Talk Thursday To Me – Fred Foster

Today we talk to Fred Foster – songwriter, producer and founder of Monument Records about his work with Roy Orbison, whose The Monument Singles Collection was released this Tuesday.

Editor’s Note – Postcard ChaCha (real name Rachel) is Fred’s granddaughter, which is alluded to in the interview but not fully explained.  FYI.

ChaCha: So let’s talk about the new Roy Orbison Monument Singles Collection that’s being released this week. What was your favorite Roy single on Monument?

Fred Foster: That’s a tough one, Rachel.

CC: I figured it would be, with so many to choose from.

FF: “It’s Over.” “Runnin’ Scared” was outstanding and so was “Crying.”

CC: Well, “Crying,” of course.

FF: “In Dreams” too. But “It’s Over” is probably my favorite.

CC: What do you remember about that particular recording session?

FF: Well there is kind of a funny story connected to that. We had done all of Roy’s recordings up to that point at RCA’s Studio B, which we all referred to as “Little Victor” When we were doing it, it was the only RCA studio in town, then they built a larger studio and called it “A” which made no sense to me since RCA “Studio B” was there before Studio A. I had hired Bill Porter from RCA as my chief engineer and I bought the old Sam Phillips studio up on 7th Ave. in the Cumberland Lodge Building and everything was wrong with it, you might say. It didn’t have enough equipment to start with; we had to buy a lot. Anyway, my purchase and renaming of the studio to Fred Foster Sound Studio was a big story, front page in both the Nashville papers and Billboard. So Bill Porter said to me after we got the deal closed, “now look, you have to put 2 or 3 demo sessions in here first, you know 4 or 5 pieces so I can get used to all this stuff” and I said okay, so Roy called me that wek to tell me he was going to Europe and would be gone for 2 months and I told him he had to do a session before he did. So he came in and sang “It’s Over” for me and I said, well, I think that’ll do, that’s great. Now then, here’s my dilemma, do I put us back in Little Victor (Studio B) or do I do it in my studio? Which was much larger than Little Victor. This was going to be a huge session, 42 pieces to be exact.

CC: You had 42 players on that session?

FF: Between the background vocals and the musicians, 42. So I called Bill and I said I’ve got a session coming in and he says “okay, how may pieces.” I said well let me count, he said “well, you don’t need to count, it’s a demo session, right” and I said well, not exactly. He said “man, I can’t do a real session!” He asked who it was for and when I said Roy Orbison and he said “HELP, HELP!” I said Bill that’s who it is and then he said “I can’t do it.” I told him I was still counting the number of people on the session, but I thought it would be 42 and he said “Oh God, there’s no way, we don’t have enough microphones, there’s no way, we can’t do it.” So I said Bill, buy them, borrow them, rent them, whatever you have to do, just get the equipment, we’re doing the session on Thursday which was 2 days away. I’d gotten with Bill Justice and had this fantastic arrangement I knew was unreal. So I show up for the session and Bill is running around like he’s lost his mind completely, sweat was pouring off of him, his shirt was soaked. And I said hey, it’s going to be fine, you’re a great engineer, there’s nothing to worry about. He told me, “you just don’t know what you’re talking about.” Poor Bill went completely white haired after that and I’ve always blamed myself. But we did it and sonically, it was one of the best sounding Oribison records and it was certainly one of the best Bill Justice arrangements.

Going way back to the second session I ever did with Roy, I was having trouble, he was so timid and his voice was so small and thin. I couldn’t get Roy’s voice above the band, we were only working with two tracks back then so you couldn’t exactly put Roy on one track and the band on the other. My lord, you wanna hear something horrible, that’s it. So I had Gordon Stoker sing unison with him to get him above the band. Now this second session was for “Uptown” and I had strings and Boots Randolph on sax plus a big rhythm section and I really couldn’t get him above the band. And I said Bill, we gotta do something. but neither one of us could figure out what to do. So I saw this coat rack over in the corner and I said what if we pull that coat rack out and put it crossways in the corner and put Roy behind that, then cover it up with coats and stuff and he said, “I don’t know, I guess we can try it.”

CC: Therefore creating the first isolation booth, right?

FF: Right. Three days later I get a call from Hal Cook, the publisher of Billboard at the time and he congratulates me. So I said, what is this congratulations for and he said “You’ve invented the isolation booth.” I said what, he said, “You know the coat rack.” I don’t know if I did or didn’t, but I never had anyone correct me. So I got with Bill Porter and said I wanted walls I could roll around, let’s use 2×4’s or 2×6’s, make a frame, stuff it with insulation, tack burlap over it and then we can roll them around and make a little room for Roy in the middle of the studio.

CC: So you created the isolation booth as an answer to Roy’s shyness, but tell me about the time you finally convinced him to sing at full volume, showing off that voice that the world has come to know so distinctly as Roy Orbison’s.

