It’s Monday night, pledge night, at the KCET studios on Sunset Boulevard in east Hollywood, and who is standing in front of the camera, his perfect teeth the latest marketing emblem of public broadcasting, but John Tesh. Yes, John Tesh, the guy from “Entertainment Tonight” and one of the notorious voices of last summer’s lachrymose NBC Olympics coverage that opened not so much the tear ducts as the bile ducts of television critics coast to coast.
If Tesh, the broadcaster, does not bring to mind the once lofty notion of PBS, then wait, there’s still his music to reckon with on this occasion. He is also a keyboard player, composer and recording artist, and the lush new age clamor of his latest full-length video, “The Avalon Concert,” is booming through overhead speakers, while on the floor below, scores of volunteers answer phones and take pledges.
Bob Goen, the oh-so-pleasant fellow who replaced Tesh on “Entertainment Tonight” when he departed last May to pursue music full time, happens to be hosting the KCET pledge program, and during the frequent breaks in the “Avalon” concert he chats up the man of the hour. “I don’t want to beat a dead horse,” Goen says with a big smile, “but it’s been a triumphant night for you. We’re all so proud of you at ‘Entertainment Tonight.’ ” What can Tesh say to this? But no answer is required.
In scattered precincts and abodes of Southern California, some viewers at this moment are surely flipping their remotes in disgust at how low PBS has descended in an effort to survive, but such viewers are probably outnumbered by the ones who are actually glued to the sound of Tesh’s thundering piano-and-violin charges--as well as assorted skeptics secretly thinking, “Some of this actually isn’t so bad. But how can that be? It’s John Tesh!”
The numbers make their own case. As KCET executives amble up to the 6-foot-6 Tesh, thanking him profusely for being here, the subscriber loot is piling up toward an eventual total of $83,000--all but $20,000 raised during Tesh’s two-hour visit. A very good night, as pledge nights go, suggesting that Tesh was right when he said off-camera earlier that he and PBS were a good fit.
He said, “The people who watch PBS, and they are numerous and varied, are the people who come to my concerts. And they have kids and they get baby-sitters. Some of them are men who are dragged there by their wives or girlfriends. And they’ll come backstage and say, ‘Wow, this was cool. I thought you were a jerk.’ It happens.”
Tesh has gotten accustomed to talking freely about his special kind of fame as someone reviled by critics and tastemakers but loved by millions who buy his CDs and attend his shows. Is there a better example at the moment to demonstrate that American popular culture in the ‘90s is not all irony and angst and ridicule? Here’s a guy as earnest as Wally Cleaver, who two nights before--appearing at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa with the Pacific Symphony Orchestra--got up from the piano bench after his second number, walked downstage to address the audience and began, “I want to thank you guys for being here. . . .”
Eddie Vedder he’s not.
“I don’t know what it is, but I seem to stand for whiteness in America or something,” Tesh says after sitting down during a break. “I don’t know what the heck it is. We’re not trying to take over the world, as some people on the Internet would have you believe.”
Up close, Tesh is not unlike the image he conveyed from behind the desk at “Entertainment Tonight” for 10 years, and his voice is just the same. Even at 44, his jaw and hairline unrelenting, he looks like he could be the president of a college fraternity, and as such he’s both warm and stiff, amiable but adhering to some code of honor that will remain a secret. Not one to set any fashion trends, he has just added a goatee. And seeing him at a rehearsal studio in North Hollywood dressed in grunge wear with a baseball cap on backward, you think he might be someone who needs to think hard about being casual.
Reaction to Tesh has spawned at least one Web site dedicated to the proposition that he is an alien come to Earth to destroy musical culture as we know it. In Detroit, where on his last tour he drew 45,000 people in five nights, he was nevertheless picketed by the National Anti-Tesh Action Society, which has organized around the alien theory. “It’s pretty funny,” Tesh says without a trace of irritation. “To be picketed is an honor. I felt like the Vietnam War for a second. I ran out and had my picture taken with them. I thought it was totally cool, more attention than I probably deserve. By the same token, I’d much rather people be talking than not saying anything.”
No problem there. Without really trying, Tesh has touched--or is it mashed?--a nerve in the public epidermis. Though old enough to have grown up with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, drugs and protest movements, he offers the possibility that the ‘60s never really happened. Which clearly comes as good news to a lot of people while it scares others. To mention his name in conversation is often to elicit smiles or gags.
