From Houseless to Household Name

Consummate storyteller John Tesh speaks in this exclusive interview with the Straz Center

A few months ago, our senior marketing manager Carol Cohen interviewed John Tesh over the phone for his current Q&A in the back of The Straz’s official publication, INSIDE magazine. The interview covered some interesting ground that we had to edit from the Q&A—including his time living in a tent at a state park in North Carolina among other fascinating tidbits. We wanted to publish a longer, edited version of that interview here so John Tesh fans could get a fuller version of the story.

Carol Cohen:  I read that your parents only let you watch Star Trek: The Original Series growing up. Is that true?

John Tesh:  It is true, but they didn’t say, “You can only watch Star Trek.” They said, “You can only watch a half hour of TV a day.”

CC:  So you could choose.

JT:  Yeah … My mom was like an age group tennis champion, and she was also a retired surgical nurse. I was born in ’52, and back in the day in the suburbs if you had kids, as a woman, you didn’t work anymore. It was natural to raise the kids, right? That was the social demand. She decided that I was going to be a musician. So, for two hours every day, even as a six-year-old, I was either playing piano or playing trumpet. There really wasn’t much television. My dad liked The Jack Paar Show. It was on too late for me, but we also watched Ed Sullivan as a family. So there wasn’t [much television watching] … unless I got sick, right? Then you watched I Dream of Jeannie.

CC:  Obviously you’re an extremely gifted piano player. Do you still play the trumpet?

JT:  Yes. I play piano for a living now, but I was probably a better trumpet and baritone horn player than I was a piano player, because I had some incredible training as a kid in elementary school on Long Island. Stewart Avenue School. In fact, the teacher, Dr. Tom Wagner, he ended up being New York State Teacher of the Year twice. This is before performing arts schools, and so the Garden City school system was really like that. There was a lot of theater, a lot of music, a lot of performance. And so, I played trumpet in the band, the marching band, the orchestra, the dance band and all that. I only played piano at home and during recitals. I had more training as a trumpet player.

CC:  Do you still play it now?

JT:  Only to wake up my grandkids. [laughs]

CC:  I guess the piano just doesn’t quite cut it for that.

JT:  Well, and the other thing is … I’ve interviewed many musicians, including Eric Clapton and Michael McDonald and Elton John, all those guys. You can ask any of them, and they’ll tell you that the reason they got into music wasn’t because they were interested in music. They were either interested (a) in being popular or (b) in meeting girls. Girls weren’t really interested in the kid holding the trumpet in the marching band, so I went to Western Auto and got myself a little chord organ and played in a garage band. We played for a lot of the school dances and the Catholic Youth Fellowship back in the 1960s. I still didn’t meet any girls, but at least I was in a band.

CC:  I saw on your website how you have the pet of the week. Are you an animal person?

JT:  I grew up with a cat person, for sure. We always had two cats in the house: Tippy One and Tippy Two because we couldn’t come up with another name. [laughs] In fact, Tippy One was the star of my first science fiction movie. But then we ended up getting a chihuahua, and there was a total mess in the house. When I got married to Connie 27 years ago, she’s allergic to cats and so is my stepson. We ended up with a dog that followed me home one day as a puppy. I was running out on Mulholland Drive, which is a very dangerous area, and she followed me home. We’ve had Lucy for 15 years. She’s got a heart problem, so the doctors gave her Lasix, and then they gave her this other pill. I said, “What is that?” It said ‘sildenafil.’ And they go, “Oh, that’s Viagra.” I said, “You’re giving my dog Viagra?” They said, “Yeah, it was originally prescribed as a heart medicine, and then it had other ancillary effects.”  So, my dog’s on Viagra and Lasix, and she couldn’t be any happier, you know?

CC:  Let’s talk about how you got started in show business.

