Mention John Tesh’s name to anyone outside of Long Island and you would probably get a quizzical look. The Long Island born, Garden City-reared musician has had stints on Entertainment Tonight, as a newscaster and as a fieldman at numerous Olympics games, and then, after giving all that up to pursue a music careed, snagged a couple of Grammy nominations and 6 Emmy awards along the way.
What many don’t realize (outside of Long Island) is his radio show, “Intelligence for your Life,” which focuses on factoids and tidbits of useful information, mostly centered around health and well-being, sprinkled between programs of soft rock, contemporary and pop music, isn't just locally syndicated on KJOY 98.3. It has found an audience across the country.
Tesh occasionally returns to Long Island, and on Saturday set up a stop once again at the NYCB Theater at Westbury for his latest tour, “Big Band Live!”
Patch caught up with Tesh as he was preparing for yet another homecoming.
Patch: Just how busy have you been on this latest tour?
Tesh: It’s about 12 shows a month. We get to do like a 50, 60 city tour but we stretch it out all over the year so we can get back home to our families.
Patch: I understand that you brought the family along on some of the shows.
Tesh: My son is with me but that’s about it. (My daughter Prima) sometimes comes out and dances with us but she’s got prom next week and she’s graduating from high school and all that madness.
Patch: I know it’s always a pleasure coming back to Long Island, how has it changed because you only get back about once every 2 years.
Tesh: It sure is. I’m usually not there long enough; when you’re touring you come in and you do a show and then you get in the bus right after the show and you just wake up in the next town. But the thing that amazes me is I always go to Garden City High School when I want to come to town and that has not changed. The theater where I used to play and the sports fields – it doesn’t look like it changed – the gym, it was all the same.
When my show came in last year, I was doing an event, but the wild thing for me about Garden City was that... the school system was so amazing and I think it’s still that way. When I left and went to North Carolina, I realized that I had been in a performing arts high school. They gave us so much, even media as far as photography and things like that, but for me it was music and performance. By the time I got out of there, I realized that the band program, the orchestra, the jazz band and all that was so far ahead of even the college that I was in, so it’s always been like that, even the elementary school.
Patch: On this tour you’re doing big band music, which is a little different than the instrumental contemporary music that you’re known for performing. Why the switch to the standards?
Tesh: It’s actually a good question and the answer lies in Garden City. In Westbury my band teacher, my very first band teacher from elementary school, Mr. Wagner is going to be there. It has to do with the fact that when I was growing up – I was born in 1952 – the music that we had in our house then was this kind of music, it was big band music, it was Glen Miller and it was Duke Ellington and it was Count Basie – all that big band music that my dad brought home from the war – he was in Okinawa. So when were in elementary school, it was very odd for me to even have a band or an orchestra in elementary school but we did, but that was the kind of music and he would play the easy version of “In the Mood” and things like that.
When it came time to out seventh public broadcasting special, the producer/director, my friend Tim Landers, who will be at the show, he said ‘well, why don’t we go back to our roots?” Which was of course, jazz, so that’s really where it came from. I just wasn’t really sure how the audience would feel about us making that change so we started testing songs. So we would play like “Summer Wind” one night and then we’d play “Blue Skies” and things like that.
We toured it for about 3 years just checking it out and then realized that there was interest and then we went to the studio and did the PBS special and the album. So it really came out of Garden City.
Patch: And you do another thing that’s different – you actually sing on this tour.
Tesh: We still do a fair amount of instrumental music and my music. But I’ve led worship in my church, the music for nearly 20 years and have sung with them and sang in the choir when I was in Westbury Methodist Church but never really did that on a record so it definitely took some work for me to go back and say “How am I going to do this, what key is it going to be in?” So it’s different but these songs, I didn’t want to be the guy playing piano behind a guest artist and so I worked on it and got through it and now it’s like “wow, this is way too much fun,” so while I sort of sung behind the scenes I never really put it on a record.
Tesh: You’re right, they don’t and you’re probably the first person ever in an interview to bring it up. Here’s how it happened: just sort of out of the blue, I got a call, I don’t use an agent anymore, I just have a publicist and my business manager and stuff just sort of... falls into your lap and that’s what happened with this. Somebody called and my business manager said Nelly wants to sample “Roundball Rock” and of course I had to go look up who Nelly was because he had to look up who I was and it was like “whoa, this could be interesting.” And my guy went back to Nelly and said “hey, not for nothing here but John’s not going to be involved in anything where the f-bomb is dropping all over everyone” and they said “oh, no, no, it won’t be that, it’ll be fine.”