Howard Stern dubbed him “the Blond Frankenstein” before inviting him on his show. The writers of NBC’s hit comedy series “3rd Rock From the Sun” have plotted in an upcoming episode to have John Lithgow’s high commander (a space alien and university professor) sit through Tesh’s music during a sensitivity-training class.
Tesh played in rock bands in high school and college, but we’ll have to take his word that he ever played the blues. We know he played sports. (The first album he made was music composed on a synthesizer to accompany broadcast coverage of the 1987 Tour de France bicycle race.)
Making his entrance at the start of a concert, he customarily greets his band with a few gleeful arm thrusts into the air that punctuate sudden crescendos in the overture. It’s possible to see this as hokum that recalls Elvis in his dotage, but Tesh insists he and his musical mates are just having a good time and can’t help but show it. “We do get great joy playing together and sometimes that puts people off. Not the audience, but reviewers. But you can’t really act that.”
He refers also to the moment in one of his shows where he straps on a portable keyboard and, with band members in tow, parades into the audience for some retro rock theatrics. He says, “There are parts of this we don’t take seriously.”
He is serious, however, about his religious faith. A devout Christian, he offers “special thanks” in the credits of the “Avalon” CD to “Our Lord, Jesus Christ. I am broken and lifted up by your presence.”
Famous is the story of how Tesh and his wife, actress Connie Sellecca, announced that they were not going to have sex before their 1992 marriage. (Both had been previously married.) “I’ve set myself up,” he says, “by virtue of who I am and what I believe in and what I’ve done, to take a lot of heat.”
What he has done is no doubt in one sense remarkable. In the crowded ranks of the multi-hyphened Hollywood players and personalities, he may be the only broadcaster-musician to ever become a nationally known television anchor while composing music for million-selling albums and attracting arena-sized crowds to see him play live. But it is precisely this distinction that has made him such a volatile commodity. No doubt his celebrity as Mary Hart’s good-looking co-host initially helped boost the visibility of his budding musical career, but to people in music who might regard such Nielsen-vetted celebrity as vapid and soulless, he carries the stigma of an opportunistic interloper, a pretty sham. His music, like it or not, is a prisoner of context.
“To say that the slamming and poking fun hurts, it doesn’t,” Tesh says. “It did the first time it happened. And then the first time you stand in front of 10,000 people, all of whom have bought a record and are listening to the music and digging it, it really sort of erases the other.
“Now, when I got nailed for being too dramatic at the Olympic Games, that sort of pissed me off because I didn’t have a way to fight back. Here, you really have a way to fight back. You’re in your own world.”
The suits at PBS who helped finance the “Avalon” concert as a pledge-night offering apparently were not put off by the bounty placed on Tesh’s head by TV critics, columnists, sportswriters and citizens at large who recoiled at his gushy narration of gymnastics at last summer’s Olympic Games in Atlanta.
The Times’ Howard Rosenberg found him “hammy” and wondered “if he would consider laying off the caffeine?” Tony Kornheiser of the Washington Post was moved to describe him as “that overwrought, simpering dope, John Tesh.”
Tesh is quick to point out, as NBC West Coast President Don Ohlmeyer did at the time, that the network’s coverage of the games was a ratings bonanza. And Tesh, who had covered sports earlier for CBS and done the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, takes none of it back. His reasoning: “It was the exact same way I had covered it in Barcelona. But more people were watching. Maybe we’ve become more cynical now. Maybe that’s what it is. Or at least the reviewers have.”
At PBS, none of the negative press about Tesh much mattered in any case because of four words: “Live at Red Rocks.” That 1995 Tesh outdoor concert with the Colorado Symphony near Denver was “among the most successful fund-raisers we’ve ever had,” says Jim Scalem, the PBS vice president in charge of developing pledge-night programming for its member stations. The Three Tenors concert was a bigger hit, but Tesh was not too far behind.
Financed by Tesh himself at more than $1.5 million, the Red Rocks show was an enormous personal risk that paid off when PBS later agreed to acquire it for distribution. Some stations have aired it seven or eight times. To some, Tesh and PBS might have seemed an unlikely pairing, but the marriage at Red Rocks benefited both parties.
