When prolific composer and broadcaster, John Tesh, put the camera on the audience, instead of himself, his whole perspective changed. Tesh, while working as a correspondent and host for the popular television show, Entertainment Tonight, would go on assignment to interview artists like Sting, Phil Collins and Elton John. Given access to their private sound checks, Tesh noticed that the musicians would often have handheld cameras pointed at them to record their performances to later critique themselves. But Tesh switched it up. He put the lenses on the crowds and he quickly saw what worked about his live shows and what needed improvement. Today, Tesh says, playing live and engaging with the crowd is what he both loves and misses most about being a professional musician. It’s his relationship with his fans that brings him the brightest light as an artist.
“I flipped it around,” he says. “I had the video camera hidden on the side of the stage, pointed at the audience. So, when I was on the bus on the way to the next venue, I could hear the concert but I could see the audience. After the first night I did that, everything changed. All of a sudden, I had a live focus group.”
Tesh, author of a new memoir, Relentless, recalls a conversation he had with the famed musician and performer, Garth Brooks, who is known for, among other things, his giant crowds and packed stadium tours. The two sat on swings, talking about what works, what doesn’t and why the connection with fans is crucial.
“I’ve always been a codependent person,” Tesh says. “In my relationships, with my parents, with audiences. There’s an understanding that I’m not there for myself. I think I learned that during a long chat with Garth Brooks. He talked about his audience and understanding his commitment to an audience. Everything he did needed to be for his audience. That never left me.”
Over the course of his long career, Tesh has seemed to live many personal and professional lives. He grew up in a strict, organized household, the son of a World War II Naval Officer father and a retired surgical nurse mother. He studied music early on, his mother insisted he take piano lessons and his grade school required participation in band, orchestra or choir. Tesh played trumpet until he switched to trombone after getting braces. In high school, he played in multiple garbage bands. He loved music. But his father drummed into his psyche that the effort was only a hobby and that Tesh was to become a textile expert and work in the family underwear business at Hanes in New York City, where his father had become a vice president. In college, Tesh began a course that pleased his father but he quickly attempted to surreptitiously change his major to music. In so doing, Tesh forged a signature and was caught. His father, ashamed, kicked him out of the house and he was forced to sleep nights in a public park. That experience changed him.
“Not a week goes by that I don’t think,” Tesh says, “‘Man, I better get busy because I could be back in that tent.’ That has always haunted me.”
Growing up, Tesh was “painfully skinny.” He was a “band geek” and “smelled like bologna” from the school lunches his mom packed. Today, though, Tesh is a deep-voiced, strapping fellow known for his big chin and feathery blond hair. In between, he’s seen and done a great deal. As a correspondent for CBS Sports, Tesh covered events like the Tour de France. With enough musical experience behind him, he began to notice the score CBS played for downhill races, uphill slogs and other aspects of the event. He thought to himself, “I can do this.” He pitched the idea to his producers and they told him to get a few keyboards and to get to work. Already with a talent for music, he began to hone a voice and get reps, learning on the job. He’s since composed numerous works for television, including the former NBA on NBC theme, “Roundball Rock.”
“For six years every summer,” Tesh says, “I wrote an hour-and-a-half of music every week. It never was, ‘Is any of this good, is that good?’ It was, ‘Okay, this is your job and you have to finish this by 3 PM today because we’re feeding a satellite. It was trial by fire on how to be a composer.”
Everything that he learned from those days, Tesh says, he still carries with him today, in the studio or on stage. As the years progressed, Tesh earned another big break. He self-produced a concert at Red Rocks that he hoped would be picked up by PBS. The thing coast around $1 million, or so, and included an 80-piece orchestra, professional gymnasts and expensive equipment. But on the day of the show, it rained buckets. The orchestra had to leave in order to save its instruments and Tesh thought the money for the show had gone down the drain, too. But the cameras kept rolling and they caught everything, from the rainbow of umbrellas in the crowd to the rainwater draining from his piano. In the end, the special was perfect for a PBS fundraiser and it broke records for the channel. It also rocketed Tesh to fame.
“It became a metaphor for people watching it,” Tesh says. “Against all odds.”
In 2015, Tesh was diagnosed with cancer and given just eighteen months to live. He beat the diagnosis, though, he says, through faith-based healing and medical ingenuity. He survived chemotherapy and any number of other difficult measures during the process. At one point, at least, he says he wanted to give up. But in the end, he pulled through. Now, Tesh screams from the top of his lungs to his audience to follow their own dreams. Tesh, who used to suffer from big stage freight, is encouraging. He almost preaches from the stage. As a syndicated radio host, Tesh offers his listeners “intelligence for your life” on stations across the country. But as an artist, he offers bold sonic lightening bolts.
“I think a lot of people are in search of happiness,” Tesh says. “But until I learned how to suffer, I didn’t understand how important it was to embrace it. Not to look for it, but to be ready. It wasn’t until I learned how bad it could be and how to get on the other side of it—some days I wake up and I just feel horrible. That’s when I get right into the gym or hang from a chin-up bar. I understand that if I don’t push through it and suffer every day, then I’m starting to retreat and I won’t make it.”