If you think you know John Tesh from his 10-year stint co-hosting “Entertainment Tonight,” then you don’t know John Tesh. The keyboardist considers himself a musician first and recently told Pollstar about his musical background, how he plans for each concert and what’s up with his new album, “John Tesh: Big Band” and the public television special of the same name.
If there’s one thing for certain about Tesh it’s that he works very hard to entertain. On show days he’s been known to arrive at the venue before noon so he can get the feel of the room.
Married to actress Connie Sellecca, the couple recently celebrated their 20th anniversary. But despite his Hollywood-connections, Tesh comes across as a very down-to-earth kind of guy who just happens to have his own national radio show plus six music Emmys, two Grammy nominations and four gold records.
You always seem to be very much involved with the business side of your music. How much is handled by you personally and how much is handled by others such as a manager, booking agent and assistants?
The stuff I’m horrible at, being a press agent I’m horrible at. Having just finished the Steve Jobs book, I’m not that. No black sweater, no meanness … I don’t redesign everything in under 15 seconds [but] it worked for him.
I’ve always been into doing everything myself to a fault. For a couple of years we promoted our own concerts. The reason we’re with [booking agency] Paradise Artists and Jim Lenz is that we realize that we can’t do this as well as promoters. We have 380 radio stations that carry our show five hours a day. We have partners that can help us promote our live shows. By the same token, promoters really know how to reach the fans and get people in the seats. And the four-walling thing has always been very scary to me. We used to do a lot of stuff ourselves. We still run our own record company and things like that.
But I have really bad A.D.D. I have key people with me. Betsy Chase is the producer of our radio show. Linda Klosterman does all of our Web stuff. Kim Landers is my music director. People like my wife.
I have this mental image of you at home, sitting at a Baby Grand playing and composing music while your wife dances across the room. How close is that image to reality?
Up until three months ago you would have been far off. It was more like, “I’m trying to make a phone call, can you stop playing for a minute?” But now we just had our first granddaughter and I’m always thinking, “How am I can be involved with this?” because they’re pretty much like vegetables for the first couple of weeks.
So, what Connie has done, whenever the baby is here, she will page me in the studio and say “Grandpa come on down.” I have one piano in the studio and a larger Grand in the living room. And I’ll come down there and she will dance all over the living room and then hold the baby in front of me and I’ll sing, “Somewhere beyond the sea ...” And it is so cool. She [the baby] really reacts to that.
Who are your favorite keyboardists?
When I was a kid, everybody wanted me to play Mozart and Bach and I was only in Rachmaninoff. Old Gershwin, too. I liked the big bombastic stuff. Sergei Rachmaninoff, but Rick Wakeman was my all-time favorite keyboard player. I have every one of those Yes albums except for maybe Tales Of Topographic Oceans. I memorized every one of his licks. I like Dr. John, too. I think his stuff is pretty amazing. The last four or five years while doing this jazz thing, really exploring Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, those guys. And, of course, Count Basie. I really have studied these guys for years but Wakeman was what I was doing back in college and high school.
I’m a big Moog fan. I have ’64 B3 right in front of me and three or four Mini Moogs. I don’t use the ready made patches. I’m very much what he [Wakeman] did. It’s hard to play like he did, he’s so fast and creative.
What happened to me was, in the [early 1970s] I was a freshman at North Carolina State and someone said, “Let’s go to Duke and see Alvin Lee & Ten Years After.” And the band that opened for them was Yes. I want to tell you, to see an audience come completely unglued, this guy with a cape with a moon on it and this little guy going, “Sharp! Distance!” And the bass player with another cape, standing on one leg. When Ten Years After came out, we were all worn out. Everybody left.
That kind of stuff is really fun. Nowadays you can’t have that because it happens on YouTube first. Back in the day you’d discover a band like that. That’s the first time I saw Wakeman and that sort of whirling dervish thing of him. From CP-70 piano to Mini Moog and piano and sticking a knife in it to hold a key down.
“John Tesh: Big Band” – What can your fans expect from this project?