JT:  Well, my dad was a vice president at Hanes underwear. When we were getting ready to tour schools [after high school], I wanted to go to a conservatory. He said, “Sorry, that’s not happening. You need a real job.” And so, he enrolled me in North Carolina State University, in textile chemistry. I lasted for about three years in that curriculum, and I just couldn’t take it anymore. A friend of mine said, “Hey, I have an easy A course you should take,” and it was radio and television. I walked into that course, and everything changed for me. It was just … a light bulb went off. As a little kid, I was always making movies and making shows. I tried to change my major without telling my parents, and one of the professors wouldn’t sign the drop/add card. He said, “No, you’re past the drop/add date. I can’t do that.” I pleaded with him, and he said, “No!” Under advice from one of my dorm mates, I signed the professor’s name to the drop/add card, which basically is forgery. I got caught. I got thrown out of school. I wasn’t expelled, I was suspended for breaking the honor code, and my parents threw me out of the house—my dad did.

JT:  I ended up living in a tent for like six months in North Carolina. And I begged my way onto a radio station and got a job playing the religious tapes on Sunday. Then you know what happened … Within about four months, I was doing the news on the weekends. Then, three years from the moment that I was homeless in a tent, I was anchoring the news in New York City as a 23-year-old.

CC:  Were you up in the Raleigh area living in a tent?

JT:  Yeah, I was in Umstead Park.

CC:  You’re kicked out of school; your dad kicks you out of the house. What’s going through your mind as you’re sitting in this tent in Umstead Park? Were you like, “My life is over”? Or, “Now I’ve got to figure it out”?

JT:  Mostly I was exhausted because I got a job working construction during the day, then at night, I was pumping gas at College Esso. I had to buy food, right? And mostly hotdogs. I thought I was done, you know? I didn’t even have enough money to get drunk. [laughs] My girlfriend broke up with me. All my friends were going to classes, and Raleigh was really the only area that I knew. I didn’t have enough money to drive my car back to Garden City [NY}, so I thought that was it for me, that I would be working construction. I didn’t have any skills that would get me a job. I didn’t have a college degree. Eventually, the feeling I had was that I could either stay in that tent and work construction and pump gas for the rest of my life and start chewing tobacco, or I had to get a job somehow. And so, I went into the college radio station. I had a friend who got me in there, and I did a fake demo tape. I took that tape to several stations. One guy felt sorry for me and gave me a job on Sundays. You know, strangely enough, in three weeks, I’m going to be in New York City. They’re inducting me into the Radio Hall of Fame, and the guy that gave me that first job back in 1973, Scott White, is going to be sitting there. I’m going to thank him publicly.

CC:  That’s amazing. Speaking about that, what would you consider your greatest successes?

JT:  Professionally, it would certainly be the Red Rocks show. I was married at the time and working for Entertainment Tonight, but I couldn’t get a record deal. I was recording all this music, and I was sending it to record companies. They were like, “No, this is not for us. No instrumental music, no thank you.” I saw a PBS special on TV that was the Moody Blues at Red Rocks. I saw another one with U2 called Under a Blood Red Sky, also at Red Rocks. I was like, “What is this Red Rocks place?” I thought, you know, “If I’m going to be taken seriously as a musician, I need to do something big like that.” And PBS would not fund it because I didn’t have a history as a musician. So Connie and I took our savings and took a second mortgage on the house, and we produced the show ourselves. And we almost lost everything because it started raining in the middle of the show. But God stopped that after about four songs, and the orchestra came back, and we finished the show. That show has raised about $20 million for Public Television over the years. And my music career, that’s certainly the biggest thing I’ve ever done.

CC:  What about personally? What do you consider your greatest successes?

JT:  Personally would be being educated and learning after 65 years about something called the mind/healing techniques. In May of 2015, I was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, and doctors gave me anywhere between 10 and 18 months to live. Our family, Connie and I mostly, went through the normal channels of surgery. It was prostate cancer, but it was undetectable prostate cancer. It was the weirdest thing. We went through the usual channels of surgery and chemo and all kinds of really horrible treatments. It left me with barely a body, and it kept coming back. About a year ago, Connie and I had gone through this training of using visualization, manifestation, and certain scriptures in the Bible, and renewing our minds and getting together and using prayer to manifest my healing and the end of sickness in our family. It was a supernatural healing that can happen for anybody, but there’s a path that you have to follow for it.