Fast forward to 3 months later and it’s like “mother-” (laughs) So we said sorry, you’re going to have to do something here, and tone this down in order for us to be involved and he did. They made a little version of it that I heard, a little cleaner version, maybe they did a different version but it happened just like that and then every now and then somebody will say “hey, man I downloaded that song.” But no one’s ever asked me about it.
Patch: You’re also doing some outreach to veterans?
Tesh: We’re doing something out here, my brother-in law, Vincent, Connie’s bother, is out with us, he just stepped up in the tour bus and he came with the dog, guide dog. We’re doing this thing and we’ll do it at Westbury where he’s training, he’s going to animal shelters and to kill shelters rescuing dogs that are on death row and getting them trained by master trainers and we’re giving them to trainers who have post-traumatic stress disorder. So he and the dog come up on stage with us and we talk about it, it’s called “Foxhole Buddies” because every serviceman needed a foxhole buddy and sometimes it was a dog.
We just started it a few months ago and we’ve got five or six dogs in training right now... and it’s like a fundraising thing, Vinny will come up on stage with the dog and then people sponsor dogs. We haven’t really started publicizing it yet. We did a little bit of it on Fox & Friends this past week but we were just really experimenting with it and the reaction has been really good.
Patch: How much time do you spend doing your radio show per week?
Tesh: It’s a pretty big commitment. There are about 25 people who work on the show, which is big for a radio show. Ten of them are researchers and typically what will happen is today they would give me a pile of information that producer Betsy Chase will think should be on the show and that’s stuff that she’s curated with her team and then I spend about 2 hours to go through everything and figure out what I’m going to use, what I’m interested in, what me might save for some other time, what’s timely and then that becomes a 5 hour show. And then when I’m on the show something may happen, somebody may send maybe a facebook post or a topic that may pop up or they may change that. It’s usually about two, two-and-a-half hours the day before the show and then it’s the 5 hour show the next day.
We can actually take the show with us which is what we’ve done now, I have my laptop with me where I can view and see and do the show – some of the show has been prerecorded but I can go in there and do updates and things, but the real key is... to make sure that stations can customize it.
And now what we’re talking about doing is, we were meeting with some guys in New York, we’re talking about turning part of it at least into a television show. We have a couple of different options, I’m not sure what we’re going to do but it might be on a website, it might be on TV, it might be both, it might be on Discovery Channel, who knows. But we’re getting some interesting contacts about that. I think it probably – much as I don’t want to do television anymore – it probably needs to be exposed that way because not everybody listens to the radio.
Patch: Something like a taped simulcast?
Tesh: Simulcast thing is not something, it’s just not something, mainly because I don’t think is something... I think Imus does it pretty well but... you see him do his show but we’re not live-live because we’re on so many different time periods.
But since we do music in the show it’s not as interesting as the talk stuff. There’d be so many different areas of dead air, I don’t know what we would do. Maybe we could figure it out but I’m not sure what we would do between the times when the music’s playing.
Patch: You’ve got another initiative, K-TESH, in California
Tesh: We’re doing this thing where we’re trying to, it really is an experiment, it’s like a beta thing where we’re trying to do some localization stuff with churches where we partner up with churches in local areas – we won’t do this on Long Island because we have such a great presence with KJOY – but we don’t have a Los Angeles station, we had lost our Los Angeles station so we wanted to do an experiment where we partnered up with churches all along southern California and shared content with them and then provided a destination with Christian contemporary music but also with the Intelligence for Your Life where people could listen on their smartphone and listen at work and be connected to the Christian community.
And it sort of blew up, we’re like “Whoa, what do we do?” So a lot of people listen to the stream, the K-TESH stream and of course people can listen anywhere and they do. Someplace in Russia somebody was listening in today and people will find it but it’s an experiment, it’s an idea of localized stream.
Patch: A lot of people call in and ask you questions on Facebook. Does it ever happen where you react differently when a person from Long Island calls or asks than someone from another location in the country?
Tesh: Oh, yeah. I love my connection to Long Island. I have to sort of be careful because we’ve got 380 stations out there now and I don’t want it to be all “when I was growing up” and it ends up being that. There’s always some story where it was like “well, when I was growing up we did this, we played an instrument when we were kids, it gave us better SAT scores,” or “we had to be home when the street lights came on” or “we all walked to Roosevelt Field” and it ends up, you can’t help it, it ends up being a constant reference to you youth.
