Piano Man

He’s been seen on "Entertainment Tonight," NBC’s Olympic coverage and concert stages around the globe. So why is John Tesh so interested in having the church hear his music?

By Lindy Warren

John Tesh doesn’t own a six-foot cross.

Even if he did, you wouldn’t find him showing it to you. It’s not his style.

"I just know my audience well enough, and know enough about the business, that if you jump up and down holding a six-foot cross waving it in the air, you’re going to turn off a lot of people," Tesh said in a phone interview from his Los Angeles home.

Over the last several years, John Tesh’s audience and business have grown increasingly diverse—everything from pop culture voyeurs who watched him as the former co-host of TV’s newsmagazine "Entertainment Tonight" to the music community who has come to appreciate his solo piano instrumental albums, even coining the phrase "Teshmusic." Now, his audience includes some of the same people who are buying and listening to Point of Grace (through a deal with Word Distribution, his music is sold in Christian retail stores and heard on Christian music radio stations). This year, he even co-hosted "The 29th Annual Dove Awards," making himself more visible among the Christian community.

In some ways, his past actions have distinguished him as an ambassador of sorts to Christian music and Christianity in general. How does Tesh view his future role? "I’m in Hollywood. Because of my experience, I have the potential to be influential by getting better programming on television, like ‘Touched by an Angel’ and the stuff of PAX TV. I also have the ability, like I did with the Dove Awards, to expose Christian music and the artists to more people."

It’s pretty clear that Tesh, while he isn’t a Bible-thumping Christian, also isn’t afraid to profess his faith—a decision he made about four years ago at a Promise Keepers’ conference in Los Angeles, listening to pastor/speaker Tony Evans.

"It felt as if this guy was looking right at me and there were 80,000 of us," he recalls. "He said, ‘It’s not okay to be a closet Christian. Everybody else is coming out of the closet. If you’re in the public eye, it’s your job to come out of the closet.’ That’s basically what I decided to do."

For a guy living in Hollywood, publicly espousing your spiritual views is not necessarily the "in" thing.

"My wife (actress Connie Sellecca) even said, ‘Do you really want to be so open about your faith?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I have to.’ It was a real temptation to say that if I admit I’m a Christian, I’m going to scare people into thinking I’m too much of a goody-two-shoes. And I was in that and that’s a sin. I was thinking, ‘I know what I am. But maybe I shouldn’t be too verbal about anything and be a little more mysterious.’"

The mystery is gone now. While it’s a given that he would be blatantly overt about his faith in an interview with CCM Magazine, countless interviews with publications like Newsday, People and Entertainment Weekly are riddled with stories about his "sex-free" courtship with Sellecca and his "faith in Jesus Christ."

Still, John Tesh is far from your conservative evangelical, evidenced by a spoof on sexual innuendo he did a couple of months ago on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."

"After cutting out about 20 of the things that were pretty horrible in the script, we did stuff that was funny,""he explains. "My feeling was, ‘Everybody knows who I am. They know I’m a Christian, what my beliefs are.’ You can go on a show like that, poke fun at yourself and be genuine."

He is adament: "Hopefully, there’ll be somebody who comes along and sees that and says, ‘Gee, Christians aren’t all that stodgy or stiff.’

"It’s okay for Christians to push the envelope. It is not okay for Christians to judge other Christians. That’s one of the things I said when somebody interviewed me for the Dove Awards and asked me if I was worried about mispronouncing names on the show. I told her, "Even though I covered the Olympic games and pronounced Svetlana Chorkina, I probably will make a mistake. But if I make a mistake, I would expect that you and the people you deal with to be the first people to forgive me."

For the most part, Tesh has maneuvered the pitfalls and loopholes of the Christian music arena to emerge as one of its newest and proudest discoveries. His most recent album, Grand Passion, is lending credibility to instrumental music as inspirational, a term usually referring to lyrical content when used to describe the Christian music genre.

"I think there’s music that even if the lyrics aren’t overt, that at the right time and with the right song, you can really move people, "he says. "You need to look further than what’s happening in the lyrics or what’s coming out of someone’s mouth and look deeper into who’s involved with the music. My audience is families. We don’t leave until everyone is lifted up. We might not do that with lyrics. It might not be a gospel piece every single night; it might be a piano piece with an 80-piece orchestra, but people get it."

Trained by instructors at New York’s Julliard School of Music and a former member of the New York Symphonic Orchestra, Tesh says he’s a "more classically trained Christian" than he was growing up in Garden City, N.Y. as the son of a Baptist Sunday school minister.

He and his family attend a teaching church of 100 people "where everyone is incredibly accountable and the pastor is my best friend." He notes four milestones that have "rebirthed" him into Christianity: the death of his father, then mother; marring Sellecca, who brought him to his present church; and the birth of the couple’s daughter, Prima.

"When my dad died, I spent probably two months pretty drunk," he recalls. "When I came out of it, I realized there was more to life than just feeling sorry for myself. From that moment on, I kept my eye on the calendar and realized that we only live to be an average of 76, so there a lot of work to be done. Then we almost lost our daughter when she was born. It’s those times, the crisis ones, where you’re closest to God, but they also make you realize you shouldn’t wait for those times."

It would be fair to say that Tesh, a man of successful careers and honors, is in the process of discovering life’s indelible marks. "Up until the last couple of years, there hasn’t been much to me. It’s been me just sort of accomplishing things." He admits. "I think about myself on my death bed with only 15 minutes to live. What did I leave behind? Okay, I was a reporter, I covered a bunch of stuff. I sold a bunch of records that will probably fade out in five years. I’ve asked myself, ‘Did I leave a child who was properly educated and spirtually guided? Did I leave something that’s going to continue to grow?’

"I do know that Christianity and belief in Jesus Christ is not a switch that goes on and off. You can’t wake up one morning and say, ‘I’m a believer, and I give my life to Him.’ That’s the beginning, but it’s all about the process and just living each day."


 

Originally published in the November issue of CCM magazine, copyright 1998, CCM Communications. Reprinted with permission. For CCM subscription information, please call: 800/333-9643."