By the time he was ten, Phil Galdston had taught himself how to diddle around fairly impressively on the piano. So his parents offered to pay for lessons.
But when the piano teacher arrived at his home in Great Neck, N.Y., she found a talented little boy who used all the wrong fingers on the instrument's keys. The teacher told him he had to learn to play the correct way or his second lesson would be his last.
“I didn't like being told I had to play the right way,” Galdston says today from his home on New York's Upper West Side.
So when the teacher returned a week later, she found Phil still using the wrong fingers. Needless to say, that was the end of Galdston's piano lessons.
Not that it mattered. Even without formal help, Galdston has had a twenty
five-year run in the music industry that most songwriters can only dream about. Galdston is best known for writing the Vanessa Williams hit, “Save the Best for Last,” which was nominated for a Grammy in 1994 and won the ASCAP Song of the Year award.
Galdston says that he and his partner, Jon Lind, wrote the major portion of the music to “Save the Best for Last” during February of 1989 in what he estimates was about twenty-five minutes. The two were working on another song when Galdston started to play a few notes of a melody and some initial chords. Lind jumped in, and together they shaped the music. A half hour later, Galdston's partner turned to him and asked half-jokingly what the name of the song should be. Galdston answered, “This song is 'Save the Best for Last.”
The song became a reality when Galdston and noted collaborator Wendy Waldman wrote the lyrics a month later in Nashville.
It's been that kind of a career for Galdston, who debuted on the “Tonight Show” when he was still in college. In
fact, Galdston's college experience was unique because, as he says, “I spent three days a week in Schenectady, three days a week performing in New York, and one day traveling back and forth.”
Still, Galdston credits a musical composition course he audited at Union with giving him the discipline and the analytical skills he says he uses every time he sits down to write a song.
“[Professor of Music] Edgar Curtis's big message was that all of
the great music of the western world is based on linearity-on melody,” he explains. “Even though today a lot of pop music is based on chords, or on rhythm, it's the marriage of a great melody with other elements that produces the greatest emotional impact. The melody is the story of the song. The rest is scenery and character. I try to make things work first at a simple level.”
Nowhere is this philosophy more evident than in “Save the Best for Last,” which is carried by a melody that flows throughout a song that doesn't have a chorus.
“People still come up to me and say, 'you really wrote such a beautiful song,' and that always inspires me,” he says.
By the time Galdston arrived at Union he had already made a few small records. Early in his college career he formed a nine-piece jazz rock band called Freeway that was a regular hit at New York clubs such as the Fillmore East and the Bitter End.
After graduating in 1972, Galdston split his time as an accompanist and record producer for comedians Robert Klein and Robin Williams and as one half of the jazz-rock duo Galdston and Thom. Galdston ended his performing career in 1982 when, he says, he realized it was not going to end up being the success he hoped.
Galdston says the breakup liberated him by allowing him to experiment with different kinds of music.
“I write what I want to write, and I write from my heart,” he says. “And at all times I'm relatively satisfied because I'm getting the chance to express myself on my own terms.”
Galdston acknowledges that relying on the whimsy of popular culture for your income isn't an easy thing to do. He says promoting his work is a struggle every day, and an old lesson from his close friend, the Lovin Spoonful's John Sebastian, helps him keep his chin up.
“He told me that if you're going to be in this business, you have to be in it for the long run, and you do it because you love doing it,” he recalls. “Some days are going to be
good, some days are going to be bad, but you do it because you love the creative process.”
Galdston says he is “cautiously optimistic” about the current state of the pop music world. As long as people continue to write songs from their hearts, he believes everybody should be optimistic about the future of pop music. Galdston thinks that kind of emotional investment has been the key to the recent success of Alanis Morisette, and he thinks people in the industry are taking note.
“The key as a songwriter or any kind of artist is that you can't stand still,” he says. “So many artists do one thing and do it well, and then they don't broaden. And then what happens is the subtleties of the work get overshadowed by popular success. It's a humbling realization, but you just can't stand still.”