CC:  Active healing on your part. You discuss that in your concerts. I was looking at a lot of the videos, testimonials of folks who had been at your concerts and so on. They were saying how inspirational it was that you had overcome such an illness.

JT:  You know, testimony is a powerful thing. I’ve written it all down. I finished a 90,000-word manuscript, took me two and half years, just last week and handed that in. And the cancer journey is throughout the book. The journey of my life, and a lot of the stuff that you and I are talking about right now, that’s the book, but also there are flashbacks to going through the surgeries and going through the divine healing.

CC:  Well, let me ask you: If you hadn’t become a musician, composer, radio host, all the things that you do, what career do you think you have wound up in?

JT:  There never was a chance that I was going to be anything but what I became. If you were to look at me as a kid, I was always putting on shows for the other kids. I was always recording stuff. I was always making music. As a kid in bed at night, I literally was visualizing me playing on stage with an orchestra. That visualization was so strong, it would have chased me down. Maybe I would have fought it until I was 70, 75 years old, but it would eventually have chased me down. I have to be a disciplined person. I’m in the gym at 5:00 a.m. every morning, standing outside waiting for it to open. And in my ear are readings about healing and manifestations, you know, out of Scriptures. And so, there’s so much more to do, but it was never a question that it was going to be anything but this.

JT:  There were some detours. I think that time in the tent, right, where all was lost, everything, done … I’m able to look back at that and connect the dots, right. [Especially when you write a book] you go through everything and you connect the dots. When I was in the tent and then I’m anchoring the news as a 23-year-old in New York City, that always seemed like a 10-year time period for me. But when I went back and started writing it, I’m like, “Wait a second. That was less than three years.” I just said yes to a lot of stuff, you know? And jumped out of the airplane without a parachute. And then you just outwork everybody. It’s the only way. I’m a very average person. You can look at my SAT scores. Very, very average. But I will outwork you. I just never stop.

CC:  So in terms of inspiration, it’s your family and God?

JT:  Well, yeah. If you’re able to renew your mind, and you get the message, the Word, the message in the Bible, right?, then everything just falls in place. And I’m not talking about religion. I have a serious problem with what some churches are doing, where they’re weaponizing Christianity. I don’t think Jesus would have done that. He never did. But pursuing the Word of God, that’s the best way to say it. And my wife’s always saying that. We continually pursue the work of God, and that always leads us into righteousness. I’m sorry. I’m probably hitting the Bible a little too hard for you. I apologize.

CC:  Not at all. But I’m wondering… do you read other books besides the Bible? Do you even have time to read books?

JT:  Yeah. I’m actually … I think my wife would tell you I am a voracious reader. I am always reading. I’m in the middle of Phil Knight’s book, it’s called Shoe Dog. It’s the story of him starting Nike. It’s a fascinating book. I just finished my second read of a book by Ryan Holiday, called The Obstacle is the Way, which is a tremendous book, especially for me because there have been obstacles I’ve faced throughout my life. And then one of my favorite books is [Stephen King’s] On Writing. I’ve read it three times now.

CC:  Well, I think I have all the answers to my questions. Gosh, I could probably go on for another half hour at least with you. But I know you’ve got a busy day ahead of you. I so appreciate this. We really look forward to seeing you here in February.

JT:  I really enjoyed it. Thanks again for your time. I appreciate it.

John Tesh performs Songs & Stories from the Grand Piano in Ferguson Hall on Friday, Feb. 28.

The Piano Guy

The Straz Center official piano tuner Kevin Patterson on what it takes to keep the ivories in the pink.

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Our official piano tuner, Kevin Patterson, doing what he does best.

The average home piano needs a tune up about twice a year, but when your livelihood and music critics are on the line, a good concert piano gets its ivories tickled, twisted, polished and pricked before every single performance.

