"We're both lyric tenors, but Michael's voice is a little higher," Joseph Bell coos over the phone. Even his speaking voice reminds us of the late King of Pop's. "It's funny. Before, I tried to change my voice, but then I got this job." The job Bell speaks of is as one of two vocalists of Who's Bad, an act that bills itself as the "Ultimate Michael Jackson Tribute Band."
Bell describes the show as a worthy experience for fans of the inimitable Jackson. "You see the excitement of the choreography," he insists. "I think it's extraordinary because it's live singing, and we perform songs that are very difficult, like 'Man in the Mirror' and 'Earth Song.' It's more than imitation — it's a celebration." The group features two vocalists to avoid lags from costume changes, and, Bell adds, "[Jackson's] songs require the sensitivity you can't get from just one person."
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Bell joined Who's Bad in 2007 after several years of being a fan. "I heard him most of my life, from the Jackson 5 on, but I remember first hearing 'Billie Jean' in the back seat of a car. I heard that opening bass line, and was like, 'What is that?'?" Bell feels that beyond the similar vocal range, there's some cosmic force that keeps bringing him closer to the legend. "I went to high school with Michael Jackson's choreographer, Travis Payne. He choreographed me in high school before he worked with Michael." And another instance: "Recently, someone told me my hair didn't look good, and later that day I ran into Michael's hairdresser."
Bell remembers one show in particular during which he felt especially connected to the music of Jackson, on June 26, 2009. "It was the night after Michael died. We were booked to do a show in Washington, D.C., and people from all around the world came. It wasn't just about the music that night; it was about keeping people happy."
Whether his lifelong orbit around Jackson's star has been mere coincidence or propelled by otherworldly forces, Bell prefers not to play with the fates and made sure to pay homage on a solo album he's currently working on, due out in 2016. "People said it wouldn't be good for my career to do that, but it bothered me to do an original album without some tribute to Michael."
Who's Bad: The Ultimate Michael Jackson Tribute Band
7:30 p.m. Saturday, January 9, at Parker Playhouse, 707 NE Eighth St., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $38.54 to $53.54 plus fees. Call 954-522-5334, or visit ticketmaster.com.