She had the best laugh, there’s just no way around it. If you melted down all the things that give joy, ran them through a synthesizer and realized it as a sound, it would be Phran laughing. Earthy, robust, burgundy colored, sparkling, fiery, alive.
It wasn’t a twerpy high pitched swirl, wasn’t some kind of pogo stick giggle, nor a dry-fingered cackle that measured her delight. It was deep, it was round-bodied and it flowed like lava, up and up and up until it rolled down all over whomever was blessed to be in her company. And Phran Galante, with the flashing eyes and ballerina smooth movements, laughed a lot.
The only thing brighter or more inviting was her smile. When her lips rose up and parted to reveal those Farrah Fawcett flashing teeth, entire rooms were dazzled by the light – it shone from her eyes, her pores, her heart.
Yet, Phrannie was fierce. An advocate for animals who spent decades fighting animal cruelty, she almost single-handedly took down middle Tennessee’s kill shelters, creating awareness, raising funds and making the communal United Partnerships in Animal Welfare an organization to reckon with. She wasn’t playing, and she hated the idea that animals were seen as beasts instead of the loving, engaged creatures they were.
Lexie and Fergie, her own fur friends, were as much children as pets. Not in that overly babied, humanized way either, but imbued in dignity. She understood all creatures great and small were most of all: exactly as they were meant to be. It’s what made her such a fantastic horsewoman: she met her horses as equals, and rode with that passion of merging with one’s mount. It is a rush beyond all others, and it suited the woman with the woman whose hair always seemed to be blowing on the wind.
Riding hard and blazing trails was something Phran did only too well. She had great curiosity and deep fervor to know how things worked, why they had alchemy and captivated. A waiter’s story, a superstar’s magnetism. Though she took that fire and applied it to deserving charitable organizations, she arrived in Nashville Phran Schwartz, recently relocated temp from Chrysalis Records in New York.
Joe Galante had taken to hiring brilliant women from Manhattan – including writer and then-Penthouse editor Kay West, later MTV’s Pam Lewis – to help sharpen his messaging and perception realities for Madison Ave. He saw something in the woman with the flashing eyes, her lust for music and her ability to see beyond what was and recognize what could be.
Beyond groundbreaking campaigns for Grammy winners KT Oslin, the Judds and Clint Black, she dug into the realms of future of Hall of Famers Alabama and Ronnie Milsap with a vengeance.
It was no wonder when Clive Davis committed to what would become to the powerhouse Artista Nashville, Phran Schwartz was one of his (and nascent labelhead Tim Dubois) very first hires. The soon-to-be Mrs. Galante recognized the challenge, and she wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to launch a label... and she jumped in with a shy, tall drink of water named Alan Jackson, former hitmakers Exile, Western swingers Asleep at the Wheel and turbo-talented Pam Tillis.
It’s a funny thing about starting young in a fast-track business. So much, so quick, so wow – and you need to never seem shocked or surprised by any of it. Maintain the face of a swan, nod, find the through line, the probable underpinnings, the reasons things happen or the hoped for end result. When you’re a kid, you know the adults don’t really see you, so you fade into some unseen background like a vase or an oversized chair.
By the time I met Phran, I had written regularly for The Miami Herald, then a Top 10 daily newspaper, Tower Records’ quintessential Pulse! magazine, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, SPIN, Performance, Country Song Round Up and Rock & Soul. I was contributing multiple times a week at The Los Angeles Times, every issue of Rolling Stone and was about to named Features Editor at HITS. On paper, big time – and certainly courted for the exposure I could provide.
I’d been on the road with Neil Young, to “The Tonight Show” with Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton, gone toe-to-toe with Lou Reed, done a cover story on the Highwaymen, hidden out in the bushes with Motley Crue for Random Notes at the MTV Video Music Awards and made friends with turbo-controversial comic Sam Kinison.
But I knew most people were nice to me because of access. I learned to hang back, to be nice, to stay removed. It was the cost of doing what I loved in a way that protected my integrity and my heart. It also was a sad and lonely way to be, but we make decisions.
The first time I met Phran was at an industry convention. She had that amazing hair, those fingers that were so statuesque, you would watch them fly. She asked me a million questions, talked about all her artists in a way that demonstrated not only did she she see them in their music, she heard their humanity in what the created.
As someone who rarely let down her guard, offered anything more than conversation about the artists or the business, I could feel the tension easing out of my body. Shy by nature, those conventions take so much out of me – and here I was, suddenly feeling recharged talking to someone who seemed like a long lost friend.
That was Phran’s greatest gift: instant comfort, trust and especially fun. In any moment, she could see something – an idea, a person, another thing in another room – fun, and off you’d go. Because Phran loved adventure and life and people. She wanted to miss nothing, and she was quick to sweep up everyone to share those moments with.
As someone who understands putting up a big front because no one cares how you feel, Phran Galante lasered straight into my heart – and saw a real person who genuinely cared about the music. It didn’t make me a chump or a mark, it made me someone precious to her.
I’m never sure if she sought me out, or I was always looking without knowing it. But running into Phran was always hilarious, provocative and meaningful.
Right before she went to Arista, there was a radio convention in Century City. All the labels were jumping through hoops, presenting their artists, hoping to forge believers for the names being bandied about.
