It’s a classic case of the chicken and the egg. Which came first? In regards to John Tesh, the chicken is music and the egg is his career as a broadcaster. Or is it the other way around?
Best known as the anchor of “Entertainment Tonight,” Mr. Tesh had a hard time at first convincing the public that he was a serious musician. Even though he was a seasoned and trained rocker who had been doing it for years before “E.T.,” people nonetheless assumed that music was simply a vanity project. Then came the iconic “Live At Red Rocks” PBS special, and suddenly people took notice of Mr. Tesh’s true talents.
I met up with Mr. Tesh over breakfast to discuss the power of his faith, his successful marriage to Connie Sellecca and his upcoming “Grand Piano Live” tour, which plays both Ram’s Head Onstage Annapolis, Maryland, April 26 and The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, April 30.
Question: Most people know you from “Entertainment Tonight” and then music. But for you, music came first?
Answer: It did. I was the skinny kid in bands. Everybody on Long Island was in a garage band then. Billy Joel was in The Hassles. We were a band called Best of Both Worlds. We had a whole horn section. I played Hammond organ. So much unbelievable fun.
Q: Did you always love the piano?
A: I hated it. My mom was a taskmaster. She would take the egg timer. That insidious ticking. I had to hear that for two hours every day, and when it was over, I could finally go outside and play with my friends.
Q: When did you come to embrace the piano as your instrument?
A: Playing in high school dances. It’s like Michael McDonald said when I interviewed him: “I know why I got into music. Same as everyone else. To get girls!”
Q: What can people expect when they come to see you live?
A: They call it “Grand Piano Live,” but it’s me and my bassist and an amazing sax player. We’ll play through songs from Red Rocks, which was my seminal thing. We do some of the faith-based stuff. Lot of piano solos.
Q: What do you remember about your “Live At Red Rocks” TV special?
A: Four songs in, it starts to rain like I’ve never seen. We had a second mortgage on the house, plus all this money I had saved up from being on television, and I thought, “It’s just gone.” Charlie, my electric violin player, says to me, “Let’s just play. I’ll play.”
We start playing. In any other case, the audience would run. At Red Rocks they put on their slickers and they had umbrellas. We played four songs just with the band. At the end of every song, there is complete silence. The audience can’t clap because they are all holding umbrellas. The grand piano was completely ruined with water just pouring out of it. After the fourth song, the rain stops and fog comes. It was like the best fog machine you’ve ever seen. Full moon comes out, orchestra comes back, and we play the rest of the show.
Q: I know you are a man of faith. Was the rainstorm divine intervention?
A: For sure. I trained for that special on the treadmill reciting Scripture from Matthew. I do believe staying in the word during that whole time ended up manifesting that success, but I also think God has a great sense of humor. I had my path ordered, and then God opened up the floodgates, literally.
That show made $20 million dollars for PBS. I went from selling 300 records a week at my own record company to 50,000 a week. After that we booked a 60-city tour.
Q: Were you still at “Entertainment Tonight”?
A: I was still under contract. Because I was stupid, I put and ad in Variety and the guys at [parent company] Paramount said, “You can’t do this! You’re breaking your contract.” So they sued me in open court.
We got to the court, and the judge told Paramount, “You can’t force this guy to work. This case has no merit.” We ended up making amends.
Q: But you left the TV show?
A: I think leaving was a prideful move on my part. I really was enamored with what Cortez did in 1519 when he burned his ships. That metaphor was [for me]. It was me saying, “I really want people to take me seriously [as a musician], and they are only gonna take me seriously if they see me play live.”
Q: How did you get and keep the girl, Connie Sellecca?
A: We are equally yoked. We believe the exact same things all the way down the line: parenting, faith, Scriptures.
I don’t want this to overtake the whole interview, but a year-and-a-half ago I was diagnosed with what should have been terminal prostate cancer. No one would operate on me. I found this doctor who said, “I can save your life.” We moved to [John] Hopkins for a month.
Just three or four months ago, I had a recurrence. It ended up in my lymph nodes. I had another operation four weeks ago. Through this whole thing, Connie was there acting as a caregiver. We pulled all these healing Scriptures out of the Bible. I am on hormone therapy and limited chemo.
The point in my telling you this is the love affair that was created two years ago, when I was diagnosed, between Connie and I is what they call “agape love.” Love where you would do anything for the other person. I would do anything for that woman because of all she’s done for me.
Q: Does the upcoming tour take on a sense of importance because of your battle with cancer?
A: These concerts are very important to me. Because it’s metastatic, the cancer, though now in remission, but who knows? I should be dead.
Because I realize, I might only have five years, or 10 years. I don’t know.
John Tesh’s “Grand Piano Live!” is at Ram’s Head Onstage in Annapolis, Maryland, April 26 and The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, April 30.