A piano tuner’s life is a good one: flexible hours, nice pay, a cool skill set with a high tool-level. Plus, if you tune pianos for the Straz Center, you occasionally get to rub elbows with some of the greatest pianists working today. At the very least, you’ll be charmed by our ever-entertaining backstage production staff.

Our official piano tuner is Kevin Patterson, and we like him a great deal. So does Rohan De Silva, whom you may know as the Steinway artist who accompanies world-famous violinist Itzhak Perlman. De Silva liked Kevin’s pre-concert work so much that he thanked our humble piano tuner by treating him to lunch.

“It was one of my most memorable experiences at The Straz. I’ve tuned for them twice now, and they also require a technician to check over the piano at intermission. Both times, the audience applauded when I finished the touchup tuning,” Patterson says. So, sometimes there is such a thing as a free lunch, and, later, people at your job will clap for you. Like we said, it’s a good life.

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Piano strings.

The work itself requires an intricate and fascinating procedure that involves more than twisting tuning pegs to set a certain tension on strings. “The piano is an extremely complicated instrument,” Patterson says. “It needs constant maintenance at the professional level. They have thousands of moving parts, about 230 strings amounting to around 15 to 30 tons of pressure, depending on the piano’s length.”

A full grown African bull elephant weighs around 7 tons. So a piano has two to four full grown male elephants of pressure on the strings. That’s a lot of force on a lot of strings, so tuning can be a delicate, somewhat surgical endeavor.

To attain the standard concert pitch of “A440” (that’s the pitch A above middle C at 440 hertz), Kevin uses a tuner app on his phone for the first few notes then does the rest by ear, tuning by intervals then playing arpeggios and scales to double and triple-check his work. “It’s not simple mathematics,” Kevin explains about why he doesn’t use a tuner for all of the notes. “Tuned by machine, a ‘perfect’ treble end of a piano sounds flat to the human ear. So, you have to know what you’re doing to find the right pitch.” In other words, there’s an artistry to capturing the tonal context that requires a human ear to tune for other human ears.

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Kevin hard at work on stage in Morsani Hall.

Kevin has relative perfect pitch so prefers to tune by ear, which is how he was taught as an apprentice and in his formal Steinway training. His wrench, called a “tuning hammer,” works on the individual string while a “mute strip” or “rubber mute” provides the silencing of the surrounding strings so Kevin can work one string at a time. All in, a solid piano tuning takes about one hour.

But getting a concert piano into tip top shape requires more than tuning. There’s also “voicing” the tone, a low-tech technique of pricking the felt hammer with a needle to relax the fiber. This manipulation of the fibers’ pressure morphs a tinny tone into a warm, strong tone. On the flip side, if a tone is too flat, a drop of a lacquer solution on the felt hardens the fibers to produce a brighter sound.

“It can get detailed,” Kevin laughs. “It’s been said that a pianist is never fully satisfied with the piano condition. But, it’s my goal each time to get the piano as close as possible to its peak level of performance.”

This Story Comes with Strings Attached

Strings Cover by Rob-Harris

Left to right: Viola C, Harp, Piano Bass, Cello G, Bass, Horse Hair, Piano Treble, Violin A. Photo by Rob/Harris, Inc.

Pull a string tight enough, thump it, and make a sound. Strap that string to a box with a hole in it, and voilà! Guitar. Or violin. Perhaps cello or double bass. Forty-seven strings on a frame equals one harp, and if there’s a complex enough box and frame built around 230 or so strings, it turns into a piano.

Music wouldn’t be much without the humble string. But, what about strings?

That is an excellent question, and one whose answer includes the Greek messenger god Hermes, Spanish super-guitarist Andres Segovia, barnyard animals, a world war and thousands of years’ worth of metal-working evolution.

The history of strings begins modestly and logically, with regions using the most easily-accessible and readily-available material: silk strings in the East, horse hair in Scandinavia, plant fibers in the tropics, and here in the West, animal guts.