“It was time to do something huge,” says Tesh, explaining the strategy behind the gamble at Red Rocks. “I wanted to go to the next level, to try to prove to people that we were serious about music.”
Serious or not, the show (also released on CD) pumped his numbers up the contemporary jazz charts. A subsequent TV appearance on the home shopping channel QVC sold 190,000 units in 24 minutes.
This time out, PBS was happy to get on board early as Tesh made plans to stage and film a show of new material in the Casino Ballroom on Catalina Island last October. With an accompanying CD timed for release this month, he would take off on a 19-city tour for PBS, appearing during pledge breaks at individual stations on the nights they air “Avalon,” while, of course, promoting his album at the same time. In April he would begin a three-month concert tour scheduled to end back here at the Greek Theater July 6.
At least one former public broadcasting executive is not thrilled by the idea of Tesh on PBS. James Day, past president of KQED-TV in San Francisco and author of “A Vanishing Vision,” a book about the history of the network, says, “I saw the opening, the shots of Catalina and the ballroom. I watched up to the point where John Tesh walked on and then I turned it off. I think this is absurd. I believe PBS ought to attract audiences with quality entertainment programs, not the kind available on commercial TV.”
Asked if he had watched many PBS programs over the years, Tesh says, “I’m a big fan of ‘Nova.’ I despised ‘Barney’ until I realized that my kid was actually learning something from Barney and Baby Bop. I watch ‘MacNeil-Lehrer’ [now “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer”] because it’s an unbiased news report.”
Weighing the suitability of Tesh’s oeuvre and artistry for PBS, Scalem says, “I think John Tesh is a great musician and I think our viewers agree. He’s got a lot of fans, and in the end they are the ones who matter.”
The sound of “Avalon” ranges from quiet piano pieces, on which Tesh noodles easy-listening melodies, all the way to full-gallop instrumental swoops for band and orchestra, in which he pounds out flamboyant choruses worthy of big-time theme music for television and movies. On some cuts the word “bombast” comes to mind. (In the concert video he works in fragments of the “1812" Overture.) But in the 5 1/2-minute title song, “Avalon,” some listeners might hear echoes of such rock predecessors as Chicago’s “Beginnings” and the Allman Brothers’ “Jessica,” not to mention the tempo changes and dreamy soundscape of the recent Irish orchestral sensation “Riverdance,” the Bill Whelan musical Tesh says he loved.
Besides “Riverdance,” the CDs currently in rotation in his car (a Chevy Suburban) are Peter Gabriel’s “So,” Sting’s “Nothing Like the Sun” and the soundtrack for “E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial” by John Williams, a particular hero of his.
Tesh’s music has been filed under the broad heading of new age, owing to its largely instrumental content (which the pop charts and radio stations tend to abhor). The new age designation is fine with him but upsetting to some of his Christian fans, who fear that it connotes the worship of crystals and other spiritual abracadabra. Tesh himself traces his own musical evolution back to the influence of the orchestral rock pioneers Jethro Tull and Yes, whose concerts he would drive hundreds of miles to see while in college.
He started playing the piano at the age of 6. His family was from North Carolina, but he grew up in the prosperous New York City suburb of Garden City. “It was a typical Southern family,” he says. “A lot of fried chicken and hard work. Mowing lawns.”
When he saw the film “Shine” recently he says he found it “a cool movie,” but that it reminded him of his father. “He was an old-school guy with a cigarette and a cocktail in his hand who was also president of the Baptist Sunday school. He would come to my soccer games and afterward he’d say, ‘That was good, but how come you didn’t score any goals?’ ”
In junior high, Tesh was already close to 6-foot-6 but weighed 170 pounds (compared with 220 now). “I was hideous-looking and my parents made me keep my hair in a crew cut. The only way to get noticed was to be a good organist.”
He continued to play in bands while a student at North Carolina State, and as a result, to this day, he says, “I can’t play ‘Nights in White Satin’ or ‘Mustang Sally’ again.”
When his deep baritone voice landed him a job in local TV news while still an undergraduate, his musical ambitions were put on hold as he began the TV newsman’s nomadic life of shuffling from Nashville to Raleigh to Orlando to New York. Initially he worked as a reporter and even did investigative series on such things as fire code violations and tow truck fraud.
