How John Tesh’s crazy $1.2 million ‘Live at Red Rocks’ gamble changed his life

It could be considered one of the biggest career gambles in show business history. It cost John Tesh more than a million dollars of his own money — but in the end, it was well worth it. Reflecting on his Live at Red Rocks PBS concert 25 years later, Tesh still gets emotional. “I could manifest the tears now,” he tells Yahoo Entertainment.

In the mid-‘90s, Tesh had a cushy gig as the co-anchor of Entertainment Tonight, but his true love was music. A keyboardist with a lifelong love of prog-rock who’d spent his teens in garage bands (and knew his stuff — one of the first stories he ever covered as a New York news reporter was a Cramps show at CBGB!), Tesh had recently returned to the garage, so to speak. He was releasing the Tour de France music he’d composed during his tenure at CBS Sports, selling those tapes via mail-order bicycle magazine ads on his own record label.

“When you say I had my own ‘label,’ I really had a label-maker,” he chuckles. Though he’d tried his luck at couple major record companies, no one was really taking him seriously as a musician.

“I thought, ‘Well, wait a second now, I'm on Entertainment Tonight… I've got all these tapes of Tour de France music and everything. It's just should be a layup, because 20 million people a night are watching me do this show! So Arista Records must love that!’ No. I have all of the turndown slips on my wall still,” Tesh says wryly. “I don't think they wanted the guy who was reading the celebrity birthdays [on television] to be on their label with Billy Joel.”

While his independent releases were selling respectably to “bike aficionados,” Tesh — who recently released his aptly titled memoir, Relentless: Unleashing a Life of Purpose, Grit, and Faith — knew if he wanted to take his music career to the next level, he had to make a big, bold statement. And that’s when he took a fateful trip to Colorado.

“So I'm watching PBS, and I see the Moody Blues at Red Rocks,” Tesh recalls. “And then I see U2’s Under a Blood Red Sky at Red Rocks. I'm like, ‘What is this place?’ And so I actually got on a plane with a friend of mine, and we flew there. We stood in the Red Rocks Amphitheater, this ancient amphitheater, and I said, ‘This is what I have to do. I have to raise my hand and say I'm a serious musician. I have to make one of these specials.’”

John Tesh in his 'Live at Red Rocks' special, recorded in 1994 and broadcast in 1995. (Photo: PBS)
John Tesh in his 'Live at Red Rocks' special, recorded in 1994 and broadcast in 1995. (Photo: PBS)

Tesh took his pitch to PBS, hoping executives there would agree to fund the project like they had with 1994’s successful Three Tenors special. But they were unimpressed. “They were like, ‘Well, how many records are you selling right now?’ And I said ‘five a week,’ something like that. And they said, ‘Well, how many concerts are you doing a year?’ And I said one. And they said, ‘Well, you don't really have a following musically...’”

PBS agreed to “take a look” at the special if Tesh created it on his own. And that is when Tesh made the pitch to his wife, actress Connie Sellecca, who happened to be pregnant with their daughter Prima at the time.

“She said, ‘What's it going to take?’ And I told her, basically, we'd have to take out a second mortgage on our house,” Tesh admits. Still, somehow, he convinced her. “Even she says, ‘I can't believe I said yes!’ … It must've been a pretty good pitch; maybe I used a lower number. I love her for it, but I don't remember why she would've said yes.”

Initially Tesh thought his Live at Red Rocks special’s total budget would be $800,000, but it ended up being a whopping $1.2 million. Considering that he’d suffered from “a good bit of stage fright” all his life and didn’t even have much experience playing live, the odds were not in his favor. And then it rained on the day of the (uninsured!) Red Rocks shoot — after he had played only four songs — almost shutting down production entirely.

As the 70-piece Colorado Symphony Orchestra fled for cover, taking their fragile and hardly rain-proof instruments with them, in that moment, Tesh understandably assumed that his very expensive dream had been dashed. “You can see it in my face, on the special,” he says. “I looked out into the audience expecting just to wave bye to everybody, because it was really pouring hard.”

However, the 7,000 people in attendance (“we gave away tickets; I'm surprised anybody came,” Tesh quips) refused to leave — “putting on these see-through parkas and umbrellas and stomping on the ground,” demanding that the show go on. And so, Tesh (in what he jokingly calls his “Barney” suit) and his core four-piece band continued playing.

“What happened was, at the end of every song, there was no sound. The audience couldn't applaud, because they only had one hand because of the umbrellas,” he recalls. Instead, the concertgoers bobbed their umbrellas up and down to express their approval. “It looked like a bizarre Mary Poppins concert. It was really weird. So we just kept playing. ...It was nuts. Water was pouring out of the piano, and it was just everywhere and wind — we were slipping all over the stage at Red Rocks.”

But… it was good TV.

Ironically, Tesh didn't think the crew was still filming at this point; he figured all the camera people had jumped ship. “Any sane person would’ve jumped ship. But they stayed there,” he says. “And then what happened was, like supernaturally after the third or fourth song, the rain just stopped. And I looked up, and you could see it [on the special]: I'm like, just thanking God for stopping the rain. And then the moon came out, and then this mist — because the temperature changed so drastically — came upon the stage. You'd pay like 10 grand to get a mist like that from a machine! It's like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ Then the orchestra comes back, and we keep playing.”

It wasn’t until Sellecca visited him backstage afterwards, with their eight-weeks-old daughter in her arms, that Tesh found out that the full concert had actually been captured on camera. “She’s holding Prima, nursing, and she's going, ‘We got it! We got we got the whole thing!’" Tesh laughs. “And the baby's nursing, and Connie's so excited, and the baby pops off Connie's breast. Prima, she looks at me, like, ‘What's going on?’ — and then back on the breast. It was like a Fellini movie or something.”

Tesh eventually sent a rough cut of his ambitious Live at Red Rocks special to Maryland Public Television, where he had a contact, “a really sweet Southern woman named Linda Taggart,” who’d seemed especially keen during their initial conversations. And it was the first week of March 1995, exactly 25 years ago, when Taggart took a chance on Tesh, and Live at Red Rocks aired for the first time on a PBS affiliate — with many other stations to soon follow.

“She tested it at midnight on a Sunday night, which is a terrible time period for anything, really,” says Tesh. “And she calls me up the next morning and she says, ‘Hey, you've got something here. We raised as much money with your special as we did with The Three Tenors.’ … I was in tears, and I just said, ‘This is incredible!’ And she said, ‘I'm going to call everybody [at PBS] and tell them.’”

A year later, thanks to the nationally syndicated success of Live at Red Rocks, Tesh was able to quit Entertainment Tonight to focus on music full-time. Over the course of his career, he has amassed four gold albums (and has sold more than 8 million albums overall), raised more than $7 million for PBS with his live concerts, and released three additional concert LPs. And it all started with his crazy Red Rocks gamble. Says Tesh, “It ended up being the special that changed my life.”

Watch John Tesh’s full Yahoo Entertainment interview below, in which he discusses his musical beginnings, his new memoir Relentless: Unleashing a Life of Purpose, Grit, and Faith, and his battle with cancer.

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