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Q&A with John Tesh

John Tesh, who will bring the

John Tesh, who will bring the "John Tesh: Big Band Live!" concert to NYCB Theatre at Westbury Saturday, May 12, 2012. Credit: Handout

To say John Tesh is doing big things is an understatement. The 6-foot-6 host of the "Intelligence for Your Life" radio show earlier this month launched K TESH Los Angeles, an online Christian adult radio station. And when the four-time Emmy winner arrives at NYCB Theatre at Westbury Saturday night with his "Big Band Live!" orchestra, he'll also unveil his singing voice.

The 59-year-old keyboardist, composer and former co-host of "Entertainment Tonight," who will sing tunes from the American Songbook and his latest PBS special, DVD and CD, recently discussed his return to Long Island.

What prompted you to sing big band music this time around?

It's funny, because my trumpet teacher in elementary school in Garden City, Mr. Wagner, is going to be at our show, and these were the songs that we played. We had a little jazz band, even in elementary school. Trumpet and piano were my first two instruments. When my dad got back from World War II -- he was stationed off the coast of Okinawa -- he brought back all these albums: Glenn Miller Orchestra, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and that's what we listened to at our house, and that's what I played in school.

As a teenager, you were in your own band here, too.

Those were the halcyon days in New York. Everyone was in a rock band, a garage band. We were in a Blood, Sweat and Tears cover band, so I played trombone and organ. It was a rival band with Billy Joel's band, The Hassles. It wasn't much of a rivalry -- if he didn't get the prom, then we got it. And we were all playing Beatles tunes, mostly The Doors, though, and Blood, Sweat and Tears, and stuff like that.

What's it like singing Sinatra standards?

It's always spooky trying to do something like that, but those songs -- "Summer Wind," "The Way You Look Tonight" -- they've been covered by so many different people, that it's a little different than going and trying to do a Beatles song.

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On the tour, your late father plays a role.

After he died, my mom presented me with my dad's World War II diary, and I read from it onstage, and then we play "In the Mood." We did this on the PBS show. It's a tribute to him, but also to the men and women who made these songs popular, because these were the songs that were credited, in large part, with keeping servicemen and women alive, because they kept their spirits up.

Is it emotional involving your dad's diary on the tour?

It is. He made an entry from the very day he enlisted all the way through when the Japanese surrendered, and they were love letters to my mom. So you can just close your eyes and pick a page anywhere, and there's something exciting or touching in there, and when you get inside somebody's head like that, whether it's my dad or anybody else's who was a part of the greatest generation, you realize that these were real, real men and women. These were people for whom there was no Facebook, and there was no texting. It was all about trying to stay alive and trying to support their families, and, really, the most exciting thing to happen to them in their lives was when they got aluminum siding on their house.

Why is the American Songbook popular with your audiences?

The melodies are very easy to remember, and the lyrics, as my pastor said , don't contain any "reproductive messages."

You don't seem to follow the usual music crowd.

Well, we actually do follow the crowd, but it's the crowd that shows up for our concerts. I'm very codependent on the people who come to our shows, and you know, when we released this album, and recorded this and also the DVD, it was really for PBS, because the days of selling 50,000 records a week, which we had done in the past, it's just not happening for a lot of people anymore, especially me. So we really do concentrate on our live shows.

And one of the things we did -- what I actually learned from Sting years ago -- I got the assignment at "Entertainment Tonight" to cover Sting's sound checks. I spent two days with him, a remarkable human being. And I saw him fastening a video camera behind the drummer and pointed at the audience, and I asked him "What's that?" So this video camera is pointed at the audience, and he was trying to figure out what the audience reaction was to his songs, and which songs people liked the most, and what was happening in the audience while they were playing.

So I started doing that, and as we began to add big-band songs to our tour, we started seeing that people were really reacting to this. You'd see people whispering in each other's ears, and you'd see dads explaining to their kids what was going on, and people had their arms around each other, somebody would get up and dance. And we said, "Wow, we're on to something here; people really do like this music," and even the kids, who are just used to recorded music.

We thought, "Wow, this is an interesting way to go. This music is just gonna live forever," and that's when we started really pouring it on and adding more and more songs. And then after two years on the road, we turned it into a PBS special.