Tesh does not sing, but he says people assume he can sing because of his trained broadcaster’s speaking voice.
“I like to sing parts to people in rehearsal,” he says, demonstrating now by scatting some vowels. “And they usually look over at me and they realize why I’m not a singer.”
The combination of pop energy and orchestral grandeur that fuels Tesh’s music can be traced back at least to 1968, when Mason Williams, a classical guitarist, reached No. 2 in Billboard with his piece for guitar and orchestra, “Classical Gas” (produced by Mike Post, later to compose the theme for “Hill Street Blues”).
What might Williams today think of Tesh? It so happens he caught the local broadcast of “Avalon” the other night in Oregon, where he lives. “John Tesh is the Yanni of America,” Williams observes, referring to the popular Greek composer of orchestral techno-pop. “I do think one of the things you want to get beyond is ‘higher, faster, louder,’ though his fans may want that.”
Reviewing the “Avalon” concert in The Times, jazz critic Don Heckman found the music “wearing for anyone with a low tolerance for predictable melodies and clattery rhythms . . . music that jazz players can improvise without a second thought, that composers can write in their sleep.”
Perhaps. Simplicity is often invoked as a disparaging measure of pop music of all kinds. But Tesh doesn’t concede that his music is so simple. “I get hit with that all the time. Then they’ll go and give some [truly simple] alternative band a great review. Which is fine. I don’t want to knock any other music. But don’t call what I do simple. There are odd time signatures and odd bars, playing in and out of orchestral keys.”
As is plain in concert, Tesh has made a co-star of his violinist, Charlie Bisharat, who has been playing with him for five years but lately has emerged as a co-writer on many tunes. Bisharat has an impressive and diverse resume that includes stints or sessions with Jane’s Addiction, the Rolling Stones, Shadowfax, Tracy Chapman and the L.A. Philharmonic. Onstage he is a puckish fury, high-stepping in the spotlight at the west end of Tesh’s Yamaha grand as he sews the lead lines usually given over to electric guitar.
Asked why he has chosen to stay with Tesh, Bisharat answers, “It gives me a platform to be heard. And the challenge is that I get to wear a lot of hats.”
He serves as an unofficial bandleader and writes a lot of the arrangements. “Peter Gabriel has a violinist, Shankar, who’s an incredible player, but you don’t get to hear him much. Whereas I feel I’m more integral to John’s show.”
Also, Bisharat’s wife, former Rhino Records executive Mary Mueller, runs Tesh’s record company, GTBS Records.
Bisharat and Tesh are close friends but the violinist claims not to be a religious person and says there is no discussion in the band of Christianity or Tesh’s religious views. “John is not a proselytizer. And he’s not a saint,” Bisharat says. “He swears. We go out for a beer and tell dirty jokes. He’s definitely not the clean-cut image that he had on ‘ET.’ ”
As someone who has gone from being a reporter to someone who is reported on, Tesh says he has some extra insight into what is written and said about him in the media. “If something comes out of my mouth, whether I want to take it back or not, I definitely know where the quote is. And on television, you can smell a sound bite a mile away.”
OK, then, how about this one: “For me to buy into what reviewers and critics are saying would mean that to make them happy I’d have to quit. Or I could start playing stuff that they would approve of and then we’d end up losing all the fans.
“I saw Billy Joel tear up a review onstage one time. You can’t give these people that kind of power over you. I think I learned that being on the ‘ET’ side of it. I’ve said some things about performers that perhaps I didn’t really feel but I felt were cool things to say. . . . I know how that game is played.
“But I have to tell my bandmates, ‘Listen, you know what? Every single time someone comes to review this concert, I’m gonna get killed. But don’t feel bad for me, because that’s just the way it is.’ But it’s not about that. It’s about attracting attention to what you’re doing and connecting with people. If the music sucks and doesn’t connect with people, then it will suck and won’t connect with people.
“I’m in my own little thing here and I’m happy. I don’t really have to please all these other people. I think there are a lot of artists who feel like they have to. I don’t know howmany records we’ve sold--4 [million] or 5 million, something like that. If I die right now, I’m fine.”
* “John Tesh: The Avalon Concert” airs again at 8 p.m. Saturday on KCET-TV Channel 28.