One thing our fans have always gotten from our shows is energy. It’s almost like a little too much, like running around in dervishes. It’s not like, “Okay, here’s another one of my favorites.” It’s a lot of high energy stuff. Even the ballads are sort of big. We always bring a big light show and all that, because of the theatrics I grew up with, going to the Joshua Light Show on Long Island.
But this thing is probably more musical than anything I’ve done. We have the best players in Los Angeles out with us. We stole most of Brian Setzer’s orchestra. They’re goofy, too. They have all the routines down and everything. Tony Guerrero did the arrangements for us. He’s this kid who plays trumpet like he was born in 1920. It’s a huge challenge for me because I used to play jazz trumpet but I’m the New Age guy and I haven’t played these chords in the longest time. It took me two years to get back to where I was in high school and college. There was a lot of woodshedding. It’s a very organic concert meaning there are no recorded sounds on stage. We have a lot of folks who listen to the radio show and some of them are 12-year-olds. It’s fascinating to see these kids who are so used to listening to hip-hop and compressed MP3 music and when they hear a baritone sax or a tenor trombone it’s “What the hell is that?” It’s a lot of fun.
You’ve done many public television specials. How important has public television been for getting your music out?
The first public TV special I did, I was on “Entertainment Tonight” and it [the special] was “Live At Red Rocks.” I was playing a few concerts but it was sort of like, “Here’s the ‘Entertainment Tonight’ guy trying something when in reality I always considered myself a musician first.
So when we did that special, we went to PBS and said, “I have this idea. I’ll be with the Colorado Symphony.” I had just seen U2’s “Under A Blood Red Sky” [shot] at Red Rocks and I said, “Oh, my God, this is where we have to perform.”
We figured it out and went to PBS and they said, “What are you going to do? Read the celebrity birthdays onstage?” So you can see what they were thinking. So they said they would create the special and then we’ll decide whether or not we’ll put it on the air. And I was like, “You’re kidding me?”
It ended up being, with all the recording with the symphony, it was like a $1.2 million special. My wife and I took a second mortgage on our house back then and created the special. About four songs in, it started to pour rain as it is want to do at Red Rocks, and the orchestra left. I’m standing on stage with water pouring off of my piano and my four core band members and I said, “Let’s keep playing.”
The audience put up their umbrellas and we played in the rain. At the end of every song they couldn’t clap because they had umbrellas in their hands, so they pushed their umbrellas up and down. It looked as if we were at a Mary Poppins concert. We showed it to PBS and they said, “Ok, we’ll try it.”
Four or five stations tried it, and to use a new term for this, it blew up. We couldn’t get a record company to sign us because they didn’t take us seriously. We put it in stores ourselves and in six or seven months we sold a million copies. And people were like, “Whoa! What happened?” And that’s when the other stations started putting it on. Since there weren’t a million different shows available. The Yanni show wasn’t available, [nor] Riverdance, and it just got aired ad nauseam. And that was really what allowed me to leave television.
Your new album has re-imagined versions of three compositions – “Barcelona,” “Spanish Steps” and “Give Me Forever.” Did these different versions exist when you originally recorded the songs or are they more recent re-workings?
We did completely new arrangements because we wanted to make sure they fit into the live show.
Did you try to approach it as your own music or do you tackle it as if you were covering someone else’s work?
What I’ve learned to do, is when you find the right arrangement and someone hasn’t been on tour with you playing this song, you give them the original version before it was ever orchestrated and say, “Make this fit into the big band record.” And then they send you a demo and it’s like, “I never would have done that.” If I had told them, “Well, do this, and make the horns do this here,” it wouldn’t have had a fresh feel to it. And that’s what Tony did. He did that with “Give Me Forever,” “Barcelona” and “Spanish Steps.” And also there’s a song on the DVD that’s not on the album. It’s the ESPN basketball theme that we always get requests for and he did a version of that. It’s interesting, we don’t carry strings with us, if you don’t have strings, you really have to use trombones for the cello parts and it’s a much different sound than what the songs had originally.
Aside from what your band members contribute, do you do any charts?