How is Westbury different from other venues?

I have some pretty bad vertigo, so it's going to be very different. It's still going around in circles, isn't it? Westbury is coming home for me. My gym teacher's going to be there, my trumpet teacher is going to be there, and I have a lot of friends . . . my family doesn't live there anymore, but you know, great memories for me.

What do you miss most about Long Island? It's been a long time.

I hope this doesn't come off the wrong way, but when I left Garden City, I felt like Superman because when Superman was on the planet Krypton, he was just like everybody else. He was just a normal person, just walked around, and everything was cool. He didn't have these superpowers, but then when he left Krypton and came to Earth, all of a sudden he could bend steel with his bare hands, he could see through stuff, he could fly. When I left Garden City High School, that's how I felt. I thought everybody else had the same education I had.

But I went to college [North Carolina State Unviersity], and it was like, "What?!" You know the first three years, I didn't even study, and I was as good a musician as anybody in the school. I didn't realize I had been in a performing arts school, all the way from elementary school, playing in the orchestra, playing in the dance band, singing in the choir. They made you do it.

So my memories of Long Island and Garden City . . . It certainly was like giving me superpowers, which I use to this day. But also the summers at Jones Beach were very, very special for me. You'd walk along the beach, and Cousin Brucie would yell, "It's time to turn so you won't burn!" so you'd turn over to the other side. So, yeah . . . to say that those were the halcyon days is very accurate, I think.

You're a successful entrepreneur. Did Newsday give you your start?

For sure. Newsday was my first job, delivering papers, and then I had a job on Franklin Avenue. It was a cloth store; you could go in there and buy cloth to make curtains and whatever, and I painted the signs. But my biggest job, on Seventh Street in Garden City, was I managed the Garden City Tea Shop when I was in high school. So yeah, I was always an entrepreneur. But I could never get anybody to sign me as a musical artist.

You mentioned Facebook earlier. It is one of four websites you list on the back of your CD including Facebook and Twitter. That's a lot of new technology.

You know, it's too much. And I know I sound like Steve Allen on this, but I just don't have the energy to send out tweets myself. I like the Facebook thing, but it's sort of like that monster that wants to be fed every day. I don't know, I just don't have something interesting to say every day [laughs].

How many people are in involved with your Facebook page?

We have probably 30 people who work for us, but the largest number of those are involved in research.

Your wife, Connie Sellecca, ignited the radio show concept.

You know, the idea that we came up with on this show, was really born out of Connie's insistence on being the smartest person in the room. She was complaining about my side of the bed, which had all kinds of wires, iPods and stuff like that there. And so as a good husband, I needed to complain about her side of the bed, and there were stacks of magazines, Prevention magazine, Oprah magazine, and all this stuff, with little stickies about things she was going to "get to eventually." And I said, "You're never going to read any of that stuff." And then a lightbulb went off in my head: "Wow, let's do a show for this woman, and we'll call it "Intelligence for Your Life." And I've always been that guy who would rather have control over it than be just attached to some giant record company or big thing. It's why PBS was such a great fit for me early on, and still is.

You offer so many good ideas on your websites, on your radio shows. Is there one particular piece of information that you've said, "Wow, I wish I could share this with the world"?

[Laughs] Yeah, you ready? This one comes instantly to mind, and that is that once a week, take your sponge and soak it in water, put it in the microwave, and turn it on for one minute, and you'll save yourself a world of problems. Because the germiest thing in the kitchen is the sponge. I know, you thought it was gonna be something deep, like from the Dalai Lama or something. But one day about 10 years ago I gave that tip, but I forgot to add that part about soaking it in water, so people all over Long Island were lighting their sponges on fire.

Connie is the executive producer on the CD and the DVD. What does that mean?

She's really responsible for it, and great at it. She's not really a music aficionado; she just knows what she likes. It sounds bizarre, but a lot of times I'll be sitting at the piano in the living room, and because it's got a lot of wood floors, and I'll be sitting there playing, whether it's a new song or a Sinatra song or whatever, and if she comes by dancing and singing . . . OK, check mark, that one's going in!