I had one of those lives when I was a kid, it’s a thing that everybody says “I wish that was my life” where on my street on Seabury Road where I grew up it was that thing where Bill Cosby talks about where “hey, go to the fire hydrant, cut right and I’ll fake it to you.” It was you play all day and you come home when the street lights come on, your parents never see you on Saturdays and Sundays and you ride your bike to school and you have a paper route – I had all that stuff – and everybody meets at the pool.
And then you cut grass and you have a lemonade stand and that was the kind of life that I wish my daughter had because when you live in Los Angeles, you just have to drive to have a play date or something and when we pulled up to our house on Long Island right across the street from Roosevelt Field for the first time, the first thing my daughter Prima said was “oh my gosh dad, I wish I had your life.” Just to look at it it looked like it was a Hollywood set. So there are so many references to the way I grew up and you don’t really even know that until you get out and see how everybody else is living in urbanness and so it’s very fond memories for me and I can’t keep it out of me.
Patch: You’ve mentioned some of your favorite pieces of intelligence on your show, but what’s been your most weirdest and/or disturbing?
Tesh: Every now and then they’ll be a piece of intelligence and then somebody else will do a study on it and somebody else will so the story will come back and one of them them (laughs) is the thing that people get, they lock onto is a thing like “what’s the germiest thing in your hotel room?” and it’s surprising how many people will resonate with this and the answer is not the lamp or the bedspread or even the toilet – the toilet’s the cleanest thing in the hotel room – it’s the television remote because it never gets clean and it has 50,000 distinct and unique germs on it. We always get people who are, whenever we have germs, they always go crazy.
The stuff that, I don’t want to say it’s weird but, the stuff that I wrestle with sometimes is when we have, we’ll have stories about huffing – inhalants, putting inhalants into plastic bags and kids inhaling them – or now it’s distilling hand sanitizer so you can get the pure alcohol. I wrestle with that stuff because basically what I’m doing on the air if I decide to do a story like that is that I’m telling people how to do it. And so we talk about that kinda stuff a lot where it’s like ‘what am I doing here? I’m telling a kid how to do this but I’m also giving a warning to the parents to watch out for this.” So more often and not we’ll go ahead and do the story but we do wrestle with that. Most of the people who listen to our show, like 72 percent I think, are women and we do have a lot of kids who listen – our largest growing area is kids ages 12 to 18 – and so that and bulimia, anorexia, how to stay thin and things like that worry me some times.
Patch: What’s been the most rewarding thing about your career, touring, etc. and do you have any plans to retire?
Tesh: One of the most fun things that happened to me, that has happened several times, is my son, my stepson Gib, is 30 now and he just made us grandparents and Gib comes out with us – he’s an actor and a businessman and works for us but he also comes out and works with us, he opens the show, does some comedy before the show, there are times when Prima will come out with me too to dance and then to have Vincent, my brother -in-law who’s out there with the dogs – so for me I love it when we’re all together when Gib is opening the show, and then I’m playing in the show and then Prima is dancing and then Vinny comes out with the service dog and talks about how people can help and get involved. I love that because it’s almost like, it’s like the Partridge family or something (laughs).
But performing has always been in my blood, when I was a little kid, I was always doing these big Halloween shows and always when we were in high school, we were the band that played in all the dances and we played at OBI East, OBI West, up in the Catskills, all that. I’ve always loved performing. I like the radio show, television’s great too but if you ask that question of if one you could only do, it would be very easy it would be sitting behind a grand piano.
About 2 years ago, I had a really horrible bout with, a piece of my spine broke off and landed on my nerve root and it paralyzed my left leg. And I was in a wheelchair, not for long, for about 6 months and I was in excruciating pain and couldn’t find the right doctor and the pain pills weren’t working and I was trying to do the show and I couldn’t tour, it was really a horrible time and I found this guy at NYU, Dr. Aron Moskowitz from South Africa and he did a microdiscectomy on me and he fixed me and the next day I was like having dinner in Little Italy and that moment it was really being resurrected where I got my life back and at that point becoming a mad, crazy exerciser and I was always in pretty good shape but that gave me a real taste of “OK, you are very vulnerable” and it just made me thing “OK, I’ve got maybe another 20 years left here, I’m just going to take all of it,” so there’s no plan at all about slowing down at least on the music level.