The Tesh Touch

I've spent a good chunk of time recently mulling over the possible consequences of a 44-year-old man named John Tesh. Maybe you've heard of him; for ten years, ending three months ago, Tesh and his hair co-hosted Entertainment Tonight, arguably the biggest piece of celebrity "journalism" ever to destroy the argument that television might someday do somebody some good. He also plays keyboards, gives concerts and releases CDs -- 13 at last count. Maybe you saw him perform at the Olympics. If not, you might have heard the stink raised in his aftermath. The night after Atlanta's Tesh-a-thon closing ceremonies, David Letterman faced his audience and tossed them the rhetorical bone, "Aren't you glad I'm not John Tesh?" Letterman's audience roared its affirmation.

Tesh-bashing, of course, is so easy and so obvious as to be no real sport at all. The man's already got a compost heap of stinky press clippings molding away behind his mansion. And anyway, "John Tesh: One Big Joke of a Musician, a Thesis" is unlikely to enlighten his already storming hordes of detractors, or to sway the hearts of his equally loyal fans.

But on the other hand, what's one to say? I mean, fine, he writes and performs instrumental music that's exceedingly professional, careerist, commercial, aim-to-please stuff. It's pleasantly aimed at a demographic described, from the horse's mouth, as "men and women, 35 to 75, who may need to go home and relieve the baby sitters." There's a spectrum of degrees spanning the poles of pure art and pure entertainment, and John Tesh, to all appearances, is an entertainer.

You could talk to Tesh for an hour and surmise that he's just a real levelheaded guy who stumbled so far into the "communications" business that he accidentally ended up co-anchoring Entertainment Tonight for a decade in front of 12 million viewers an evening before finally saving enough money and courage that he was able to resign from his anchor desk ("What they don't realize," he says, "is that I never really cared at all about TV") and pursue music, his first love, for which he has a well-documented passion going back to age six.

Or, truthfully, you could talk to him for that same hour and surmise that Tesh's 25 years in the "communications" business have provided him with a well-developed knowledge of how to successfully sell a manufactured idea of himself to as many different kinds of consumers as possible, including reporters. You never can be sure what you're getting when you're dealing with an expert.

I can, however, tell you the following, because this is what Tesh told me. You may, of course -- and are encouraged to -- interpret the information as you wish.

John Tesh grew up in Garden City, Long Island, the son of Baptist parents he describes as "rough." Dad was a vice president of Hanes, the underwear company, a retired violinist, an expert carpenter, a self-made man who never went to college and president of the local Sunday school. Mom was a registered nurse who, Tesh remembers, "would put an egg timer on the piano for two hours every day, and I had to sit there and play piano, otherwise I didn't get dinner. And as I got older, the deal was [that unless I played] classical music for two hours a day, I couldn't play in the rock band that I was in."

Young Tesh's introduction to the rigors of public performance came early, when his father, hosting parties of friends, would wake the pajamaed boy so he could entertain with Christmas songs on the family piano. "So I'd get up and I'd perform, and I'd make a mistake, obviously, and I'd finish, and my dad would say, 'Now play it again, but don't make a mistake,' " recalls Tesh. "People would be hanging their heads because they realized how embarrassing it would be for me. I didn't want to pull a Menendez on him, it wasn't that bad, but a little bit of therapy helped me. I got involved in some therapy for stage fright, and it's gone now."

While a high school student, Tesh was named to the New York State Symphonic Band twice for his piano skills, and as a budding rock and roller he played organ, then trumpet and then, after getting braces on his teeth, trombone in a series of rock bands. His tastes ran to Yes and Jethro Tull, and he thinks he understands the anti-mainstream bias of today's alt-rock snobbery because he remembers that "my favorite alternative rock band in the '70s was the beginning of Yes, and once 'Roundabout' came out and they were popular on the radio, I wasn't interested anymore."

Tesh left Long Island to enroll at North Carolina State University, where he studied music, physics, whatever, "sort of trying to find myself." He got into communications by chance when someone told him a course in radio was an easy A. That turned out to be true, but Tesh was also "bitten by the bug, and that's how that got started."

