BWW Interview: John Tesh Opens Up About Criminal Behavior, Fast Breaks, and His SONGS & STORIES FROM THE GRAND PIANO Tour at the Harris Center
Dynamic is the word that comes to mind when speaking with John Tesh. His passion for his life, family, and career come across clearly in his instantly recognizable made-for-performing voice. Tesh was a staple in the 1980s on the popular television show, "Entertainment Tonight." Sports fans know him from broadcasting the Tour de France, Olympics, and other events. Still others follow his musical career, which boasts wins for six Emmys, two Grammy nominations, and three gold records. Tesh is bringing his unique performance to the Harris Center on December 5 with his "Songs & Stories from the Grand Piano" tour which, based on reviews, promises to be a night to remember. Broadway World spoke to him about his upcoming show, his cancer battle, and much more!
You've had one of the most interesting lives I've ever read of. What immediately stands out to me is that you went from being homeless to anchoring the news! I'd like to hear about that experience.
I wanted to be a musician my whole life and my dad thought that I would starve to death and he was probably right. He enrolled me in North Carolina University with a major in textile chemistry. I finished 2 or 3 years and took a course in radio and TV and decided that's what I needed to do and I wanted to change my major. I went to my professors and asked if they would sign a drop/add card and they all said yes except my stats professor, who said I was past the drop/add date. That decision would have stopped me from changing majors. A friend said to just sign the professors name because they never check. It turns out that he did check and he filed a grievance against me and the university suspended me and gave me an F. When my dad found out he threw me out of the house and I was without housing and my girlfriend broke up with me and I was sort of a pariah. I ended up homeless in a park for 3 or 4 months and then I got my first radio job by making a fake demo tape because I was already a criminal anyway. A man named Scott White felt sorry for me and gave me a job at a radio station. I was reading news on the weekends and then got a TV job. I went from Orlando to Nashville and in 1976 to New York City to be a correspondent for CBS.
So you ended up on radio and TV even though you didn't get to finish that degree.
Of course, I learned at the TV station. The anchorman leaves and they throw you on the air. Very much like the A Star is Born theatre thing. You can sing and dance and nobody knows about it until you're the only one left.
Naturally, we all know you from "Entertainment Tonight." Did you realize at the time the huge effect that it would have on your career?
So many people think that my career started there but I had already had 14 years on television and radio that by the time I got to "Entertainment Tonight" it was like retirement. When 23 million people a night see you doing something, that's what you do. I worked for 4 hours a day and the rest of the time I was in a recording studio making music. They were really supportive of my music career.
You have also won 6 Emmys for your music and sold over 8 million records! How did your music career begin?
It really began in 1994 when we did the Live at Red Rocks Special for PBS. We went from selling 100 records a week to 50,000 a week. PBS kept airing the special. It raised a bunch of money for them but it started my music career.
Anyone who watches basketball is familiar with your work, "Roundball Rock" (the theme for the NBA on NBC). Critics have lauded it as, "The greatest sports theme song in TV history." I know the background of this involves that relic, the answering machine. Can you tell us the story of its inception?
I was doing the music and doing the narration for the Tour de France bike race and when you're in that sports world news travels fast and I heard that NBC was looking for a theme for their basketball coverage. They put it out to everyone to submit something. I thought, "Oh man, if I could get this theme song, it would be great," because no one knew me as a musician. One night I was up at 2 a.m. in France and I had that theme in my head and I knew if I went to sleep I was going to lose it. I'm running around trying to figure out what to do and I thought, "I'll just call my answering machine." The problem was I was in a tiny hotel on the side of the mountain and there wasn't a phone at the reception desk so I found a way to move the patchcords around and figured it out. I called and it picked up and I left a message for myself and then the machine cut me off. I called back and I left the second part of it. When I got home, I put the answering machine on my piano and I figured it out. It's literally just...(this is the part where my jaw drops as John Tesh is playing the theme on his piano for me over the phone. Wow.) It was exactly what I had sung to the machine and so I got the band together and we played it and I had it orchestrated because, being an insider in the sports world and knowing what these guys were looking for, I knew a piano demo wouldn't light anyone up. I thought there was still something wrong and someone said I should find out how long a fast break is. I figured out that it's 132 bpm and I set the tempo at that and it just worked. I transferred it to basketball footage and submitted a VHS tape. When they saw it, they called within 2 days and said, "This is it!" People on YouTube have learned how to play it and Saturday Night Live even put words to it.
The fast break idea is amazing. How did you figure out it was 132 bpm? Wouldn't it vary by player?
That's a good question. It was an average of 132 bpm. It varied from 128 bpm through 135 bpm. Magic dribbles faster than Michael. I describe it as being a little bit faster than disco.
Your passion for both music and sports seem to have meshed seamlessly. You've anchored the Tour de France, the US Open, and the Summer Olympics, as well as had Olympic routines choreographed to your music and the distinction of the aforementioned "Roundball Rock." What has been your favorite experience from your time in the world of sports?
