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By Lauren Wise
Because we refer to television as "the vast wasteland," we don't put much stock in music made by its inhabitants. Plenty of TV personalities have fashioned disastrous singing careers for themselves, but few have ever tried to branch out into instrumental music.
In the Fifties, Jackie Gleason parlayed his enormous popularity as everyone's favorite bus driver into a side career as a conductor and arranger of romantic mood music. From 1953 to 1957, the Great One placed 11 best-selling albums in the Top 20, with titles like Music for Lovers Only, Music to Remember Her and Music to Change Her Mind. A year after he started on The Tonight Show, Steve Allen scored a Top 10 album with Music for Tonight, a title which somehow eluded Gleason. In 1966, David McCallum, who portrayed Illya Kuryakin on TV's The Man From U.N.C.L.E., managed to dodge T.H.R.U.S.H. agents long enough to record a Top 30 album filled with Muzak versions of then-current hits like "1-2-3" and "Downtown." Its title? Music's a Part of Me!
Music has always been a big part of John Tesh, and whether you know it or not, his music has been a part of you. Since 1981, he's been scoring music that's sneaked into your consciousness, largely through televised sporting events. His themes for the Pan American Games, the Tour de France bike race and NBC Sports' World Track and Field Championships have won him three Emmy Awards. His piano-driven, bombastic fanfares were prominently featured in the 1992 Summer Olympics from Barcelona.
Networks have coined the rich phrase "Teshmusic" to describe his rousing themes. This is music designed to make the mushiest couch potatoes watching a triathlon feel as if they are actually doing something more strenuous than channel surfing. Hear the opening strains of "Barcelona" or "Shock," and you feel as if you should be undertaking some herculean task like cleaning the garage and putting up new shelf paper.
Yet even now, as Tesh's current album, Live at Red Rocks, sits perched in the No. 1 spot on Billboard's instrumental chart, people are still more familiar with his work co-anchoring the longest-running entertainment news program, Entertainment Tonight. Being famous for announcing box-office grosses and telling you what's new and exciting at the video store has gotta be as dubious as being famous for vowel turning. But unlike Vanna the author, John Tesh the musician is being taken seriously by a growing number of people.
While talking to the man on the phone, it's daunting to hear all these familiar Tesh tones in a different context, not the first of which is hearing the guy express actual opinions after years of occupational objectivity. The friendly voice that greets Mary Hart after a week off is now the same friendly voice telling you the first record he ever bought was "Wooly Bully" by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs and that when he was in high school, he worshiped Hendrix. The serious voice that tells you about Christopher Reeve's riding accident is now the serious voice that's telling you that because he's on TV, some people will not take his music seriously.
"When people see you doing one thing, that's what you do," Tesh allows. "But when people come to the concerts, they say, 'Okay, I understand how serious you are about this. I get it now.' We get that a lot. It's nice that the curiosity factor is high enough that people actually show up and take a chance."
Just how curious people have become about "Teshmusic" is best illustrated by his recent performance on QVC, the Home Shopping Network, last November. In one 90-minute period, he sold 90,000 copies of his Romantic Christmas album; a staggering 270,000 sold in a weekend. "We were surprised ourselves," Tesh admits. Does he fear hawking his wares on QVC cheapens his art? Does this mean his concerts will be populated with people wearing Elvis key chains and zircon jewelry? Inquiring minds demand to know!
"People who watch QVC are people like you and me," explains Tesh. "They just like to shop on the Shopping Network. Playing on QVC with an orchestra is no different from playing at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles and the next day people go out and buy the record in a record store. QVC just makes it a lot easier. It's just a different way of selling stuff. You don't go out there saying, 'Hey! Buy this, it's great!' They have guys hired to do that. There are purists who say, 'I'll never do that,' but they're fools. As if a record store is hipper. How different is that from ordering music from Columbia House?"
Point well taken. There are hordes of older people who no longer step foot in record stores for fear of getting their eardrums blasted by a White Zombie recording. Tesh calculates that his target audience falls between 35 and 65 years of age. Since the average PBS audience is between 40 and 70 years old, Tesh felt comfortable pitching PBS his idea for a televised concert at Colorado's Red Rocks Amphitheatre, complete with a 70-piece symphony orchestra. If that idea sounds awfully familiar, chances are you caught the Moody Blues' Red Rocks special one of 100 times it has already aired on PBS pledge-drive weekends. Wasn't Tesh worried the PBS audience might've seen enough Red Rocks already for one lifetime?