Orianthi Panagaris thought she had the perfect plan. The 24-year-old guitar virtuoso, who hails from Adelaide, Australia, was all set to shred as part of Michael Jackson's band during his set of comeback shows in London. She was also working on a solo debut, but thought it would be released after the run of shows that would establish her as the female Carlos Santana.
Then reality tragically intruded. Her plans came crashing down when Jackson died June 25 after suffering from a cardiac arrest, just three months before his planned return to the stage.
But rather than retreating, Orianthi, who uses only her first name professionally, changed course. Her debut album, "Believe"-for which she wrote songs and sings and plays guitar-was originally due later in the fall, but Geffen Records moved up the release date to Oct. 26 to take advantage of the hype surrounding the theatrical release of "This Is It," the posthumous Jackson music film. "When people see the movie, they're going to think I'm either the fastest ambulance chaser in the business or that I know what I'm doing," quips Ron Fair, chairman of Geffen Records. "She's absolutely the world's greatest female guitar shredder of all time. No disrespect to Lita Ford, but there's no comparison."
The global release of "This Is It" to an estimated 25,000 theaters worldwide by Oct. 28 presented a promotional opportunity too irresistible for Geffen to ignore. "Believe" was released Oct. 26, the same day as the soundtrack to "This Is It."
For the last three months of Jackson's life, Orianthi worked closely and intensely with the superstar. His death is still a raw topic for Orianthi, but she now feels comfortable opening up. "It was so devastating for all of us involved, working with him for three months preparing for the biggest show on Earth," she says. "But I got to play music with him-I'm so grateful I got that time. The experience made me believe in myself more."
Orianthi's stint with Jackson wasn't her first time working with a superstar collaborator. Her father, a performer in a Greek band, kept various guitars around the home, and it didn't take long before Orianthi picked her instrument. Throughout her teens, she traded riffs with the best in the business. By the age of 15 she had worked with her "hero" Steve Vai, and at 18 she had joined Santana onstage in her hometown. Tours and guest appearances followed with the likes of ZZ Top and Prince.
"It's not easy being a female guitar player," she says. "You have to believe in yourself. I had a teacher at school who told me to take up the harp. Hopefully we'll be able to inspire a whole bunch of kids to pick up a guitar and take it seriously. That's my goal: to inspire more female guitarists out there."