clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

How a broke musician became the best organist in sports

New, comments

Sir Foster's dream was to play in the NBA. He didn't know that when his dream came true, he'd be playing an organ.

Courtesy of the Atlanta Hawks
Courtesy of the Atlanta Hawks

Sir Foster walks through Philips Arena before his gig, trying to get to the stage where he'd be performing in less than two hours. He's stopped every few feet by someone who wants to say hello -- a handshake for Mo the security guard, a hug for Pamela the usher. A fan walking by offered his fist for a pound and a father asked if his young son could just get a photo.

He's preparing to play for 18,000 people -- something he does several times each month, but it takes Sir Foster twice as long to get through the arena than it would a commoner. At every turn, another body is asking for a touch, a look, a picture.

Sir Foster is a rockstar.

Sir Foster is the organist for the Atlanta Hawks.

★★★

Sir Foster was born Foster Carson, and grew up in Fort Valley, Georgia, a small town a hundred miles south of Atlanta with a population of just over 9,000. Carson, as did his brother and sister, began taking piano lessons when he was just shy of seven years old. All three children, along with their mother Mary, sang in the church choir.

Despite his clear talent for music, Carson, like most boys his age at the time, had athletic aspirations.

"I always wanted to play in the NBA," he said. "I always thought I was gonna be Michael Jordan. I was really convinced of that. I just knew it."

Carson's father, Alton Carson, must have known something his son didn't. While watching a Knicks game together when Carson was eight years old, Alton pointed out the organ music in the background and suggested to his son that perhaps he could be an NBA organ player when he grew up.

"I said, ‘Dad, who wants to be the organ player? Who wants to be that loser? I want to play basketball, I don't want to be the music guy,'" said Carson. "But life has a way of teaching you a lesson."

Carson continued to play piano and then began studying saxophone, but it wasn't until he was a teenager that he really connected with music. He exchanged his Michael Jordan idolation for Puff Daddy.

"I remember Puff was on TV, and Puff was the hottest person in the world," explained Carson. "And everybody was singing Puff Daddy songs. I remember standing in front of the TV saying, man, I want everybody to be singing my songs one day. And then I just started writing songs."

Carson played saxophone in every band that his high school had -- concert band, marching band, jazz band -- and his love of music birthed his noble moniker.

"I got my band jacket, and the band jacket that I ordered was designed like a line jacket, like a fraternity member," he said. "And I needed something to put on the collar, and ‘Foster' wasn't long enough to fit across the collar, so I put ‘Sir Foster.'"

His friends began calling him "Sir" and the name stuck.

When he was 15 years old, Carson started picking up music gigs around town. He played for churches, talent shows -- basically any event that was willing to pay him. He also joined a cover band that traveled around middle Georgia, and at 17, he and his friends began sneaking into jazz clubs with their horns to play with the house band.

"I don't even think it was sneaking," he laughed. "I think they just let us in because we came with our horns and they thought it was cute."

Living in a small town came with little expenses, and a lucky Carson was able to make enough money in music to satisfy his teenage financial needs.

After high school, Carson stayed in that small town and attended Fort Valley State University. He continued playing for churches while studying and writing music.

"I set up my little studio, which was terrible," he said. "I had terrible equipment. And I would try to record songs in my dorm room."

It was then that he traded up on his Puff Daddy aspirations.

"I discovered Jimi in college," he said. "It was an awakening. That was the beginning of the fascination with him."

Unfortunately for Carson, none of his friends were going through a Jimi Hendrix awakening, leaving him a little lonely.

"I couldn't talk to anybody about it," he said. "I kind of felt out of place, at times. I couldn't talk about that kind of stuff. Nobody was on Jimi Hendrix."

By his senior year, Carson decided that his future was in music and he didn't want to do anything else.

"I always felt that college was preparing me for something that I didn't really want,' he said. "I didn't want a job. I wanted to be on stage performing."

He graduated with a degree in communications that he immediately abandoned, and headed to Atlanta to pursue his dream.

★★★

After spending his entire life in a small town, the city of Atlanta held many wonders for a starry-eyed Carson.

"There was a Waffle House on every exit!" exclaimed Carson. "Every exit! You don't have to go to the Waffle House, you can just pick one. I was like, man, I could eat in a new restaurant every weekend for the next two years and never repeat myself. It was incredible."

Carson spent his first year in Atlanta, in his words, broke and happy.

"In Atlanta, anything could turn into an event," he said. "I went to Kroger on a Wednesday and somebody pulled up and started blasting music outside. Next thing you know, somebody pulled up and started selling bootleg CDs. Next thing you know, the restaurant is coming outside to sell their sandwiches. And this on a Wednesday, just because it's sunny. "

Listening to bootleg CDs and eating sandwiches outside of Kroger, Carson decided that Atlanta was it for him. But broke and happy turned into more broke than he bargained for, and he found himself living on credit cards to survive. He took as many gigs as he could, and traveled home to Fort Valley on Sundays to play for churches.

