled down to one line: I wanted to make the best record I could possibly make, no matter what it took, and that’s it,” Foster said.
Time and again, he did just that.