In conversation, John Tesh is nothing like his outsized music, except the booming laugh that comes easily and often. Tesh tells Beliefnet in this interview that he's been called as a Christian to be honest and self-deprecating. He appears to live out his calling every second. Paul O'Donnell talked to him about his faith, his new album and living as a Christian in Los Angeles.
Do you have a favorite Christmas album-one you grew up with?
The one I grew up with, no one seems to remember: the Bert Kaempfert Orchestra. Back in those days, it was a lot of Nat King Cole and Big Band and orchestral stuff. No pop groups that I remember were doing Christmas albums. Now everyone's selling one. It was right around the time that Herb Alpert was real popular, so people were just more accepting of a rock sound behind an orchestra. Bert Kaempfert, I realize when I listen to him now, was the roots of the Mannheim Steamroller.
What was Christmas like as a child?
If you went to my house on Long Island (N.Y.), in the backyard there are 12 trees that represent the first 12 Christmases I can remember, when my dad would buy a live tree and keep it alive for the holidays and then plant it out back. They are still out there, by the pool that he built for me. My memories of Christmas are of it being very, very real. Being very Christian. I remember going to services on Christmas Eve and falling asleep on my mom's lap.
Where did you go to church growing up?
We went to a Methodist church. My parents were very involved. My father ran the Sunday school and my mom ran the women's auxiliary. I went to church camp every summer. It was a lot of memorization, as I remember. Everything was out of the hymnal and the Scriptures. You didn't show up in sneakers.
I go to a Messianic church.
How did you get from Methodist to Messianic?
About 12 years ago, I met Connie out here in Los Angeles. At the time I was doing "Entertainment Tonight," and had completely screwed up my first marriage, basically. I was sort of a spiritual mess. All of a sudden I meet this woman who is so together and she says, "Hey, I'm serious about my faith, period. Where are you with yours?"
I'd gone to everything. I'd always been a Christian, but I'd gone to temple, my sister is a Buddhist and I'd taken a lot of comparative religion courses in college at North Carolina State. Connie asked me to come to her church with her. It was started by Louis Lapides, a Vietnam vet, a Jewish guy who had gone through the '60s with the drugs and the acid and all that. But he'd had an experience and ended up chucking it all and going to seminary. He's a teacher, not a preacher. So I'm at his church and we're doing the Kadosh and the Shema and I loved it, because it was educational and that was what I was really after. I'd had all this Scripture growing up, but none of it wasn't related to what was happening around the world. So Louis and I became really good friends, he discipled me.
But it was all due to your wife.
Absolutely. I'm the one talking to you, but she's the one who later today will call up someone who's hurting and minister to them. She's the one who will put you in the position of having a great relationship, like the one I have with Louis.
Only because it was what I was doing with my life. Around the time I met Louis, I inherited a 9-year-old stepson who attended a camp in Branson, Mo. called Kanakuk. One of the guys at the worship service there asked me to play keyboards with them. It was a three piece band with a little plastic keyboard in a gym in the middle of Missouri where the bugs are serious. And I had a musical experience there like none I'd ever had. There were 250 kids singing songs like "Trading My Sorrows." I went nuts. When I took these songs back to Louis, he said, "Wow. This is fantastic. We're going to do this. But you're now the worship leader." And I was like, "What's that, first of all? And secondly, I don't have time for this."
So I'm in charge of this ragtag band-there's a 15 year old and a 17 years old and me and a crazy irish violin player. It's Messianic music, and it's Celtic music and it's worship music. Doing that every Sunday was the encouragement to do a record. So it was basically just listening to people who were pushing me in the right direction.
I'm at a time in my life when I really just want to create stuff that's useful. People tell me, "Hey, there's a situation in my family where I used this song or I gave your album to somebody and they came to Christ." I never got that with "Live at Red Rocks." This is not about selling records, it's about affecting people.
How have your fans reacted?
Right at the beginning we heard from some people who said, if I wanted to hear about your faith I would have asked you. Some of the songs were pretty straightforward. I got a couple of emails like that. Then Cal Thomas, the newspaper columnist, called me and said, "Why are you apologizing? Just do what you do." I don't think I've ever been happier. But we have heard from some people, including Howard Stern.
Was he a fan?
I used to go on his show, but one time he was so rude to my wife that I don't do it anymore. But I still send him music.
How have Christians reacted?
There is a group of Christians who are really really judgmental. There are people who count how many Jesuses you put in a song before they'll put it on the radio.
Do you think it's getting easier in L.A. to be a faithful person?
I do. The definition is getting to be a little more broad. There are people like Patricia Heaton and I would put Conan O'Brien in Hollywood, since he's on TV. He doesn't talk about it on his show, but he's a good Catholic kid who lives a clean life. The problem for quote Christians out here is that they don't come out of the closet until they are successful. And then once someone says they are a Christian, people say, "Oh, my gosh, you're not going to do these television shows," or "I'm afraid to curse around you," or You're judging me." That's why I try to keep a sense of humor about my faith.