His publicist, Martha Moore, said Foster died Wednesday in Nashville, and that a memorial service will be held later. Born in 1931 in North Carolina, Foster helped launch the careers of many hit country artists and was a major supporter of some of Nashville's biggest songwriters. He also worked with artists like Tony Joe White, Willie Nelson, Charlie McCoy and Jeannie Seely.
In the 1960s, he moved his record label, Monument Records, from Washington, D.C., to Nashville. Foster was the first to see the potential in a young singer-songwriter from East Tennessee named Dolly and got her songs cut by other artists, as well as recording and releasing her own material. But it wasn't until she started appearing on Porter Wagoner's TV show that she became popular.
"I am heartbroken that my friend Fred Foster has passed on," Parton said in a statement on Thursday. "Fred was one of the very first people to believe in me and gave 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."
"It's a gift, being able to sense something unique in somebody, and that's what I aimed for, always," said Foster in 2007. "Anybody that dropped a needle on a groove of a Monument record, I wanted them to immediately know, 'Oh, that's Dolly Parton,' or 'That's Roy Orbison.' It had to be unique."
Foster also owned a publishing company, Combine Music, and Kristofferson was one of his hires, a Texas-born athlete and Army veteran who loved William Blake. He had been trying to break through as a songwriter, even working as a janitor in a Music Row recording studio. After hearing some of his songs, Foster said he would only hire Kristofferson as a songwriter if he also signed a record deal.
"He was so intelligent, so gifted, so talented and he didn't sound like anybody I had ever heard," Foster told The Associated Press in 2016, the same year Foster was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Foster is credited as co-writer on Kristofferson's hit song, "Me and Bobby McGee." Foster came up with the idea to name a song after a female secretary in his building, whose name was Bobbie McKee. Kristofferson told the magazine "Performing Songwriter" that he was inspired to write the lyrics about a man and woman on the road together after watching the Frederico Fellini film, "La Strada."
Janis Joplin, who had a close relationship with Kristofferson, changed the lyrics to make Bobby McGee a man and cut her version just days before she died in 1970 from a drug overdose. The recording became a posthumous No. 1 hit for Joplin.
In the early 1960s, Foster helped Roy Orbison become an international star with his recordings on Monument. Orbison was an unlikely rock 'n' roller with his falsetto and penchant for wearing dark sunglasses and black suits. His singles on Monument were dark and emotional, backed by soaring strings and doo-wop backing vocals. Some of the classic Orbison songs released by Monument include "Only the Lonely," ''Oh, Pretty Woman," and "Crying."
"Oh, Pretty Woman" sold more than 7 million copies in 1964 and earned Orbison his first Grammy nomination for best rock & roll recording. Foster continued to work as a producer throughout his life, never really slowing down. He produced "Last of the Breed," a 2007 collaborative album between Ray Price, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson that resulted in a Grammy win for Price and Nelson for best country collaboration with vocals. At 85, he worked on a Price tribute album for Nelson, called "For the Good Times," that was released in 2016.
"If I don't know more at 85 than I did at 75, I am not learning very fast, am I?" Foster said then. "I think I'm probably a better producer today than I have ever been."