Published: Thu Aug 25, 2011 | Modified: Thu Aug 25, 2011 03:13 p.m.
When Vamsi Tadepalli graduated from the University of North Carolina in 2003, he did not set out to create a Michael Jackson tribute band that would play "Beat It" from Chapel Hill to China. He was just trying to get a gig.
The saxophonist thought forming a band, composed of him and his friends from music school, was the best solution.
But when Tadepalli, 30, started putting together songs he thought might be fun to play live, the King of Pop kept coming up.
Why don't we do all Michael, he thought. No one else is doing it. There are plenty of impersonators, who dress like him and dance around, but it isn't like a band playing music live.
He remembered hearing "Billie Jean" or "The Way You Make Me Feel" play in bars and seeing as patrons started tapping their feet to it.
"If we can re-create that sound in a live setting, it gets people moving," Tadepalli said.
The band played its first show, which sold out on a Wednesday night in Chapel Hill on January 2004. From that, Tadepalli described it as a snowball. The band only played six shows its first six months, but then an agent heard about the cover band, named Who's Bad after lyrics from Jackson's 1987 hit. The band played 82 more shows to round out its first year.
And the tour has only gotten more hectic since Jackson's untimely passing.
"(It's) obviously tragic that Michael passed," Tadepalli said. "But after he passed, we were pretty much the only group that had been consistently paying tribute to him over the years, so we were the go-to band to get the call."
After Jackson's death, the band played practically non-stop for a year-and-a-half, going everywhere from Canada to Germany to Romania to Singapore. The band has a week in South America this October, Tadepalli said.
The band's creator marvels at how even non-English speaking countries give Who's Bad an enthusiastic reception.
"China, for example, huge language barrier, they would come to the shows and know all the words to the songs, even though they don't speak English," he said.
As for the shows themselves, Tadepalli makes it plain — the band focuses on the hits because that's what fans want to hear. Songs like "Man in the Mirror," "Thriller" and "Smooth Criminal" get regular play from Who's Bad.
"You've only got so much time to do it, so basically we stick to some of those songs," he said. "And then there are other songs that we can interchange to keep it fresh for us."
The overall production, however, has evolved more than its setlist.
"Our show has changed a lot over the years," he said. "And we've figured out a formula about what's going to take the audience on a journey, not necessarily chronologically but emotionally," he said.
The show includes live singing, a live band, choreography and costume changes, he said.
"It's non-stop live energy from minute one to minute 100," he said.
While everyone in the band dons Jackson regalia — clothing from Jackson's famous music videos — two men play Jackson himself. When one Jackson sings on stage, the other Jackson is backstage, preparing to go on or frantically changing costumes.
Though Tadepalli identifies the band as the main source of income for much of the members, Who's Bad is far from the only thing Tadepalli does.
He also works on compositions for orchestras, works on electronic music, does private music lessons for saxophone, teaches high school marching bands, works with drum corps, does some composing and even plays the occasional jazz gig.
"I think the beauty of what Who's Bad allows us to do is we go out on the weekends, perform, make some money and fuel our other musical projects," he said.
From its genesis in Chapel Hill, the band branched out to Athens, Ga., Knoxville, Nashville and Tuscaloosa, Ala. He still remembers playing Blue Cats and various fraternity parties in Knoxville years ago.
"Then the word spread," he said.
Today Tadepalli feels he appreciates Jackson's music better than when it came out.
"When you think of Michael Jackson, you think more of the music videos and dancing and whatnot, the visual aspect," he said. "A lot of people don't realize that ... the music grooves, and that's what makes you move. So without that behind you, you don't have anything."
Even with the success, the band continues now out of a responsibility to keep Jackson's music playing.
"Especially after his passing, we took it upon ourselves to be the ultimate tribute," Tadepalli said. "We were there before he passed, and now we're still here to keep his music alive."