I would say doing the coverage of the Tour de France because it was so unbelievably difficult. We were taking a bike race which was 140 miles a day for 24 days and it was a different finish line every day. We would shoot footage and take it back every 5 days and fly back to Paris and edit all night for 2 straight nights. While David Michaels was editing I was writing music. Sometimes it was in a van. I had to write the announcer copy at the same time I was writing the music. It was literally an hour and a half of music every week so I was doing that and we would broadcast the show live from a field somewhere to CBS Sports Network. Everything I do now on stage comes from techniques I learned back then.
You currently have a radio show with your wife, Connie Sellecca, called, "Intelligence For Your Life." I see that you cover a myriad of topics, from health and earthing to Ancestry, pets, and decorating for Halloween at Home Depot. How do you choose which topics to cover?
We basically just go by trial and error. We'll put a piece on and when people really react to it on Facebook we'll do more of that topic. We've been doing it for over 20 years, so we know what works. Lately a lot of people are looking for purpose and goal orientation. Health and wellness is big. Pets are a big topic for us. Millennials are waiting longer to get married, so a lot of people are adopting pets. We have partnerships with a lot of universities like Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, UCLA, as well as a lot of authors. The publishers will share books on personal development. If somebody isn't an M.D., Ph.D., or nutritionist, we usually won't use their stuff.
Speaking of health, you had a successful cancer battle a few years ago. Did that force you to slow down and reevaluate your life?
It went the other way. I started slowing down and really becoming a cancer patient and then my wife, Connie, and I discovered specific scriptures in the New Testament that are directly related to healing and we actually took courses and meditated on one in particular, which is Mark 11:23, which is the promise for healing. Once we got to the point where we were able to renew my mind and hers and visualize myself healed in the name of Jesus, then the scans revealed no more cancer in my body. The moment that happened was when we were on an oncology radiation ward. Connie and I had been studying for 2 years and we looked at each other and faith was born in us that I was healed and then I was. It wasn't giving up, it was really becoming a new creation. So there's a scripture in Proverbs 18:21 that is pretty much the only one you need to be healed. Death and life are in the power of the tongue. If you go around speaking life, then you will have life. If you go around speaking of illness, then you'll be sick. We are born into a world of sickness and disease, a fallen world, and you have to fight against that. You have to guard your heart. There are certain people and things you don't want to be around. Doctrine perverts what the scriptures were intended for. We are very careful about what we allow in our world, in our ears, and in our eyes. The thing about this is I'm not a preacher but people are like, "I'm not sure I believe it." Well, then it won't work for you. The reason I wrote my book is to say, "Here's my story, you might be interested."
Your faith is obviously a huge part of who you are. How did you come back to the church? How does it influence your music?
I grew up in the church and my parents ran the Methodist Church. I drifted away in college like lots of kids do. When I met Connie in 1991, she invited me to a church she attended and that's really how that happened. The next step was in the middle of the cancer journey which was a deeper dive. A lot of people believe that God is sovereign, but they translate that into, "God can do whatever he wants," but it doesn't work that way. The healing was already provided to us. Once I realized that then everything changed. You see everything differently. It's a lot of work and the revelation that I got out of this was that people that I've worked with and people that I know, personal development people, they pull stuff out of the scriptures and make it their own. It comes down to visualization and imagination and manifestation of Jesus killing the fig tree at the roots. It's all right there. It was there for me my whole life but once you realize the truth then it's a whole different way of praying. There's no more begging. It's grace, it's accepting.
I'm looking forward to reading your memoir, "Relentless: Unleashing a Life of Purpose, Grit, and Faith," when it comes out in February. What can you tell me about it?
Well, it's basically a trip through my life that is a combo of making really bad decisions and taking a lot of risks. I think the subtitle says more about it. I read a lot of books about grit and persistence. My assignments over the years have given me an up-close and personal look at people at the top of their game. Whether its downhill skiers or Jimmy Connors or Bjorn Borg or Greg LeMond, there's a sameness to what they do. Even Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan. These guys practice for 9 hours day. I'm a very average guy but I will beat you to death with relentlessness. I've learned that the only way through is deliberate focus and practice with whatever you do. When I do a sound check, it's a 6-hour sound check. Most musicians have an hour-long sound check. We'll come up with something new for the show that night during that sound check.
We are excited to welcome you to the Harris Center in Folsom on December 5th! Your "Songs & Stories from the Grand Piano" tour seems to have it all! Jokes, music, physical comedy, dancing, and stories. Fans have said, "It's the show of a lifetime!" and, "Go see a John Tesh show-you're crazy not to!" What can we expect from a night with the talented John Tesh?
A little bit of everything. I sort of became the poster boy for, "Quit Your Job and Follow Your Dream." I quit "Entertainment Tonight" for a music career. When people come to see me, I think a lot of it is from when Conan O'Brien said, "When the guy who read celebrity birthdays on ET is selling out concerts, we all need to get the clarinet out of the closet." I think it's encouragement. It's hard to describe the show. I think when that woman who said that describes it, she is saying that it's a show that might enrich your life. This show is much different than just playing 15 songs straight.
"Songs & Stories from the Grand Piano" comes to the Harris Center for the Arts for one night only on December 5th. Tickets are available at http://www.TeshMusic.com, www.HarrisCenter.net, or at the Harris Center box office.