"Looking back on it, it was really bad," he said. "I didn't realize it at the time, but I can see it looking back. I don't know how I survived it."

After a year and a half of struggling, Carson began to make enough money to pay his rent on time. During a jam session at the Apache Café, he found himself playing the keyboard on stage with Divinity Roxx, Beyonce's bass player and musical director. A friend took a picture and Carson showed it to his father.

"My parents were still unsure of my decision," he said. "I took the picture home and showed it to my dad and said, ‘Dad, look. That's Beyonce's bass player, and I'm on stage with her.' From that point on, he started to believe in me."

Carson picked up more gigs and started to play with corporate bands for enough money to live on. But a craigslist ad in 2009 changed his career trajectory. The Atlanta Hawks were looking for an organist.

★★★

"They called me in for a preseason game and basically threw me in the water with no life jacket and said swim," said Carson, of his first game after getting the job with the Hawks.

His organ is actually a keyboard set up in the corner of the arena about 20 feet above floor level. Carson is now in his sixth season with the team, and he's found fame among season ticket holders as "that organ player." But it took him a couple of seasons to find his footing.

"I really didn't understand how different playing is from being a sports musician," he said. "It's a specialized field."

His first season was filled with rookie mistakes. He played an offensive chant when the team was on defense. He forgot to wear Hawks gear to one game, and when the camera focused on him during a break, it broadcast his Bob Marley shirt on the big screen.

"I didn't realize how big of a deal it was," he said, of his new gig. "I thought it would be something really cool to do and it would be fun for me. My goal was to be a music superstar and I thought, hey, maybe someone will discover me there. What I didn't understand was, this is an NBA franchise and NBA games, everybody comes to these things. Everybody's watching. So it never occurred to me, the impact that it would have. I didn't start to get that until my second season."

As Carson discovered how much of an impact his music had at games, he started taking more risks. He played local hip-hop, like Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka Flame -- all on the organ setting of his keyboard.

"I wanted it to feel like Atlanta," Carson said, of his music choices. "If the game experience reflects life outside of the games, people will gravitate to it. That's my philosophy. And, I like that the games feel like Atlanta."

Carson gave up his other gigs and focused on his job with the Hawks. But there was something missing and he began to fall into a dark place. In 2012, his troubles hit rock bottom when he lost almost everything he had in a condo fire.

"I think I was able to save one keyboard and one of my saxophones," he said. "Pictures, gone. I had two or three thousand CDs, all burned up. All my clothes, shoes. It looked like a tornado zone."

Carson had no clothes except the ones he was wearing when the fire started. He borrowed some from friends, and during the Hawks game two nights later, an arena employee who knew he needed some clothes handed him a stack of promotional t-shirts that had gone unused. It wasn't until Carson got them home that he looked at them.

"The NBA used to have this saying, Big things are coming," he said. "So the first shirt I got after I lost everything in the fire said, Big things are coming. It's kind of prophetic."

A photo posted by Sir Foster (@sirfoster) on

Carson wore those shirts in rotation for the next few weeks.

"People probably thought I was wearing the same shirt every day," laughed Carson. "But it was all I had."

Slowly he started to believe the message on his shirt and began to climb out of his dark. And the message was correct -- big things were coming.

★★★

Acting as the 2014 All-Star Game's official organist helped him gain notoriety with a national audience, and the Hawks' stellar current season has brought new interest to the team, and to Carson.

One day last Spring, Carson woke up inspired to record an album.

"It was like someone was tapping me on the shoulder telling me it was time," he said.

His debut album, Future World Record Holder, was released in February after nine months of what Carson calls self-discovery. The album, and the process of making it, has given him a new level of confidence that overflows into other areas of his life.

The Hawks have given their star organist complete creative freedom, green-lighting anything he desires to play. He rarely has a playlist prepared for games, choosing instead to go with the feel of the crowd. He takes requests during games by Twitter and will learn any requests he doesn't already know.

"Believe it or not, the first time I heard Bobby Shmurda, it was a fan request," he said. "It was like, the middle of the summer and somebody was like, ‘Foster, can you play the Shmoney Dance at Hawks games?' And I was like, what is the Shmoney Dance?"

Carson looks back to when he was eight and dismissing his father's suggestion that he become an NBA organist.

"I believe now that I was put on this earth to play music, and as long as I'm doing what I can to make it happen, the universe is going to look out for me," he said.

"I never saw myself as being the organ player for the Hawks. Now I can't see myself not doing it."