That voice, those looks put Grobanites in swoon

Josh Groban is the new hot ticket for middle America

Baltimore... Or Less

April 04, 2004|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,Sun Staff

They call themselves Grobanites. And 60 of them recently crammed into a room at Sabatino's restaurant in Baltimore's Little Italy for dinner and a love-in. The object of their desire: Josh Groban, a pop singer with a voice that makes their hearts soar and their tears flow.

Amid dishes of pasta, they swapped photos, shared stories and bonded. In this world, the person next to you -- even if she was a complete stranger 10 minutes ago -- instantly became your best friend. This cell of the Josh Groban fan club had more than just the singer in common: They were mostly white, over 45 and female.

As they traveled en masse to see their favorite pop artist sing at a sold-out show at the Lyric Opera House on Monday night, they recounted all there is to love about him. He's young (23) and handsome (blond curls and boyish good looks). No visible tattoos or piercings, he's not angry, he's the classic boy next door.

To his fans, it matters little that he doesn't write his own music and doesn't speak any of the foreign languages he sings in. Until recently, his songs weren't even played on the radio. What matters is what he does have: a baritone voice as lush as velvet (or Velveeta to his detractors).

That voice and persona are bringing him great success. He's sold 10 million records. Closer, the record he's currently promoting, has been on the Billboard charts for 119 weeks, and was No. 1 last week. His current tour -- his first -- sold out in most of 44 locations within 20 minutes of the announcement that it went on sale. At this point, it costs a mint to see him live. Seats for yesterday's show at Radio City Music Hall were priced at $1,020 on Ticket, a Web site that specializes in tickets to sold-out shows.

'Violated every rule'

At Sabatino's, fans spoke of Groban in spiritual -- almost messianic -- terms. Allison Smith, 47, of Ellicott City showed off her holiday greeting cards, which pictured her next to Tariqh Akoni, Groban's guitarist. The photograph was taken outside a club in L.A. where band members sometimes play. On the card, Smith wished her friends and family "Merry Joshmas."

Kay Gentile, 45, of Laurel, said she lost 55 pounds after becoming a Grobanite. She first heard Groban perform on television at the closing ceremonies for the 2001 Olympic games. "I was in a rut, and I was so inspired by Josh's music," she said. "The first time it went straight though me -- though my central nervous system." She went online and discovered a community of like-minded fans and started meeting them in person. "This sounds bizarre, but it helped with my self-image. I went from feeling like a frumpy housewife to having places to go. Because I had all of these new people to meet, to look good for, it was easy to lose the weight."

Now she travels all over the country to meet other fans and hear him play. Her husband, Paul, 47, sometimes tags along wearing a badge identifying him as a HOG -- husband of a Grobanite.

Groban started his career playing to a huge crowd and hasn't looked back. "We have violated every rule, and it has set a precedent in the record business," said Brian Avnet, his manager, who got his start in Baltimore.

"My partner, David Foster, and I got to a point where we got fed up with making records the way radio demands you make them," Avnet said. They turned to their considerable Rolodex files.

Foster, a 14-time Grammy-winning writer and producer who worked with Whitney Houston and Celine Dion, wanted some young talent to sing at California Gov. Gray Davis' 1999 inauguration. He and Avnet heard a tape that Groban's vocal coach sent in -- and they knew they'd found something unusual. They booked Groban for the event, and the singer made an impression.

Producer David E. Kelley became an enthusiast, and this helped Groban land other television appearances, including several on the Ally McBeal show. By the time he was on Oprah Winfrey, Groban already had a fan base.

"When he went on, Oprah said, 'OK, Grobanites -- he's on the show -- you can stop calling and writing in now,' " said Avnet. "When we started, it was women over 35, people who watched TV. ... Now his audience covers the entire spectrum."

A voice of passion

Groban's most recent major televised performance was at the Super Bowl. He wasn't part of the controversial halftime show -- he sang an opening tribute to the seven astronauts who died in last year's space shuttle disaster.

"He appeals to the PBS-lite crowd," said Randy Alexander, president of Randex Communications, an entertainment firm in New Jersey. "He is product, plain and simple. He's basically billed as a male counterpart of Celine Dion. He appeals to the same people who like romantic, emotional -- dare I say overwrought? -- pop balladry."

"The American Idol guys are the same thing," Alexander said. "They come to television first, and then they go to radio. This follows a similar sensibility. You're talking mainstream middle-American."

Since Groban doesn't write most of his own music, it's hard to glean much about him from the lyrics or the score. But that may change. "I've been writing songs my whole life," Groban says. "It wasn't until the second album that I had the confidence to co-write [some songs]."

The fans don't demand creativity from him; they're happy with what he brings to each piece with his voice. "His voice speaks to you," said Pam Breslin, 44, of Baltimore. "I can be in the car listening, and I start crying. A lot of woman have waited for someone like him. ... His singing is in tune with the essence of women. He promotes romance and love and passion, passion, passion."

Eddie Dopkin, 51, of Baltimore, was lounging in his seat a few moments before the concert started. "If I get a massage, I play the music. If I'm antsy, I play the music. It has a physical effect," he said. "This just grabs me, like a spirit or something -- I can't believe I'm saying this. It almost feels like it is a religion."

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