She's very smart when it comes to television production, especially lighting. She's great at knowing how to create a mood just from her years of working on a television series, and she's also great at pacing, so she does what an executive producer would do . . . the look of the show and the heart of the show. She is quite good at that.

So she's the one responsible for your being called the "Oprah" of radio. How does that feel?

[Laughs] Yeah, that's right! Oprah's a very old friend of mine. I take it as a compliment, but at the risk of sounding prideful, it's also accurate, because Dr. Oz is an expert, Dr. Phil is an expert, and Suze Orman, these guys are all experts -- they study their fields. I'm really more of a facilitator, I'm more like a quarterback, and I'm calling plays and connecting you to this great information that comes from some other source. So with that in mind, it really is very much like Oprah, where I'm a curator.

My team and I have selected information, and this is how we vet that information, and we say it on our show: If it doesn't move you forward in your life somehow or cause somebody else to move forward in their lives, then we won't put it on the show. And if you can't tell it to somebody in two sentences or less, then I won't put it on the show.

I'd like to ask you some favorite things of yours, such as your favorite singer.

I'd say Bobby Darin.

What's your favorite group?

Yes.

Favorite actor?

Oh gosh, I have a couple. I really like Jack Nicholson.

And actress?

I'd have to say Bette Davis, and part of that reason for that is that I did a very long interview with her and sort of fell in love with her "Hollywood-ness." I like Bette Davis.

Do you recall any particular moment from that interview?

Yeah, I recall a very big moment. She was presenting an Oscar when I was working for "Entertainment Tonight," and she got sort of befuddled. It just wiped her out, and she lost her place, and she just seemed like she had a "dementia moment," which she didn't really have. So it was a big deal, and she called up "Entertainment Tonight" and she said, "I want that tall man to come interview me so I can tell my story!"

So I went over to her apartment in Hollywood with my camera crew, and we set up, and then she arrived and said, "Hello, young man!" But for some reason, she wouldn't let me sit anywhere near her. I must have been 10, 20 yards away from her, and the cameraman's like, "I can't get this shot." So she was like, "I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille." She set herself up by the fireplace, but she did not want me in the shot.

So slowly but surely, because I was shouting my questions, I was inching my chair, sort of moving it forward, and she says , "Young man, I know what you're doing!" So I kept looking over my shoulder to see if Rod Serling was around because it was really a "Twilight Zone" moment for me.

Mentioning "Twilight Zone," what's your favorite TV show?

It was going to be "Game of Thrones," but they screwed that up, because I liked the book so much. My favorite TV show is "Big Bang Theory." It's a very smart show.

Ah, "Game of Thrones." What's your favorite book?

My favorite book is "The Road Less Traveled." In fact, I'm holding it in front of me here. It's always in front of me. By M. Scott Peck.

What do you like about it?

It's my story. [Laughs] I had pretty bad ADD when I was a kid, and this book is about codependency, and it's about delayed gratification, which is the key to all successes . . . delayed gratification. Another favorite book is called "Focus," by Al Ries, and that book is how the radio show was launched. It was just about finding a niche and focusing on it and not being enticed to move from that focus.

What about your favorite movie?

"Gladiator." I've seen it 20 times. We've done a thing on the radio show about "movie therapy," where if you're having a problem or you want inspiration, there are a lot of psychotherapists around who are recommending movies that have your same situation and you can solve them by watching the movie. Russell Crowe's character is so incredible to me, what he stands for and his family values. If I'm feeling down, I just fire up "Gladiator." "Braveheart" is good, too, but "Gladiator" just sort of takes it to the next level.

And your favorite website?

I like WebMD a lot [laughs]. You know, when you get to be 60, there's a lot of stuff going on. I got a lot of stuff to look up. So all of my ailments, I check out on WebMD. And we use a lot of it on the radio show, too. It's just really good information.

Your favorite food?

I know this sounds sort of self-serving, but my wife makes penne con broccoli, with a special sauce that she makes with pine nuts, raisins, and she makes her own tomato sauce.

Your favorite snack?

Almonds. I got that from Dr. Oz. I snack on almonds pretty much all day.

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