She and I ended up on a patio attached to a hotel room at one of the many private parties. Someone was inside playing a guitar, we were outside where the smokers and talkers were holding court. Sitting on the concrete floor, she told me she was making the move... and I “oooh”ed and “ahhhh”ed over the genius of her being brought in to launch a label.
The urban legend of Richard Gere and the rodent was en fuego, all the whispers and the punchlines. Somehow we got talking about it, and she marveled that it couldn’t really be possible. “But Phran,” I said, having learned how to apply mascara from two drag queens (their term, not mine) in the ladies room at the Copa in Fort Lauderdale, “it is possible.”
Then began a technical accounting that included pantyhose, paper towel rollers and how the “thrill” is achieved. She looked like she was going to throw up. Then Phran burst into peels of laughter, shocked into that kind of horror response many of us have.
“Joe, Joe,” she yelped as she continued with that life-affirming laugh. “You’re not going to believe this. Come here...”
She made me explain again, just three people crouched on a hotel room balcony. Joe Galante, easily the most charismatic and possibly most powerful man in Nashville, the diamond bright Phran and myself. For a fringe-inhabiting kid, it felt like the moment before the comet hit.
But of course, it didn’t. She just hugged my neck, said, “You just never know...”
And indeed we don’t.
Here was a woman, who upon her return from New York, used her record industry contacts to get music into Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. Famous and starting out, massive songwriters and anyone else, they were enlisted to go and sing to the children.
Putting her passion for tennis where her racquet was, she was one of the founders of The Music City Tennis Invitational, which raises hundreds of thousands for Vandy’s Children’s Hospital. As a co-chair, a silent auction chair and player, she brought the MCTI to life – and received both their Sportsmanship. Award (twice) and Outstanding Service Award to recognize two decades of making a difference.
And when she got the diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer, the thing that took my father, she met it with her life force fully engaged. While some people whispered it was so advanced, such a rare strain, I almost felt sorry for the disease: it had never run into people with the determination of Phran or Joe.
Between the Galantes, all forms of therapy would be vetted, explored. They would be tried as warranted, appraised and continued or abandoned for something more effective. If anyone would know how to keep this beast at bay, indeed dismantle its killing power, it was Phran and Joe.
She would get weak, or have reactions, then she would rally. It went into remission. Phran kept riding her horses, seeing her friends, gathering her people around her at her house. It wasn’t a cause for fear, nor a reason to think anything but the best.
As Mame might’ve said, “Life is a banquet, and most of you are starving to death.”
Phran would tolerate no starving. She was out, she was traveling. Trips to Europe, trips to the barn. Always, she was laughing. She was perfect.
She engaged others who were diagnosed, helped them meet the reality without fear. She shared her hope, her resolve so others could have a monkey see, monkey do role model. Sometimes when you’re in the unknown, Galante understood, that little glimmer of light can lead you to where you need to be.
And she made people feel good, her punk shock of hair always so jagged and rock & roll, no matter what they were facing. She even managed to make most of us forget the battle she, herself, was waging.
When she felt well, she was out... One night, I ducked into a brand new restaurant of Polish origin with my laptop and some interview notes. The food was something I’d grown up on, and the mostly empty restaurant seemed like a great place to work.
Forty minutes or so into wrangling quotes into narrative, I heard a laugh, that laugh. Looking up, Phran and Joe were the only other diners. Seated a few tables away, they were leaning across and towards each other, absolute adoration and appreciation on their faces. This was the good ole right now, and they were savoring it.
Small talk about what getting my masters, how the city was growing. She shone, and looked deep into my eyes, seeing someone trying to achieve and smiling at progress she could see even If I missed it in my exhaustion.
It’s why she could help build hospitals, close shelters that euthanize the animals left there, make cancer patients feel safe in something so towering. She looked inside, recognized the need and met it on its terms.
She leaned into the ethos – as Matthew McConaughey’s father told him to do as he was dying –of “just keep living.” And reminding the rest of us how to do it with verve and style. She was fearless in the valley of the unknown, unbridled when it came to adventure.
There are few, if any, women who could match someone as singular as Joe Galante with focus and “can do.” She did. And her heart was bottomless. It’s why her presence in Nashville made such a difference. It’s why there’s almost an echo in the city today, an imperceptible hollow sound where her heartbeat used to be,
The thing about people like Phran, though, is they never really leave us. There will be glimpses in the most mundane, and the biggest moments everyone who ever met her will encounter. I remember passing through the too close tables at the BMI Awards, her fingers reaching out, entwining in mine, to ask me about my dress.
Hers was a 1000 times more cutting edge and glamorous, but she recognized the burnt out midnight blue velvet as something special. She was letting me – in the crush of awards, the glad-handing, the insincere backslapping that greases how business gets done – know that she saw, recognized what it was.
Small things, unnoticed by many. For a girl used to dressing to distract and also qualify for the room, she knew what was small inside me. With a smile and a squeeze of her fingers, she’s pronounced, “You look awesome” – and transferred the blessing of a queen.
That was Phran: the people’s queen, someone who existed to see us all as we were in the best possible light. We were all lucky to exist in that glow... and to know fierceness can be the fuel of the biggest, brightest hearts.