"Lopez Tonight" is only a few weeks old, but host George Lopez and bandleader Michael Bearden already have their opening ritual down pat. As the Ese Vatos house band jams on War's "Low Rider," Lopez prowls the stage and struts through a frenzied studio audience, gradually working his way to Bearden for a celebratory fist pump.
For Bearden, who spends the show planted behind a bank of keyboards, working on the TBS late-night talk show is more than a great gig. It has also served as an unexpected lifeline.
Months before joining "Lopez Tonight," Bearden was the musical director for Michael Jackson's sold-out comeback concerts in London. It was in June near the end of rehearsals that the pop icon died, but not before developing an obvious bond with Bearden, who was in charge of the show's musical elements. The pair's often animated and intense exchanges are among the highlights of the film "Michael Jackson's This Is It," which chronicles the singer's preparation for the comeback show.
Bearden was among the last people to see Jackson alive -- and the singer's untimely death still weighs heavily upon him. "This was a really soft place to land," Bearden said last week in his trailer adjacent to the Warner Bros. Studios' soundstage in Burbank, where the TBS talk show is taped. "Being here has really been an emotional rescue for me. I really haven't had time to deal with Michael being gone, which is good."
After Jackson's death, Bearden helped put together the singer's memorial service, and then jumped right into helping edit more than 1,200 hours of raw footage shot primarily for Jackson's personal use. (Bearden is one of the movie's associate producers and also composed the score.)
"There were a lot of tissue moments working on that film," said Bearden. "It was by far the hardest thing I've ever had to do."
For Bearden, his welcome new role on "Lopez Tonight" caps a roller-coaster year. In January, he was the principal keyboardist for President Obama's inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial. He was also reunited with First Lady Michelle Obama, with whom he went to high school on the South Side of Chicago.
"Seeing her and Barack there was unbelievable," he said. "This really has been an up-and-down year."
Though accustomed to working around the biggest names in music -- he has been musical director for Madonna, Usher, Mary J. Blige and others -- Bearden regards his experience with Jackson as a career high point. Despite the closeness, the two could still get pointed with each other.
"We called that creative jousting," Bearden said with a smile. "With no hubris, I didn't get here by being a sycophant or by kissing up to the stars. They want to hear that feedback. After a while, MJ just trusted me."
He last saw the singer the night before his death, at the end of a long day of rehearsals in an underground parking lot of Staples Center.
"There were no signs that there was anything wrong with him," he said. "In fact, he seemed to be getting stronger. He hugged me, said, 'God bless you, Bearden. I love you.' I said, 'I love you.' He said, 'See you tomorrow.'
Bearden takes heart that "This Is It" will help spread Jackson's message.
"The success of the movie shows that Michael has touched more people around the world than he ever would have been able to touch with these concerts," said Bearden. "That would have been limited to people in London or those around the world who would have traveled there. Now so many more people are getting his message."
But gradually, Bearden has been able to embrace his time with Jackson. Bearden recently helmed a tribute to Jackson during the Lopez show's first week, and two members from Jackson's band -- bassist Alex Al and guitarist Tommy Organ -- are in the show's band.
Bearden has enjoyed good chemistry with Lopez as well.
"You can't sail a ship in shallow water, and he brings the water to the ocean," said Lopez. "We both really want to change things in late night. When we met each other, we didn't try to impress each other. It was just about, 'Let's be friends and do our best work together.' "