Gabriel Bello said he was performing at a restaurant one day when a friend approached him after the show.
“You sound just like Stevie,” Bello recalls.
The friend, also a musician, was talking about Stevie Wonder, one of the greatest rhythm and blues musicians of all time.
“He said ‘you need to do a Stevie Wonder tribute, because no one else is doing it and no one else could do it,’” Bello said.
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Bello was intrigued by the idea. Stevie Wonder is one of his favorite artists and Bello was already a great pianist and singer. All he needed to learn was the harmonica.
Bello did some research and finally decided to pay tribute to Stevie Wonder through a performance four years ago. It went well, he said, and on Saturday, he’ll bring that act to the Garner Performing Arts Center stage. It will be the GPAC’s final performance for the season.
Last year’s final performance was the Shadow of the 60’s, a group paying tribute to Motown. It sold out.
Debbie Dunn, the auditorium manager at the GPAC, saw similar potential for this show. She said she first saw Bello perform at the North Carolina Association of Festivals and Events.
“The minute I saw him I was blown away,” Dunn said.
Dunn found his agent and asked if Bello, who is based out of Charlotte, would be interested in performing in Garner.
“First of all it was the full experience,” Dunn said of his tribute to Stevie Wonder. “The music of Stevie Wonder is complex and they were nailing it.
“Add on to that his great vocals and ability to play the piano. To me this guy was the full package.”
Bello first learned music as a young child playing music in the church. Nearly everyone in his immediate family has some dealings with music in some shape or form.
His uncle played classical guitar, his dad plays percussion, his mom he says, “sings like a bird,” his older brother is a professional bass player and his sister has a music degree from Belmont University.
“There’s no shortage of musicians in the Bello family,” he said.
Bello first started playing professionally at 15. His main instruments were the trumpet and the piano. He added other instruments to his repertoire, including the saxophone. Since he’s been doing the Stevie Wonder tribute he’s learned how to play the harmonica.
Bello’s first experience as Stevie wasn’t when he started performing this tribute. It was in college. There was a college fair on campus, and some students were asked to dress up as celebrities and say good things about the school to prospective students of Lee University in Tennessee. Bello chose to dress as Stevie Wonder.
He even sang like Stevie.
Bello didn’t graduate from Lee University. He was forced to drop out after he was diagnosed with stage two Hodgkin’s Disease 16 years ago. He started chemotherapy but the only thing it did was zap his energy.
Then one day, while performing in a Christian concert, Bello said he felt healed. He went to his doctor to get checked up and the cancer was gone.
Doctors couldn’t explain how it happened, he said.
“The chemo didn’t do it,” Bello said. He said he knows God healed him in that moment.
“I wasn’t supposed to have kids after chemo. Now I have a two-year-old,” he said. “I’m a walking miracle.”
Bello says that moment helped him become the person he is today and has helped him in his performances.
“It’s impossible to separate my music from my story,” Bello said. “I can talk about positivity and my faith and my story because Stevie talks about all those things in his music. It’s not just about parties and dancing. Unlike artists today he talks about everything in his music.”
Bello said that is what you can expect from his performances. He has a band, including a drummer, a guitarist, percussionists, and background singers.
“It’s the closest thing you’ll get to see to the man himself,” Bello said. “We stay true to the arrangements. If you saw Stevie live, that’s what you will hear.”
“It looks, sounds and feels just like the man himself.”
Want to go?
What: Natural Wonder, the Ultimate Stevie Wonder Experience
Where: Garner Performing Arts Center, 742 W. Garner Road.
When: Saturday, May 14, 7:30 p.m.
How to buy: Go to http://www.garnerperformingartscenter.com/NaturalWonder.asp or call 919-661-4602
Tickets: $20 in advance. $23 at the door