No. I can write chord charts and I’m a very good sight reader [but] I’m not a great orchestrator. But I am that guy though, back in the day, who had all the synths connected to, it wasn’t Pro-Tools back then, it was Digital Performer, and we’d do all the orchestrations that way. It is that thing of finding someone that’s a whole lot better than you. So, no, I don’t do the charts. I can read them, but I didn’t write them.
The new album was recorded at Capitol Studios. As a musician, what do you like about the studios?
The vintage microphones were pretty great. It was also that sense of importance, not just to me but also to the guys that were in there. This is a musicians union album. A lot of people try to do the whole buy-out thing, or there are some musicians who shall remain nameless, who try big band albums with synthesizers. It’s an expensive record and we won’t recoup the price we spent on it. But we wanted to do it right and Capitol was the right place to do it.
I should tell you that, by trade, I’m not a singer, a frontman. I sang in the choir and led worship in the church for 25 years. So I know how to do it. But when it came to these songs, it was a completely different challenge for me. I studied it for about two years. When I say “studied it” I mean I’m always vocalizing stuff, even before I do the radio show. But just things like, “How does Sinatra differ from Nat King Cole? How does that differ from Dean Martin and Steve Lawrence?”
I studied these guys for so long to see what my voice is on this record and where do I fit in? I sing, sort of like in the same key as Sinatra and a lot of those guys, E Flat for most things. What you start to realize is how incredible these guys were. There were no second takes. They just sang with the orchestra. When you consider that, it’s pretty daunting.
Is singing with an orchestra behind you as much fun as it looks to have that full sound backing you?
In the studio it’s no fun for me. In the studio I end up over-thinking everything. The studio for me is a sharp stick in the eye. Being on stage is incredible for me. I love it. I love the movement of air these guys produce when we’re on stage. And I love seeing the surprise in the audience. We engage the audience. We just don’t come in and do 15 songs and move on. We’re talking to them, getting them involved, encouraging them to dance in the aisles. And if they don’t, I’ll come down and dance with them. Definitely on stage is the most fun.
“It’s a very organic concert meaning there are no recorded sounds on stage.”
What do you think is the biggest misconception about John Tesh?
I think most people think I’m sort of stuck in the mud and a real sort of vanilla kind of guy. And the thing we hear most of the time after a concert is, “I had no idea you were so funny.” I don’t write out anything, but just being on stage with so many people who are funny, something always happens with an audience member or something you ad-lib about or interact with. I think a lot of people think I’m very serious. If you were to get my wife on the phone right now, she’d tell you I’m a complete goofball.
If you searched me in Google or Twitter or whatever, I’m not in the “well, he’s ok.” It’s either “Oh, my gosh, I love this guy,” or “John Tesh needs to be stopped before he ruins the world.” So it’s a bi-polar reaction to me.
You mentioned playing trumpet in high school. What led you to keyboards?
Girls didn’t like trumpet players. I just got off the phone yesterday with my trumpet teacher from elementary school. He’s now 91. I don’t even know his first name. He’s “Mr. Wagner.” Where I grew up, Garden City on Long Island, it’s a real performing arts area. You didn’t have a choice, you had your pick of one of three instruments. That was my first instrument and I was in the marching band. In junior high school I was really thin. I was 6”6’ and back in the day I weighed 145. So I’m in the marching band and a couple of friends said, “Why don’t you get an organ and we’ll do a few Beatles tunes and girls will really like you.” I don’t know if that was the exact speech but it was sort of in my head.
We ended up being this great Blood, Sweat & Tears cover band. We competed with a group called “The Best Of Both World” and we competed with Billy Joel’s band, The Hassles for school dances. But I turned out to be a real skinny keyboard player that no girls would talk to.
Have you ever talked with Billy Joel about those days?
Oh, yeah. In fact, his drummer, John Small, who was in The Hassles, shoots all of our videos, his videos and Garth Brooks’ videos. But you know, it’s funny. They [The Hassles] came to see us and we went to see them. And he [Joel] absolutely knew the difference between the keyboard chops between him and me. I don’t know if everybody knows this, but he’s an amazing Hammond player, a B3 player. I would see him years later and he’d go, “Hello … John.” We’d always figure out each other’s licks and it was his opinion I didn’t have any.
