CATCHING UP WITH JOHN TESH: SCALING NEW HEIGHTS
Examiner.com (Kevin Yeanoplos)-There are many different ways to describe the apex of attainment – “the dance,” “the big show,” “the main stage,” “prime time” – to name a few. But no matter how you gage getting ahold of the “brass ring,” it really just gets down to one thing – you’ve made it, you’ve really made it.
For the “laurel resters,” it signals the end of the creative line – time to be lazy and enjoy the spoils. But for certain exceptional people – the multitalented John Tesh for instance – it signals a rebirth…a new creative challenge…a fresh start.
Tesh’s freshest foray? The Grammy nominated, Gold-selling, Emmy winning performer recently announced the launch of his new online radio station, KTesh Los Angeles. Geared toward Southern California listeners, KTeshLA is a Christian adult contemporary music and talk station featuring Tesh’s long-running nationally syndicated radio show Intelligence For Your Life.
Broadcasting uplifting music from today’s hottest Christian artists from Casting Crowns to Toby Mac and Jars of Clay, the channel also offers positive insights about health and wellness, relationships, and finances, among others.
And given that the former Entertainment Tonight anchor has been priming for his summer John Tesh: Big Band Live! Tour that kicks off on May 9 in support of his recently released album and DVD by the same name, 2012 has been anything but a coffee break for the accomplished musician.
The new album was recorded at Capitol Records Studios in Hollywood where Frank Sinatra recorded many of his most enduring sides and features new arrangements of nine standards, including “Blue Skies,” “In The Mood,” and “The Way You Look Tonight” as well as three re-imagined Tesh originals, “Barcelona,” “Spanish Steps” and “Give Me Forever.”
In spite of his feverish new year, Tesh was still kind enough to chat with Examiner recently about the new record, the tour and well, his intelligence for life.
With an already fulfilling and diverse career under his belt, Tesh could have simply floated down the lazy musical river. But that’s just not in the energetic performer’s genes.
Tesh described the inspiration for the exciting new big band project. “Tim Landers – (my) best friend, my bass player for twenty-five years – we were trying to figure out what to do for our Christmas tour last year.”
“And he said, ‘Why don’t we go back and get our roots?’ I said, ‘Well, what are those?’ And he said, ‘Well, when you used to play jazz piano in the clubs and play the big band stuff.’ These were the songs that my parents grew up with.”
“He said, ‘Why don’t we try this for Christmas?’ And we did. We did the Christmas tour and after that, the response was so good that we thought, ‘Why don’t we turn this into a PBS special and see how that goes?’”
“You can never tell how people are gonna react to this stuff. We did a little bit of research ‘cause we’re always on tour. We’re always doing four or five shows a month. And the audiences really reacted. Even the young kids were getting into it.”
The overwhelming response to Tesh’s jazz, big band and swing music shouldn’t surprise us. It is after all music that shaped the world from the early to mid-20th Century. And with all that the country’s been through in the last few years, the affirmative reaction has to be in part due to a genuine need for good music. Tesh agrees.
“Yeah, I do. When we spend so much time listening to MP3 players and you get that real compressed, non-dynamic sound and somebody shows up for a concert – whether they were dragged or they won a ticket or something – all of a sudden, you hear a baritone sax and a piccolo trumpet and Dave’s trombone lashing out these melodies, it’s like ‘Whoa!’ And the air gets moved around differently. It’s the reason why this music was dance music for so many years.”
“I have to tell you a quick story. Saturday was my mother-in-law’s eighty-third birthday. So my wife (Connie Sellecca) said, ‘Hey, she’s in a retirement home.’ So we invited everybody from the retirement home over to our house. And the one thing that we forgot was that there were so many people that were going to be bringing walkers (laughing).”
“For the last two days, I've been on my knees trying to rub the scratches out of the floor. Everybody had walkers and they were dancing. She said, ‘I want you to play these big band tunes.’ And that’s what we did in our living room.”
“People who were eighty, ninety, a hundred years old. They didn’t know what they had for breakfast and they all remembered the lyrics and the tunes. That’s the reason why these songs were credited with saving lives from World War II, you know? They’ll be around forever. (Michael) Bublé has really proven that you can take it to a younger audience too.”
There’s no question that the audience enjoys listening to the music. And not surprisingly, Tesh enjoys playing it just as much – not to mention watching the fans get down to the up tempo tunes.
“It was pretty funny ‘cause I learned this from Sting. Twenty years ago, I was covering one of his sound checks for Entertainment Tonight and he had a camera mounted on the stage behind the drums and it was pointed at the audience. And I said, ‘What is that?’ And he said, ‘Ah, you found my secret.’ The reason he did that was because he wanted to see how the audience was reacting to certain songs.”
“And so I started doing it and it was fascinating. We watched the video and the video showed the audience. Some of the really simple songs, I don’t really dig, people are holding hands, making out, you know.”
“On some of the other songs, people are going to the bathroom and you don’t always pick that up while you’re on stage playing the piano. So that’s the method I've always used to figure out what songs to play, how long to play them, what position to put them in. It’s really what informed us as to how joyous the reaction to the big band songs was.”
Tesh’s professional – and personal – life is more than just making upbeat music. The popular performer’s paramount desire is to help people through their inevitable rough spots.
