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The Michael Jackson tribute band Who's Bad was founded by Vamsi Tadepalli, second from the left. The group plays an array of hits that span the late entertainer's Jackson 5 days though his solo comeback. (Photo By Curtis Brown Photography)
Vamsi Tadepalli didn't know what he was starting when he asked some of his college friends to start up a tribute band while he was studying to get a jazz-performance degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"I was lucky to be in school with a bunch of great and talented musicians, and I thought it would be cool to put a band together that played songs from Michael Jackson, Kool & the Gang and Earth Wind & Fire, you know, the fun dance music," Tadepalli said during a telephone call to The Park Record from San Francisco, Calif. "We did, but we kept going back to Michael's songs and more and more of his songs kept getting added to the list."

So, eventually, Tadepalli decided just to play Jackson songs. That band, known as Who's Bad, will play the Egyptian Theatre on March 22 through March 24.

When Tadepalli formed the band, there weren't many Michael Jackson tributes in existence.

"There really wasn't a band that was just devoted to playing his music," Tadepalli said. "And, we actually had the band put together, before we had a singer, which is just the opposite of what you think would happen."

That was back in 2003, when Jackson's popularity wasn't what it was in the 1980s.

"It was right around when the molestation accusations were coming out and that kind of lit a fire under me to do this to make sure people remembered how great his music was and not those other things," Tadepalli said.

During a jazz jam session, a friend approached Tadepalli, saying he heard the saxophonist was assembling a tribute band.

"He said he knew of a singer and dancer who had been a life-long fan of Michael's and lives in Chapel Hill," Tadepalli said. "I said, 'Great. When can I meet him?' and my friend introduced me to Taalib York."

York, who will be with the band when it comes to Park City, is perfect for the role.

"The first question he asked me was, 'Are you really a Michael fan?'" Tadepalli said. "I think he had a little skepticism in him, but I told him I was."

The singer auditioned for the band and "killed it on 'Billie Jean,'" according to Tadepalli.

"We played our first show on Jan. 14, 2004," he said. "I remember it vividly."

Tadepalli wasn't sure anyone would come out, because Chapel Hill is a huge college town and the football team lost to Maryland.

"I thought everyone would sit in their rooms, feel sorry for themselves and feel sad," he said. "But we ended up selling the show out, and we had to turn away 150 people."

A week later, the group played a venue twice the size a week later and then in the next six months, performed 62 shows.

"An agency caught wind of us and we started playing concerts in the southeast," Tadepalli said. " 2007, we had performed throughout the entire continental United States."

In 2008, the band added another Jackson impersonator, Joseph Bell, who came to us while York took a break.

"This was all before Michael passed," Tadepalli said. "When he died in 2009, Taalib wanted to come back, so we began working with two singers."

Jackson's death had an impact on Who's Bad that no one anticipated.

"We were getting ready to play a show in Washington, D.C., on June 26," Tadepalli. "We got a call the night of the 25th from E'Cassinova, who is one of the most well-known Michael impersonators in the business. He called me from Los Angeles and told me that Michael suffered a cardiac arrest and was taken to the hospital in an ambulance."

At first, Tadepalli didn't believe him.

"I searched the Internet and TMZ just posted a story and then my phone started blowing up," Tadepalli said. "Our booking agency got non-stop calls. At that point, we added another 70 shows and it was pretty insane."

In the next year and half, band has toured China, Singapore, Germany, Romania and all over the United Kingdom, South America, Canada and Mexico.

"When Michael died, he left a giant void for those people who wanted to hear his music live," Tadepalli said.

The band was blown away.

"It was an amazing experience to play this music all over the world," Tadepalli said. "I mean in some of the countries, no one speaks English, but they all knew the words to the songs.

"It wasn't the best way to gain popularity, because of the tragedy, the reason we started the band was to pay tribute the music," he said. "And you could feel the love when we walked on stage."

Who's Bad has close to 50 Jackson songs in its repertoire.

"Over the years, we've whittled it down to what we know what works on a consistent basis," Tadepalli said. "We play some of the songs he sang in the Jackson 5, because we have to show where he came from."

Playing Jackson songs does prove to be daunting at times.

"He was one of the greatest entertainers of all time," Tadepalli said. "The biggest hurdle we ever faced was getting people to overcome their skepticism, but once they saw us, they understood.

"Some people even say crazy stuff like, 'I don't even like Michael Jackson, but you guys are awesome," he said. "We would laugh, but, I mean, we are emulating him the best we can, even though we put in a little bit of our own element.

"It's about keeping the fans involved and keeping the energy high," he said. "I love seeing our audiences that are made up of different ages and races enjoying what we're doing together."

Tadepalli's favorite Jackson song to play is the rocking "Smooth Criminal," but his favorite song to listen to is "I Can't Help It," which is a mellow song written by Stevie Wonder that's on Jackson's "Off the Wall" album.

"Those two are on the different ends of the spectrum," Tadepalli said. "And I think they show Michael's talent in different ways."

Who's Bad — the Ultimate Michael Jackson Tribute Band will perform at the Egyptian Theatre on Friday, March 22 through Sunday, March 24. Friday and Saturday shows will begin at 8 p.m. and Sunday's show will open at 6 p.m. Tickets range from $30 to $50 and available at www.parkcityshows.com.