A pack of country A-listers — including Kenny Chesney, Sara Evans, Ronnie Dunn, Phil Vassar, Ronnie Milsap, K.T. Oslin, Kix Brooks, Lorrie Morgan and Kellie Pickler — hit the Grand Ole Opry stage Tuesday night to pay tribute to legendary label exec Joe Galante as he received the Bob Kingsley Living Legend Award.
The honor caught Galante completely by surprise. His wife, Phran, told him they were going to the Opry house for a taping of the ABC show Nashville, and when he walked into Opry VP/GM Pete Fisher’s office, he learned the truth.
“The entire community kept this thing a secret for months,” he told Billboard. “This has been amazing. I love this town. I love the format. I have friends here I’ve been with over 30 years. It’s a dream, and I’m living it.”
In addition to Eddy Raven, Sylvia, Foster & Lloyd, Lonestar, Restless Heart, Jessi Colter and others who were present, many artists saluted Galante via video, among them Lisa Loeb, Rick Astley, Brad Paisley, Carrie Underwood, Aaron Tippin and Miranda Lambert.
When asked what was going through his mind as he watched artists and former staffers take the stage to reminisce about his career, Galante said, “It flew by. It really did. Every time somebody got up there to sing a song, I would remember the meeting or where we were when the record went to the top of the chart. Your mind goes through all of those moments, and it’s hard to believe it’s 40 years of it.”
Throughout the evening, artists shared stories and sang songs. “It’s amazing the impact one person can have on your life. You know my story. You changed my life and I will never take that for granted,” a tearful Kellie Pickler told Galante before performing “Red High Heels.”
That sentiment was echoed by many artists during the evening. Naomi Judd recalled Galante taking her and Wynonna shopping to get clothes for their first photo shoot. Oslin noted that Galante signed her when she was nearly 50 and quipped that if it hadn’t been for him, she would probably be selling gloves in Macy’s. The Warren Brothers joked that they were proof Galante was not perfect, referencing their stalled career as artists. (They have, however, become two of Nashville’s most successful songwriters.) “Joe, you’ve got a lot of friends if they are here at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night to see the Warren Brothers,” Brett Warren said.
Morgan says Galante was a good businessman when he needed to be, but also a lot of fun. “He got the artists,” she said. “He got that you had to record songs that you could relate to, and not just push you into a song that didn’t mean anything to you.”
Former RCA executives Butch Waugh and Randy Goodman saluted their former boss and shared stories. Waugh told of the time an act broke her leg on a radio tour and Galante brought radio guys to the hospital in Chicago. Goodman recalled Galante signing Dave Matthews. When Matthews questioned why he should sign with RCA, Galante grabbed a piece of paper and asked him to write down his income the previous year. “Dave Matthews wrote it down,” Goodman recalled, “and Joe wrote a comma and added three more zeros and said, ‘That’s why you sign with RCA.'”
Matraca Berg thanked Galante for giving her artistic freedom and then shared a story about the time he had a stern talk with her producer for flying acclaimed steel guitar player Dan Dugmore to Nashville to play on her record. “I thought it would be cool ’cause he had played on Linda Ronstadt‘s records,” Berg recalled. Galante scolded that “flying a steel player to Nashville is like taking a whore to Vegas.”
Vassar praised Galante’s business acumen and drive. “He’s the smartest guy I know,” he told Billboard backstage after performing his No. 1 hit “Just Another Day in Paradise.” “I would get emails from him at 5 in the morning. It’s like he never slept. He was tireless. He was so passionate about the music. He’s an amazing guy.”
Last year’s event honored Bob Kingsley, host of Bob Kingsley’s Country Top 40 countdown, for his 40-plus years in radio. The event was so successful it will be an annual event with proceeds from the dinner/show benefiting the Opry Trust Fund. “I could not think of anybody else more deserving. Joe Galante is the first person who came to mind for everybody,” Kingsley said of the selection committee. “He came here tonight thinking he was going to film a cameo for the Nashville show. He had no idea. He was completely blown away. The whole evening was exciting, and to watch Joe be so emotional was sensational. When he came up on stage, he was kind of shaken. It really got him.”
A native New Yorker, who began his career at RCA corporate headquarters, Galante was dispatched to Nashville in 1973 to become manager of administration for RCA Records Nashville. He admits he didn’t even like country music at first, but a burgeoning friendship with Waylon Jennings helped change his mind. Galante became instrumental in growing the careers of such iconic artists as Jennings, Dolly Parton and Milsap, and less than 10 years after relocating to Music City, he was named head of RCA’s Nashville division, rising through the ranks from the marketing side instead of A&R, which was the norm. At 32, he became the youngest person ever named to run a major country record label. His first year in that post, Billboard named RCA the No. 1 country label, and the company held that title for a decade while Galante launched the careers of Alabama, Vince Gill, the Judds, Keith Whitley, Clint Black and Oslin, among others.
In 1990, Galante returned to New York to become national president of RCA Records Label-U.S., making him the first Music Row label head to run the U.S. operations of a major label. After several years, he returned to Nashville where he oversaw label consolidation and creation of Sony Music Nashville, and shepherded the careers of Underwood, Paisley, Chesney, Alan Jackson and Brooks & Dunn. Kix Brooks credits Galante with revitalizing their career when they didn’t think they had “any gas left in the tank.”
“He truly is a visionary,” Sylvia told Billboard after performing her ’80s hit “Nobody.” “He’s very interested in where things are going and staying ahead of what he sees is going to happen. That informs his decision-making and choices. I learned a lot about paying attention, paying attention to what’s going on in the world, in technology. I remember sitting with Joe not long after I signed with the label and he was telling me about these flat, small platters called CDs. … Joe was different than those who came before him in that he was very tuned in to technology and what that meant for music.”
In 2010, Galante left his post as chairman of Sony Music Nashville and says he has no regrets. “I’d been there at the top for a long time and done really well,” he says. “I could have stayed a few more years. The company wanted me to stay a few more years, but I felt it was time for other people to have a shot. I didn’t want to overstay the welcome.”
Galante currently serves as mentor-in-residence for the Nashville Entrepreneur Center. Butch Spyridon, CEO of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation, praised Galante’s continuing contributions to Nashville. “It’s artist development in a different form,” Galante says of his work with the Entrepreneur Center. “It’s business development, and so from Butch’s perspective, for the town having new business is the same as the music business having new artists. I’m not 25 so I don’t think my life span in that world is as long as it was in the music business, but hopefully I can have some impact.”