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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?
"Other way around," he corrects. "We felt we could light it better than [the Moody Blues] did. We brought in three times as many lights. We built the stage in the middle of the audience. And we figured people would be comfortable with the venue. The Moody Blues audience is 40-plus, as well, but the music is vastly different because those are songs everyone recognizes and mine are songs people may recognize, but nothing like 'Nights in White Satin.'"
One of the problems the general public has always had dealing with instrumental music is not knowing how to ask for a piece by name. Unless somebody yells "Tequila!"
"I like the fact that there are no words," says Tesh. "That way you don't have to go in any certain direction or be led. You can go your own way. It's also difficult to name instrumentals when you're writing them."
For instance, Red Rocks' closing track, "PS 491," isn't about a grade school but Tesh's meeting of his wife, actress Connie Sellecca. "PS stands for Palm Springs, 4 is the month of April and 91 is the year," he reveals. Unless Tesh told you this, you'd have to be Kreskin to figure that out. But, hey, for all intents and purposes, you can feel this misty and romantic about the schoolyard you used to get beat up in and no one need know about it.
Tesh regularly gets beat up by critics, and one reason may be that writers seem to have an especially difficult time dealing with instrumental music. There's only a certain amount of adjectives you can use to describe an instrumental passage before it starts to sound as if you're describing a soft drink: "bubbly, effervescent, invigorating." With no lyrics to latch onto, most writers choose to focus on Tesh's celebrated marriage or the shape of his celebrated head. It's this kind of shorthand approach to reviewing that has labeled his music new age. Unless you consider sounding like John Williams and Bill Conti "new age," it's an inappropriate tag. Equally vexing to Tesh is when people compare him to his friend and musical mentor, Yanni, then they start pummeling Yanni.
"People who make fun of him are idiots," the mild-mannered Tesh says, fuming. "This is a guy who can play up to 40,000 people a night and has sold ten million records. It's difficult to compare me to him because I'm far behind him [in sales]. I'm not in his league.
"Reviewers are no longer allowed at my concerts unless they pay, because they feel they have to take a new-age shot or do the whole TV thing," he continues. "It doesn't mean something that a guy making ten grand at a newspaper takes a shot at me. A lot of reviewers hated Die Hard, and it did $20 million this weekend. Not that it's about money. It's about doing something people are going to react to."
How do you like that? He hasn't even sat down in his anchor chair once today and he's already rattling off box-office receipts. Talking to Tesh, you get the feeling that it is about money, whether it's how much his critics are making or how much he's making. It's as if no art exists if millions of people haven't heard or seen it, that the marketplace must validate it with dollars for it to have merit. Since Tesh has gotten little respect from his critics, he is quick to remind you of his impressive numbers. Two albums of sax music by the John Tesh Project, Sax by the Fire and Sax on the Beach, have been in Billboard's Top 5 jazz album chart for two years. "These things are monsters," says Tesh. "They have companies like Warners, Columbia and PolyGram fighting over them. It was my wife's idea to put these things out. She's a real sax fan. We're prepared for another one, for sure."
Sax on the Roof, anyone? Sax in Airports?
Tesh was less than amused at these suggestions for future titles, as he was when it was suggested that Connie's collaborative relationship with him mirrored that of Yoko and her John. "I take that as a complete slam," he huffs back. "I'm not a big Yoko Ono fan. Why would I be? I did a long interview with her once and I thought she was boring and self-absorbed. I also credit her with breaking up the Beatles." Glad we didn't say Paul and Linda!
Know this, people: When you underestimate Tesh, you doubly sell Sellecca short. "Connie is more important than you or I in what records should sound like because she is the person who goes out there and buys the records. Women 35 to 55 show up at our concerts and later buy albums. If there's a song I'm playing and she doesn't dig it, chances are I won't put it on an album. Or else I'll rework it. It's like having a good marketing consultant who lives in the house."
Tesh politely excuses himself from the phone because, as he puts it, "They're screaming at me to do voice-overs." The following day, it is reported in USA Today that Tesh is locked in a legal battle with Paramount, the parent company that produces ET, over Tesh's desire to take three months off to tour and write new music. A spokesman for Paramount says, "We are fully supportive of John Tesh's dual career in broadcasting and music. However, his first obligation is to Entertainment Tonight."
During the previous day's interview, when the inevitable question of how long he will stay on ET in the face of all this recent musical success arose, Tesh curiously queried, "What do you think I should do?" Perhaps he already knows the answer or perhaps he isn't sure all that success will trail off without that constant TV exposure. After all, look what it did to Jackie Gleason, Steve Allen and David McCallum. Not to mention the Monkees! It's a tricky question to answer. If you were John Tesh, you'd probably be annoyed that this is yet another article that's working the TV angle. But Tesh has been a journalist long enough to know that if he didn't have such an interesting angle, people might not be writing about his music at all. John Tesh is scheduled to perform on Friday, June 16, at Symphony Hall. Showtime is 8 p.m.