King of the Keyboards

updated 12/04/1995 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/04/1995 01:00AM

JOHN TESH BREATHES AN ENOR-mous sigh of exhaustion. "You can only go so long on four hours of sleep a night," he says. "It's getting crazy.... Something's going to break." In the last six months, besides his duties in Los Angeles for Entertainment Tonight—which he has cohosted since 1986—Tesh, 43, has rehearsed five days a week with his 30-piece New Age orchestra and been at the keyboard for nearly 60 concerts everywhere from Seattle to Tampa. "I feel tired," he says. "I get more colds now." So why does he keep pushing himself in a career that takes him away from his wife of three years, actress Connie Sellecca, and their two children? Because he's hooked on the risk and thrill of live performance. "It is," he says with his characteristic off-camera rawness, "like I've taken my penis and laid it on the piano and there's a big chopper right there..."

Whatever you say, John, but the music thing is also simply a well-paying gig. Tesh's concerts are almost always sold out. His 12th and latest album of synthesizer-driven tunes, Live from Red Rocks, hit No. 1 on Billboard's New Age chart; the TV special based on the concert raised more than $1 million for PBS. In October, Polygram records paid $8 million for a half-interest in Tesh's two-year-old recording label, GTS Records. "Money doesn't mean anything to me," insists Tesh, "except as an affirmation of the music."

Music has always been an important part of his life. Born and raised in Garden City, N.Y., Tesh, the youngest of three children, was encouraged by his parents (John Sr., a textile executive who died in 1989, and Mildred, a nurse, who died in February) to study piano and trumpet at age 6. In junior high school, he formed his first band, Daze of Night, for which he played keyboards and sang songs like "Magic Carpet Ride." After graduating from high school, he studied music and communications at North Carolina State University and began full-time work as an anchor at a TV station in nearby Durham after graduating in 1975.

By 1983 Tesh was an anchor-reporter for CBS Sports in New York City—and thinking seriously again about music. When he got an assignment covering the Tour de France bicycle race that year, he offered to compose an original score to accompany the coverage. After viewers wrote in to ask where they could get tapes of the soaring music, Tesh began his career as an entrepreneur. He placed an ad in two cycling magazines for a nonexistent $12.95 Tour de France cassette "as a test," he says. After receiving 5,000 requests within two weeks, he put a tape together and sold 23,000 copies—out of his garage.

The music hasn't stopped since—though performing live, which he started to do in 1986, was at first a nightmare. Tesh says he used to get so nervous that he would lose feeling in his arms. His stage fright eased in 1987 after less than a year of relaxation therapy and breathing exercises.

As a musician, Tesh has never been a critics' darling. "He's a Yanni wannabe," says Los Angeles Times reviewer Don Heckman. "He's a major personality, but not a major talent." But for Tesh, who sells about 40,000 CDs each week, it's the album-buying fans who count. "Most fans are women," says David Michaels, who produced Red Rocks. "It's the same audience as the ballet. A lot of them are dragging their husbands and boyfriends, who leave saying, 'Wow! I really like this!' " One of Tesh's biggest boosters is talk show host Leeza Gibbons, who cohosted John & Leeza with Tesh back in 1993. "I love nothing better than to lock the door of my bathroom, light my candles, get my bath oils out and put on one of his CDs," she says.

Tesh perhaps wishes he could do the same thing. "I think I could be a better father and husband by spending more time at home," he says of the five-bedroom Beverly Hills estate he shares with Sellecca, 40, their year-old daughter, Prima, and Gib, 13, Sellecca's son from her marriage to actor Gil Gerard. In concert, Tesh introduces the song "Concetta," which he wrote for Sellecca, by explaining how the music relates to her moods.

One of those moods must be loneliness. This fall, Sellecca was shooting a TV movie in Toronto for six weeks. Between ET and his concerts, Tesh managed to squeeze in only six brief visits, including two in which he flew into Toronto for two-hour airport visits. Sellecca insists she holds no grudge. "Playing music is his lifelong dream," she says proudly.

Tesh won't make any predictions, but friends say that after his ET contract expires in June he may decide to be a full-time musician. His concerts have already put a strain on his anchoring duties. Earlier this year, Paramount, ETs owner, took him to court to keep him on the set. Ultimately, Tesh negotiated a two-month leave, but he knows that someday he will have to make a choice. Then, maybe, he'll finally get some rest. "I'm a big fan," he says, "of sitting home and kissing my wife, changing diapers and writing music. One of these days I hope to be able to do that."

DAN JEWEL
LEAH FELDON-MITCHELL in Los Angeles

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