“Nashville would not be Nashville without Joe Galante,” said CMA CEO Sarah Trahern.
“He’s the odometer everyone looks up to,” said artist manager Clint Higham.
“He’s the godfather,” said Warner Music Nashville president John Esposito.
Those were a sample of the high praises that flowed last night (Feb. 10) for a Nashville transplant from New York who signed or developed some of the biggest artists in the past 20 years. Artists including The Judds, Miranda Lambert, Kenny Chesney, Lorrie Morgan, Ronnie Milsap, Sara Evans, Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley.
Numerous artists and industry members gathered to honor Joe Galante with the Bob Kingsley Living Legend Award, during a dinner held at the Grand Ole Opry. The evening came as a surprise to Galante, who attended under the ruse that he was part of a taping for the television show Nashville. The soiree also benefited the Grand Ole Opry Trust Fund.
Video clips of praise and career anecdotes rolled in from Underwood, Lambert, Connie Bradley, Hazel Smith, Mike Dungan, Randy Goodman, Clint Higham, Sarah Trahern, Jim Ed Brown, Aaron Tippin and more.
Throughout the evening, artists and songwriters performed songs that became well-known titles through Galante’s work, and peppered the festivities with witty and insightful anecdotes of his career, including Kenny Chesney, Matraca Berg, Sara Evans, Lorrie Morgan, Naomi Judd, Lonestar, Kellie Pickler, Phil Vassar, Ronnie Milsap, Ronnie Dunn, Foster & Lloyd, Kix Brooks, K.T. Oslin, Sylvia, Eddie Raven and Brett James.
“He was fun to be around,” said Lorrie Morgan. “We did a lot of radio visits together. He was fun when he needed to be, and a businessman when he needed to be. But he got the artists. He wouldn’t push you into a song that didn’t mean something to you.”
After signing Morgan, Galante teamed her with her first producer, Barry Beckett. “I had been carrying around this demo of me singing, ‘Dear Me,’ for years, because I had been a demo singer. I presented it to Beckett, and he took it to Joe, and they both thought it would be my first hit. They got who I was. A lot of times we butted heads on picking out songs, but I was smart enough to know to listen to him, because he is a great song guy.”
Galante first joined RCA in New York as a budget analyst. In 1973, he was assigned to RCA’s Nashville office as Manager of Administration. What was meant to be a two-year, temporary assignment was instead the beginning of a decades-long career establishing many of country’s modern superstars.
Possessing both a keen business mind and an impeccable A&R ear for great songs and artists, Galante became an integral part of the marketing initiatives for Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, and Ronnie Milsap.
During last night’s celebration, Milsap recalled how Galante encouraged him to become a multi-format artist, to expand outside of the country realm. “It was a lesson that stuck with me throughout my career,” said Milsap, who performed a medley of his hits, including the appropriate “What A Difference You’ve Made In My Life” and “I Wouldn’t Have Missed It For The World.”
In 1982, Galante was named head of RCA’s Nashville division. At age 32, he had become the youngest person to run a major country label. Additionally, he was the first executive to rise to that level through the ranks of marketing, rather than A&R or similar creative roles. Under Galante’s tenure, band Alabama became superstars, and artists signed to the label included Vince Gill, The Judds and Clint Black.
Stories of Galante’s tenacity, passion and competitive spirit abounded. Fellow executives recalled his reputation as a tireless worker, a demanding yet compassionate boss, and a consummate strategist who always had a plan.
Backstage in the pressroom, Kix Brooks recalled how Galante helped relight the creative spark in duo Brooks and Dunn when they were ready to call it quits after about 10 years in the business. “We had this meeting with Joe and he convinced us we still had gas in the tank. He found a song called ‘Nothing ‘Bout You,’ and I came up with a song called ‘Only In America.’ He said, ‘You guys get into a room together, and get back to that magic.’ We started talking about things that matter and came up with this album called Red Dirt Road. I admire him so much that I built a house right next to him,” Brooks said. Brooks performed an acoustic version (sans Dunn) of the duo’s 2003 “Red Dirt Road.”
“When he first heard the song, we thought it was a beautiful love song,” the members of Lonestar said of what would become their signature tune “Amazed,” “but I don’t think we had any idea it would do what it did on the country charts. We had the pop mix. Joe always has his eye on the prize, and that prize is making every artist he works with as big as they can possibly be. He just knew what a hit song sounded like and a hit artist sounded like.”
In 1990, after heading RCA Nashville for several years, Galante was brought back to RCA’s New York office as the national President of RCA Records label—U.S., becoming the first Music Row label head to run the entire U.S. operation of a major. It was Joe that convinced Dave Matthews Band to sign with RCA. He asked Dave to write down how much he made the prior year. Dave wrote it down. Joe added three more zeroes to that figure and said, “That’s why you sign with RCA.”
By the mid-‘90s, Galante was back at RCA Nashville, which would later become Sony Music Nashville, housing RCA, BNA, Arista, and Columbia. In the 2000s, his label was back on top, accounting for a third of the top songs on the country charts, as home to Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley, Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, Kenny Chesney, Miranda Lambert, Martina McBride, and others.
In 2010, Galante stunned the industry with the announcement that he was retiring, a decision that didn’t sit well with fellow label head Mike Dungan. “I told Joe, ‘You can’t leave the industry. Who am I going to have to fight with?,’” Dungan quipped during a video tribute segment. “Do you realize that I get up every morning and what fires me up is thinking, ‘What is Joe Galante going to do to me today?’ The framework of how Nashville operates now is based on his principles.”
Far from taking it easy, this energetic leader and game changer currently holds a leadership role at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center, mentoring a new generation of creative, ambitious entrepreneurs.
“He raised the bar for everybody,” summed Brooks. “You gotta have Earnhardt on the track to make everyone race hard.”
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