"That" turned out to be a broadcasting career, which led to radio and TV jobs in Raleigh, Orlando and Nashville. Later, Tesh was hired as an anchor/reporter at WCBS in New York, where he earned an Associated Press award for investigative journalism. He joined CBS Sports in 1981, where he began a long stint as a sports commentator that has continued at least through Atlanta, where a great many viewers were surprised to see Tesh announcing gymnastics, though, in point of fact, he'd been doing it for 15 years (and had done it at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics).

It was also in the early '80s that Tesh began writing music for the sporting events he was covering. CBS was looking to hire a composer to score its coverage of the Tour de France, and to get a foot in the door, Tesh offered to do the job for free if he could keep the publishing rights. The gambit worked, and Tesh later took out ads in cycling magazines, selling more than 22,000 cassette tapes of his Tour de France music by mail. In 1983, he won an Emmy for his Pan American Games theme, in 1987, another for a subsequent Tour de France theme and in 1991, two more for his music for NBC's World Track and Field Championships. He's also composed, among other snippets of up-tempo instrumentalism, the theme music for NBA basketball, NFL football, Wimbledon and the World Gymnastics Championships.

In 1986, Tesh solidified his celebrity status by landing the co-hosting spot on Entertainment Tonight. "I would leave that [E.T.] studio," Tesh says, "run out of there and go home and be at a studio practicing or playing, and be up all night trying to record an album. My last priority ever was television. But when 12 million people a night see you do a TV show, that's what you do."

And when 12 million celebrity worshippers a night see you do a TV show, they're not likely to understand when you quit. "It's very scary to buy into television; you cannot do that. I have no disdain at all for any TV show, and, in fact, E.T. was just great to me, and I love doing sports stuff and all that, but it's very disposable. If I didn't leave E.T., I guarantee you in two to five years they'd find somebody younger than I was, more appealing, and they'd replace me."

And so in June, with a 15-year-old stepson (a drummer, by the way, in a fledgling band that also includes the son of Aerosmith's Joe Perry) and a two-year-old daughter, Tesh bought out of Entertainment Tonight to pursue the musical muse.

Of course, the rule -- beachcombing crooner David Hasselhoff notwithstanding -- is that you can't be successful in two different fields, at least not without taking some very heavy critical punches, which is perhaps why Tesh's music has been so roundly reviled when, in reality, it is simply a cross between a less noodle-happy Yanni and a more talented Kenny G. -- bouncy, highly orchestrated, borderline New Age and far too innocuous to justify the sort of venom it's garnered.

But Tesh, it seems, has a talent (yes, another one) for rolling with the punches.

"I'm sort of honored, you know. I guess I've appeared on David Letterman's Top Ten list about five or six times, and I've even done some skits with Leno spoofing myself. I don't know, it doesn't bother me," he claims. "People are surprised when I say I think it's funny. My favorite part is the caricatures. I don't know if you've seen some of these things, but they're great. There was one in an Atlanta paper that had my chin about 17 inches long, and I was on a balance beam with a big toe with a keyboard under my arm. My reaction is I call up the artist and ask if I can have one of the originals and have him sign it. How many times are you gonna get somebody to spend that much time drawing a caricature of your head?"

And, as always in the performing arts, an audience is the best revenge. Tesh's Sax on the Beach and Live at Red Rocks are both certified gold, and this year's Discovery seems likely to achieve the same. The present tour -- in which Tesh is backed by an orchestra of 40, plus a gospel choir picked up in each city -- is playing to solid crowds. "There are people who say 'Jeez, doesn't this stuff get you down?' And I think it would if we were traveling around and playing, and five people showed up," Tesh says. "But we play to between 3,000 and 15,000 people a night. There's a big groundswell for this type of music.

"But the critical reviews are always going to be horrible, just by virtue of who I am."


John Tesh performs at 8 p.m. Friday, September 13, at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, 2005 Lake Robbins Drive, The Woodlands. Tickets are $17 to $45. For info, call 629-3700.


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