Musicians talk about pre-show jitters and flop sweat. What was scarier for you; your first “Entertainment Tonight” taping or the first time you appeared on stage as a headliner?
The only thing that has really scared me on television was doing the Olympics because it’s like standing on your head doing your SATs. Television doesn’t scare me. But it [nervousness] was so bad for me when I first started performing live, and that started when I was in sixth, seventh grade when I did piano recitals. When got out of college I had to go into therapy for stage fright. I really thought I was going to die onstage, I’d lose all feeling in my left arm, I guess it was an anxiety attack. I couldn’t play because when you’re that nervous you can’t remember anything.
I went through five years of therapy off-and-on with a guy who works with orchestra players. He gave me these amazing tips. He would do things like have me onstage with a piano and he’d make me fail in the middle of a song and make me get out of it. We’d do things like I would walk through all the seats to get comfortable, so it would be my house. I still do that now. I don’t have any stage fright but I’ll walk through the house. There’s nothing worse than being scared on stage.
What are your soundchecks like?
If you had my bass player on the phone, he’d say, “There is no soundcheck for John. He shows up at 10 o’clock in the morning.”
I just can’t sit in the hotel room. I’ll show up at the venue at 10 o’clock in the morning, play the piano, talk to the piano tuner. I will test out the lights … I’ll make some suggestions on EQ for the microphones. By the time everybody arrives it’s like, “Where have you guys been?” We do a pretty long soundcheck.
It sounds like the soundchecks might be entertaining as well. Are you, the band and technicians completely alone, or do your soundchecks attract audiences as well, perhaps venue employees or fans who managed to sneak into the building?
Everybody in this band has played with everybody in the industry. So most of our soundchecks sound like “Thick As A Brick,” “Aqualung,” “Roundabout,” “Gotta Get You Into My Life,” people soloing for no apparent reason.
We partnered with Grammy In The Schools a few years ago. We’d get elementary schools come and watch soundchecks and we would explain what we were doing. With our radio stations we offer opportunities to win chances to come and be a part of the soundchecks. Because that’s the best part of the show, when we’re all screaming at each other.
Back when I was doing “Entertainment Tonight” for 10 years, I had the opportunity, not only to interview people like Elton John, Eric Clapton, Sting and Celine Dion and all those guys, but also go on tour for several days with Sting and Barry Manilow. We’d cover their soundchecks. The way I do soundchecks today, I learned that from Sting, especially. The meticulousness he goes through it is really quite amazing. And I took a lot of those tips from him. Never leave any stone unturned. If there’s something that’s wrong, that sounds wrong in the balcony, or if there’s a standing wave coming from the bass drum, it’s going to drive people crazy. You have only one chance to get it right.
What kind of advice can you give to a pre-teen or teenager who’s considering making a career of music?
The cool thing is, I’ve seen my daughter, who is a ballerina, is going to a dance conservatory next year, [she] taught herself how to play piano by going on YouTube. It’s really a great way to learn. People will show you anything. They’ll show you some special licks or whatever. You can get email videos every week if you want, you can take lessons by Skype, that’s the best way to get started. But there’s this thing that people still have, that you have to get a record deal. And I’m a perfect example of “No you don’t and probably shouldn’t.”
But playing live is really the biggest way. Just find any way to get on stage and play live. Some people will do it in their church. Some people do it on the street, there are great musicians on the street. But being in a studio and coming up with licks will never get a career. You really have to get out and play live.
“Being on stage is incredible for me. I love it. I love the movement of air these guys produce when we’re on stage. And I love seeing the surprise in the audience.”
Upcoming shows for John Tesh include Watertown, N.Y., at the Watertown Arena May 9; Waterbury, Conn., at Palace Theater May 10; Gettysburg, Pa., at the Majestic Theater Peforming Arts May 11; Westbury, N.Y., at the NYCB Theatre At Westbury May 12 and the San Diego County Fair in Del Mar, Calif., June 14. For more information, please visit Tesh.com.