FF: That was on “Runnin’ Scared.” Roy and I would always get together in my office for long hours, going over every song, every line, and every note. We rewrote a bunch of stuff. We rewrote “Pretty Woman” and the end of “Runnin’ Scared,” actually. Then we would get it rehearsed and then we go to the studio and try to come up with ideas for the arrangement, where the strings would come in, etc. Anita Kerr was on board with us at the time and I swear she could read my mind. She could just look at me and say “You want horns here or strings here” and she was always right! So we get in the studio and we’ve got 11 strings, 6 background vocalists, 8 rhythm players, quite a bit to put in Little Victor believe me and it was fine till about midway and then when Roy started building it and the more the band came in, the more the song built, we’d get to these high notes and he’d disappear. He’d hit a falsetto note that just wasn’t able to cut through all the muscle we had behind him. And I told him, Roy you gotta do something, you’re disappearing. So finally I said, you gotta hit that note at full voice and or we’ll have to change the arrangement if you can’t. We’d spent hours on the arrangement and I said we all love the arrangement, but it’s not going to work, you are nowhere to be found on this and he said, “No, it’ll be horrible.” I said just try it one time and if you can’t make it we’ll erase it and no one will ever know about it but us. And Boudleaux Bryant was standing there and he said, “Roy, nothing ventured, nothing gained you know, it won’t hurt you to try.” I had forgotten to tell the musicians what we were going to do. So there he goes, and he HITS it in that full voice. And those musicians, some of them while still playing, came out of their chairs. They had no idea what they were hearing! After that Roy didn’t have any trouble hitting those notes at full voice.

CC: Never needed that isolation booth again, huh?

FF: Nope, although we did still use it to give the track a cleaner sound.

CC: So is there a song you thought should have been a single for Roy but wasn’t?

FF: Ah, there was a song that came out of a New York publisher called “A House Without Windows.” We came close, but we just couldn’t get it right. You know we recorded “Crying” three times before we got it right. “A House Without Windows” was a great song. “I’m going to move into a house without windows so you can’t see me crying” was one of the lines.

CC: Sounds like a heartbreaker…

FF: Oh it was. But since Roy wasn’t the writer we didn’t try another take on it. I think if we’d have pursued that and gotten it just right it would have been huge.

CC: Now way before my time, when my mother was young, I know you and the Orbisons were neighbors out in Hendersonville. So you guys were neighbors and friends as well as producer and musician. Was Roy just like extended family?

FF: Oh yeah, we had this perfect understanding. Roy made this speech one time and never said it again…. “When we go in that room you’re the boss, you tell me, I just sing, cause you gotta be able to hear the whole picture better than me. Anything you want me to do you just tell me.” We were a real team.

CC: There’s no doubt about that. I know there were so many amazing artists on the label, but is there even another Monument artist that has a collection of singles like Roy did?

FF: Nobody rivaled Roy, even though Boots Randolph was the biggest seller. Albums didn’t sell a million copies in those days. Once in a while one would, but it was a rarity. Like Yakkity Sax sold over 3 million Boots With Strings sold over 4 million. But we had more releases on him than we did with Roy, Boots was with me a long time. But Dolly (Parton), Billy Walker, Tony Joe White and Kris (Kristofferson) of course. Maybe Hinson Cargill. But no one rivaled Roy in terms of singles. He was worldwide you know.

CC: Well even today I hear influences of Roy, at least vocally speaking, in new bands. Nick Urata, the lead singer of DeVotchKa being one that comes to mind. I think it’s safe to say Roy helped change the course of music in terms of his vocal style and delivery.

FF: Well we approached things a little differently back then, as least I know I did. I didn’t have a huge catalog behind me or network television or radio, like General Electric was behind RCA at one time. All I wanted to do, and I told Roy this one day, I said let’s forget about gimmicks. His first success had been this little teen thing called “Oobie Doobie.” And I said that’s not going to endure, we need to make music that will last; that we can be proud of. I never went into a session like Jim Reeves did, he’d come out of a session and say “well that’ll go to #1 and sell 200,000 copies or that’ll go to #3 and sell 150,000 and he was almost always right! We never thought like that. I always thought, lets make every record as good as we can possibly make it, put it out and just hope it sells enough so we can continue to do this. Roy agreed with this mentality.

CC: I was barely old enough to remember Roy’s death, but if I recall you spoke with him just before he passed didn’t you?

FF: The last conversation I ever had with him was in Nashville. He was on Virgin Records and had just had a pretty sizable hit with “You Got It.” Well Roy called and asked me to come over to the studio where they were and we spent the day together. When I left that day, he walked out with me, which I thought was unusual, because Roy wasn’t into that, you know, any sort of physical exercise or that bodybuilding…so he walked me out to the car and I got in and rolled the window down because I could tell there was something on his mind and Roy leaned down and said, “Well, we made some pretty good music didn’t we?” I said ‘I believe we did, it’s held up well at least.’ He said “Do you think we can do it again?” I said, yeah if you’ll write. He said “If I write will you produce?” And I said yeah, I’ll do that, fantastic. He said “you’re gonna do my next album and maybe all of them.” This was in late November and he said “I’ve got 4 one nighters coming up but I’ll be here in town over Christmas at Mom’s. So I’m gonna come back, rest up and you and I will get together and start working.” He went and did those 4 nighters and on his second night back had the heart attack and died. But the last thing he said to me was “Well, goodbye then.” And that struck me as really strange, because he always said “so long then,” with this funny finger gesture he’d picked up from Grandpa Jones that had struck his fancy. But instead he said “Well, goodbye then.” I think he had a premonition, I think he wanted to get back together. I don’t know but I guess we’ll never know.

CC: Well I think the two of you made as much beautiful music as any two men could in the time you had together, as a team.

FF: No regrets. It’s music that will last forever.

CC: And I don’t believe you can ask for much more than that. To be able to say “no regrets” is pretty monumental. a sincere thanks from Postcard Elba and myself for taking some time to talk to us today.

FF: Thank you!

You can stream tracks from The Monument Singles Collection here, and find out more about Fred Foster here.

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