Although exactly how and when the Greco-Romans first discovered the connection between animal intestines and the soul-stirring tone of the lyre remains unknown, the ancient myth tells of Hermes inventing the lyre from a turtle shell, stringing it with strips from cattle he stole from his brother Apollo, who happened to be the god of music and easily forgave his little brother when he heard the beautiful new instrument.

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Harp. New Kingdom (mid-2nd millennium BC), recovered from the Tomb of Ani in Thebes, Egypt. From the British Museum.

Historically, some of the earliest instruments — harps excavated in 1823 from tombs in Thebes — still retained their gut strings and, according to the archaeologists, produced a tone some 2,000 years after interment. So, gut strings, if properly processed, last. Even today, some luthiers, artisans who make stringed instruments, swear that gut strings still produce the most resonant, authentic sound.

String-makers work in many corners of the globe today, and the trade requires an expert craftsman. Gut strings cost more than synthetic or metal strings primarily because of the craftsmanship involved as well as the multi-step process that begins at the abattoir and concludes with the wrapping of fine decorative silk thread around the end of the finished musical string. What string-makers need is the collagen inside the intestine which, after dressing, selecting, crushing, dehydrating, rehydrating, splitting, cutting and fermenting the gut casing, creates the ideal material to make strings perfect for violins, cellos, harps and double basses. The collagen threads are stretched on spindles to create pretty white ribbons that are then bleached to remove any discolorations. The string-maker bundles ribbons together to create the correct gauge (treble strings require less ribbons; bass strings require more), and then the string-maker subjects these ribbons to a multi-day drying process so the collagen bonds, creating the one unified, solid string we purchase as an A string, E string or D string. Strings are ground to create an even diameter and to remove imperfections. The finishing touch requires the string-maker to apply a light oil/pumice mixture to the string with a cloth. Some craftspeople choose to polish their strings with grass lubricated with olive oil.

Although the traditional string material, gut is not the only game in town, especially as times changed and modern music demanded harder, louder tones from stringed instruments, especially guitars. Around the 12th century, wire strings emerged as equally valid music-making material. Because thicker gauge wire, needed for low notes, loses elasticity, the technique of twisting multiple wires to increase elasticity developed in the 16th century, followed a century later by winding wire around a core string of gut or silk, which created what we know as “wound” strings.

Eventually, human developments with metals including bronze and steel laid the path for steel strings, whose strength and loud sound required instrument redesigns. Banjos and mandolins responded well to steel strings, but perhaps the greatest beneficiary was the guitar, overhauled by a luthier named Orville Gibson, whose Gibson guitar dynasty created one of the most famous guitar body designs of the 20th century. Steel strings made rock ‘n’ roll possible. The world of music was forever altered, thanks to the humble string.

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You can play the opulent brass wires of the giant String Theory Fin Harp here on our campus. The harp sits along the Riverwalk and the strings are attached to the roof of our building.

Perhaps, though, the most fascinating string story occurs in the unassuming world of the nylon string, relegated almost specifically to classical guitar. In World War II, when hospitals needed catgut on the front lines for sutures, there was a worldwide shortage of traditional material for guitar strings. New York City luthier Albert Augustine, desperate, retrieved nylon fishing wire from a city trash can and created a viable nylon guitar string with the help of his wife, Rose, a chemistry teacher. They pitched to DuPont, who denied them, rightfully understanding that classical guitarists would never change string types — until Andres Segovia commissioned a guitar from Augustine in 1946, encouraging Augustine to develop nylon strings. Augustine and his wife did, with Segovia not only acting as their biggest booster but also as their roommate for 11 years, and DuPont supplied the nylon, spurred by Segovia’s stature as the world’s leading Spanish guitarist. Nylon strings were born, and with them, a new age for classical guitar.

It’s no wonder stringed instruments provide such a visceral experience for many music lovers. Music continues to move forward, pulled along by the small but mighty string.