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Soundcheck: Vamsi Tadepalli 

Who's Bad founder/saxophonist/keyboardist

As you can imagine, a Michael Jackson cover band is in high demand these days. But don't dismiss the guys in Who's Bad, the Michael Jackson tribute act playing House of Blues this week, as opportunists. The North Carolina group has been doing Michael Jackson tunes (its current repertoire includes about 30 of his hits) for almost six years. The band's founder, music-school grad Vamsi Tadepalli, recently talked about the legacy of the late singer and how his band tries to faithfully recreate everything from the music to the moonwalking.

So where were you the day Michael died?

I was here in North Carolina. We had a show scheduled for the next day at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. I was getting ready for the show. I got a call from E'Casanova, who's the world's No. 1 Michael Jackson tribute artist. He's one of the most reliable sources of information about Michael Jackson. He called me at 4:30 Eastern time that day and told me that Michael was in an ambulance on the way to the hospital and wasn't breathing. He told me, and I still couldn't even believe it. I couldn't find anything on the news. I Googled it, and TMZ had posted something. Then CNN was talking about it. At that point, my phone wouldn't stop ringing, and the texts and e-mails came flooding in.

Did you end up playing the show?

Yeah. We'd been looking forward to it. Twenty minutes after they announced Michael's passing, the show sold out and they asked us if we wanted to add another show for the same night. At first, we didn't consider it, but they kept calling and saying that were so many people who wanted to be a part of it. We did it and sold that one out. We played New York the next day, and it also sold out. Since then, it's been crazy. A lot of people are coming out of the woodwork who wouldn't normally go see live music.

Has his death changed the type of show you put on?

No. I told the band, "Look. We've always been about celebrating the life of Michael Jackson. Nothing's going to change. It's going to be a celebration. We're here to have fun. That's why we do this."

You founded Who's Bad six years ago. Tell me about what the show was like in its early days and how it's evolved.

I was a jazz-performance major at the University of North Carolina. I was a senior in college when I had the idea to start the band. At first, it was strictly about the music. I loved the music and thought if there's any way to recreate the sound on those albums in a live setting, people would go nuts over it. I wasn't thinking about the dancing or costumes. I was strictly thinking about the music. I put a band together and didn't even have a singer. I was hesitant to approach a male vocalist because I thought it would come across as cheesy. I'm a very critical musician. I approached choral groups at the university, and no one was that interested. Finally, a friend of mine said he knew a guy that would be perfect. He can sing and dance. I talked to him, and he was down and sounded great. We rolled with it from there. For our first show, which was on a Wednesday night in Chapel Hill, we came in and played the songs standing still, and people were going nuts just from the music. We started adding songs here and there. It's been a growing thing. The hardest thing is that we play so many shows, it's hard to find time to rehearse. That goes back to even before Michael passed.

What's your Michael Jackson song?

Several. The ones that are my favorites are the ones we don't perform that much because they aren't as popular. There are so many hits, we can't fit them into one show. One of my favorites is "I Can't Help It" from Off the Wall.

And your favorite Michael Jackson album?

I go through phases. What attracted me at first was the Jackson 5 and the Off the Wall era. I love all his stuff. My dad gave me the Thriller album when I was four years old, so I found out about Michael when I was young

jniesel@clevescene.com

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