When Vamsi Tadepalli graduated with a degree in musical performance from the University of North Carolina in 2003, his goal was to move to New York to become a jazz musician.
“My dream was to go to the Big Apple and become a starving artist,” Tadepalli cracked while calling from his Los Angeles home.
The pragmatic saxophonist instead decided to form a Michael Jackson tribute band in 2004 in order to afford Gotham City. Who’s Bad is a full band, as opposed to a Michael Jackson impersonator with backing tracks, and it will perform Friday at the Bing Crosby Theater. The group went from side project to focal point for Tadepalli.
“I never would have guessed that was going to happen,” Tadepalli said. “But no one was doing what we are doing 20 years ago. You just had a Michael Jackson impersonator up there onstage. There was no band like this band. I love funky music and Michael was funky and it’s so much fun to play his style of music.”
Tadepalli found a niche, the substance of Jackson, rather than solely focusing on the sizzle. Many Jackson tributes are all about the visuals, the moonwalk and the array of Jackson’s iconic dance moves.
“But Michael was much deeper than that,” Tadepalli said. “Michael was about the music as much as he was about anything. His music just grooves and the way he sung his lyrics, sometimes it’s difficult to understand what he’s singing, but it just flows so well. There was nobody remotely like him.”
Tadepalli, 42, was born in 1980 and never had a chance to experience Jackson live, but he was a huge fan since he was a child.
“I have so much respect and admiration for Michael,” Tadepalli said. “I always loved his music. Without Michael, there’s no Usher, Justin Timberlake or Bruno Mars.”
It’s been a decade since Tadepalli has played with the band. The CEO and founder of Who’s Bad, who handles the creative side and business matters, misses performing.
“My favorite song to do was ‘I Can’t Help It,’ an amazing B-side from his ‘Off The Wall’ album,” Tadepalli said. “I miss playing ‘Smooth Criminal,’ since there is no song that gets such a response from the audience.
“The group loves playing the hits, like ‘Beat It,’ ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘Human Nature.’ What we play is some of the greatest pop music ever made and we focus on every element but especially the musical side.”
Tadepalli is the son of Indian immigrants, who were less than crazy about his career choice.
“They, of course, wanted me to be an engineer or a doctor, but they accepted that I am a musician,” Tadepalli said. “They were surprised by how things have gone for me with Who’s Bad, but no one is complaining now.
“I absolutely love what I do and the fans love Michael Jackson’s music. What I’m about is about keeping his music alive.”