Singer does better seen than heard

Josh Groban found his way into the public eye first, then the public ear

Pop Music

April 28, 2002|By Jim Farber | By Jim Farber,Knight Ridder / Tribune

Radio won't play him. He hasn't toured in support of his album.

Yet neither factor stopped Josh Groban's debut record from pole-vaulting more than 100 places on Billboard magazine's latest Top 200 Album chart, quintupling its sales from the week before.

How did he do it?

The idiot box.

A profile of the singer that aired on the magazine show 20 / 20 levitated enough Groban-enraptured couch potatoes into stores to push his self-titled platter to No. 12, the highest slot of its five-month life.

In fact, nearly all of the singer's 500,000 sales so far have resulted from various appearances on TV, including a recurring part on Ally McBeal.

He's not the only one benefiting from this strategy.

With radio formats narrowing, concert attendance dipping and MTV showering much of its attention on the likes of The Osbournes, record companies have turned to mainstream TV as a promotional fallback.

'I'm not ready for it'

That's especially true for the quasi-genre to which Groban belongs. He resides in that airy netherworld bordering classical music, show tunes and schmaltz, nestled among Russell Watson, Charlotte Church, Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman. Each has been ignored on radio and embraced by television.

While some people might call what Groban does classical music -- since he works with orchestras and sometimes sings in Italian -- he begs to differ.

"I'm not going to say I sing opera as a tenor," he says. "I have too much respect for the classical genre. I'm not ready for it."

Classical critics heartily agree. But 21-year-old Groban doesn't think it's fair for them to evaluate him at all. "I'm willing to take criticism in the pop genre," he says, "but not in the classical."

True enough, Groban's sound has more in common with florid theater singers like Mandy Patinkin or Brian Stokes Mitchell. Groban leaned toward such theatrical styles, he says, "because of the voice I was given."

Role created for him

He began formal vocal training in adolescence. And because he grew up in starry L.A., Groban just happened to have a coach with connections -- namely, slick pop producer David Foster (who has worked with Whitney Houston, among others).

Foster signed him to his 143 Records label. But Groban's real break came when he met television writer / producer David E. Kelley at a benefit show. Upon hearing his voice, Kelley not only wrote the young man's music into Ally McBeal, but created a role for him as well. The result launched the LP last fall.

Now that Groban has a medium for exposure, he's happy he didn't compromise to get a radio single.

"It would have been easy for me to go in and put the latest techno beat behind a song and get airplay," he says. "The only problem is, then my career would be over in a month."

Instead, it may soon be too big for the small screen to contain.

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