“About two years ago, I had a serious health issue where a piece of my disc on L5 on my spine broke off and ended up on my nerve. And it paralyzed me and I was in a wheelchair for about three or four months.”
“I couldn’t do anything but play piano. I had to lay on my back to do the radio show. We found this guy – my wife did – found this guy in New York, this genius from South Africa who works on athletes and he was able to fix me.”
“And during that period of time, I went through all the pain centers and all the surgical centers and I met so many people who were in my situation – but had been in that situation for twenty years. So their whole life was pain management.”
“One of the things I realized from that experience was that first of all, there are so many people in that situation. And secondly, pain takes away everything. It takes away your relationships, it takes away your sex drive, it takes away your faith.”
“So it was really the Etch A Sketch moment for me. I've always been positive, but I really got taken down by that. And at the end, I sort of realized, well, you know what? We need to be even more intentional about helping people. Because there are a lot of people out there who are hurting. It sounds goofy, but there are more people hurting than not, I think.”
It isn’t that unusual for a musician or athlete to transition into a career as a television or talk show host. But there aren’t many performers that attempt the swim upstream by parlaying a successful television gig into a career as a musician.
And since Tesh’s younger fans seem to be completely unaware of his 10-year “prior life” as an anchor for Entertainment Tonight – and his older fans seem to have forgotten – consider the transition complete. That’s not to say that the “conversion” was without its challenges.
“It’s really funny because this just happened to me. I was in an elevator this morning going to a meeting and the doors closed. And the guy made this sort of piano playing motion with his hands and goes, ‘Boy are you still uh…you know?’”
“And back in the day, I would walk through the airport and people would go, ‘(Entertainment Tonight theme) Da da da da da daahh.’ So now, yeah. I think what did that was Red Rocks. That’s what the intention was with that big special – to try and raise my hand and say, ‘Hey listen, I'm serious.’”
“The big band thing is very similar to that now because people have never seen me or heard me sing. I was a singer when I was a kid. But I didn’t want to do the ‘all singing, all dancing me thing’ for the first special.”
“So I played piano. But when we came up with this big band thing, my wife’s like, ‘Who’s gonna be singing?’ And I said, ‘Well, me.’ And she goes, ‘You don’t sing’ (laughing). I said, ‘Yeah, I do! Watch this.’ She’s like, ‘Oh, okay. How are people gonna react to that?’”
“This is not trying to sing an Adele song, you know? This is ‘Summer Wind’ and ‘Beyond the Sea.’ These are songs that a lot of the greats – Sinatra and all those guys – were singing, but they were also talking through it a little bit. It’s right in my baritone range.”
And uh, speaking of that Sinatra guy, there must have been a few overwhelming moments as Tesh recorded the new album in the same studio that Ol’ Blue Eyes frequented during his recording days.
“Yeah, for sure. Now, this is the thing. I was average in high school and I got average SAT scores. But as anybody who knows me will tell you, I will beat you to death with hard work – to the point where you’re just like, ‘Fine, I’ll buy a ticket. Just get out of my face (laughing).”
“And I was that way with this record for two years. I knew something about Sinatra. For two years I did nothing professionally but studied every one of these guys – Bobby Darin, Steve Lawrence, even Matt Belsante, one of the new guys of course – all the way down to Bing Crosby, Mel Tormé.”
“The one thing I realized is, if you have some talent and you can actually sing in tune, you can interpret these songs. The one thing you can't do is do what those guys were doing. When you look at the ease that Bobby Darin has on stage and the way he phrases things – there’s just nothing like that today and there will never be anything like those guys ever.”
“I learned so much when I was in that studio in Capital, realizing that Sinatra would never do more than one take. He was just like, ‘Here you go,’ and the orchestra had to be ready. And he would sing and that’d be it and he’d walk out.”
Tesh may be right about the fact that there’s nothing like the musical icons today. But to all of the “average Joes” out there with seemingly unattainable dreams, Tesh is every bit as legendary. And if you spend a few minutes with the engaging performer, you quickly figure out that he has learned much more than just a few music lessons.
“I really have a desire to be relevant. I don’t mean to be a star, but just be relevant. So if I'm standing up on stage and I play a song and there’s another song coming up, I can't resist talking to the audience and asking people how they are – having a conversation with them.”
“If you watch somebody like Harry Connick, you know the difference between Harry Connick and any other performer. He’s just so relevant. You can relate to what he’s doing. You know his background, you know his family. And when he has a conversation with you, you believe he’s listening.”
“Part of the success of our touring, is the people who come to our shows can see me and the band on stage. And after about two or three songs, I think they look and go, ‘You know what? With a little practice, I can probably do this.’”
“I'm not Billy Joel and I'm not Elton John, I'm not a giant monstrous Celine Dion thing. Conan O’Brien said this once when I was on his show. He said, ‘You know what? The guy who used to read the celebrity birthdays on Entertainment Tonight is playing piano and millions of people are paying to see that. Then we all need to get our clarinets out of the closet and start practicing because anything can happen.’ And that’s really what it is. I'm sort of the poster boy for ‘follow your dream or you’re gonna be unhappy.’”
Seems like some outstanding intelligence for our lives Mr. Tesh…