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John Tesh, Mr. Wagner and me

by Brian Clarey

I have always wanted to interview John Tesh. This is not because I am a huge fan of his music — though with dozens of albums under his belt his career is certainly an admirable one. Nor is it because of his journalistic work, though as co-host of “Entertainment Tonight” he was at the vanguard of the form, which in recent years has come to dominate the culture in magazines, shows like “TMZ” and thousands of websites. And he won an AP Award for investigative journalism. I want to interview John Tesh because we grew up in the same neighborhood in Garden City, NY, just a couple blocks and a decade or so away from each other. And when I finally get him on the phone Monday morning I tell him that I, too, am from Garden City — also the name of his 1989 critically acclaimed album and the music company he would later found — and that I was also a student of Tom Wagner, the music teacher at Stewart School who Tesh credits with fueling his passion from that early age. “No you weren’t!” he exclaims, sounding like a kid, though he just turned 60 this month. “I just saw him! He came to the show [at Westbury Music Fair]. Oh my gosh you cannot believe how great he looks. He’s having a little trouble walking. Mr. Muller the gym teacher was there, too. He looked amazing. Let me tell you, when we put [Wagner] in the seat, we put him in my eyeline, the whole time he was bubbling with his hands clasped.” Though I didn’t stick with music as long as Tesh, I remember Mr. Wagner fondly. Every kid at Stewart School who wanted to play an instrument from the 1950s to the early 1980s learned at the hands of Mr. Wagner. “When you think about it,” Tesh says, “how amazing was it that we were studying music in elementary school? That doesn’t exist, for the most part.” Like me, Tesh went to Garden City High School. And when he graduated in 1970 he moved with his parents to Winston-Salem, where they were from. That’s when he got his start in broadcasting with Greensboro native Rick Dees at WGBG. He chose NC State University for college, he says, because of “in-state tuition. My parents couldn’t afford anything else.” He worked for the campus radio station, played soccer and lacrosse, and became a Lambda Chi — he expects a crew of his old frat brothers to be at his Greensboro show at the White Oak Amphitheatre on Saturday night. But his time at NC State came to a premature end. He was studying physics and chemistry — “It wasn’t even a declared major,” he says. “I was just trying to figure out what I was gonna do.” As a junior, he wanted to avoid taking statistics, the bane of many a science major, but his professor said it was past the drop/add period. “My roommate goes, ‘Just sign your professor’s name to the drop/add card. I do it all the time,’” Tesh remembers. So he did it. With mixed results. “About two months later I got a notice saying I violated the honor code.” he says. “They suspended me from school. Within a 30-minute time period I was suspended and my parents threw me out of the house.” Ouch. He got in his fastback and drove to Winston-Salem, where he lived in a tent, pumped gas and worked construction for CC Mangum. “I don’t recommend this,” he says. “But if that hadn’t happened, I probably wouldn’t have had this career. I was just pounding the pavement, eating hot dogs with cheese, starving to death. I faked my way into the radio station WKIX and they felt sorry for me and gave me a job.” He parlayed that gig into a career that wended through Europe, where he was broadcasting, and writing music for the Tour de France when he got the call from “Entertainment Tonight.” “I hadn’t seen American television in the longest time,” he says, “three or four years. So I got a call from Paramount TV, and they said, ‘Hey, listen, we’d like for you to come audition for the anchor spot on “ET.”’ I was like, ‘What’s that?’” He said he came to New York and auditioned in a tank top and cutoff shorts, and read the script like he was announcing a sporting event. But they made him an offer, and knowing that he was a musician, allowed him use of the studio’s recording facilities. “That was one of my real breaks,” he says. “Those guys really helped me in my music career.” That music career has now spanned four decades, earning him four gold albums and two Grammy nominations with a style that ranges from classically influenced orchestration to new-age instrumentalism to jazz-tinged hymns. His show Saturday at the amphitheater will be with his big band — like all of his recent works, the music debuted in a PBS special. “The big-band stuff, the Glen Miller stuff, those were the songs that were in my house — my dad was a World War II vet and he brought all that music home on vinyl,” he says. “It is a return to that sound for me.” It’s also, he reminds me, the style of music preferred by our old music teacher Mr. Wagner. After the phone interview, I feel a strong pull of nostalgia for my old music teacher. I remember that he still plays in a band on Long Island — the Village Music Makers, with Mr. Muller, my old gym teacher. I do some digging — I can’t help myself — and find a phone number. I wonder if he remembers me. I punch in the number on my office phone and Mr. Wagner picks up after just three rings. “They remember everything, these guys,” Tesh had told me. “They remember how often you didn’t bring your jock strap.” I wonder…. Surely my old music teacher remembers John Tesh, who played with the New York State Symphonic Orchestra before graduating high school. But me? “Mr. Wagner,” I say, “I’m a former student of yours. Brian Clarey. You taught me how to play the trumpet.” He laughs, and then speaks in that voice I remember so well, which manages to boom with enthusiasm while at the same time conveying the soft tones of intimacy. “Yes, I do remember you, you son of a gun!” John Tesh plays Big Band Live Saturday night at the White Oak Amphitheater. Tickets range from $20-$55 and are available at greensborocoliseum.com or 336373.2632.

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