Crossover Prince: Josh Groban is latest classical artist to burst onto pop music scene
San Francisco Chronicle
January 17, 2002
By James Sullivan, Chronicle Pop Music Critic
The "Greatest Gainer" on the pop album chart sings opera.

OK, not quite opera. Twenty-year-old Josh Groban is actually a kinder, gentler version of that endangered species, the power balladeer. But he does belt out several tunes in Italian.

Groban, a corkscrew-curly SoCal dude with a youthful, Broadway-inspired baritone, is a protege of the blockbuster producer David Foster (Celine Dion, Whitney Houston). He got his big break on "Ally McBeal," singing -- in English -- on the 2001 season finale and last month's Christmas episode.

The breaks have come fast and furious for this lucky greenhorn, who represents the latest in a long line of pop-classical crossovers whose commercial heft eclipses the inevitable critical reservations.

The same listeners who might once have fallen for Michael Bolton or Richard Marx have been upscaling of late, making pop superstars of such classically trained singers as Groban, Charlotte Church and Andrea Bocelli.

Groban's pedigree says plenty. Besides Foster, participants on his self- titled debut include the Bay Area producer Walter Afanasieff (Bolton, Mariah Carey), onetime hitmaker Marx (in a production role) and teen diva Church. The track listing includes selections from Bach, Cirque du Soleil and "Cinema Paradiso," as well as Don McLean's "Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)." Make of that what you will.

At last check, the record was poised just outside Billboard's Top 40 albums, at No. 41, having leaped all the way from No. 103 the previous week. What's more, "Josh Groban" has been the top seller on Amazon.com's daily sales chart for weeks, slipping only occasionally to No. 2 or 3.

The "Ally McBeal" appearances have stirred up most of the interest in Groban, but his brief career already sparkles with the sort of serendipity that could make a struggling choirboy renounce the Vatican.

Foster recruited him through Groban's vocal coach when the producer was scrambling for talent for Gray Davis' inauguration. Since then, Groban has shared stages with Sarah Brightman, contributed to Steven Spielberg's "A.I." soundtrack and appeared at several high-profile benefits, including Andre Agassi's Grand Slam Event for Children alongside Elton John and Stevie Wonder.

The selling of this sort of highbrow/lowbrow crossover isn't hard to understand from a business perspective, says Howard Blumenthal, who has written several books on the entertainment industry, including the Classical CD Listener's Guide.

"It's been a very difficult decade for classical labels," he says. "The retail base has been shrinking. Finding product to break through is tough, and luring younger listeners is a constant challenge."

The record industry, Blumenthal says, is better equipped to mold a celebrity than a piece of music that becomes a best-seller on its own merit. But he also suggests that recent efforts to market a Groban or a Russell Watson to an audience more familiar with rock and pop is rooted in "Chant," the 1994 Benedictine monks' recording of Gregorian plainsong that found an unlikely mainstream audience.

"That was when (classical record companies) realized they could create a phenomenon in their own space," Blumenthal says. "At a certain point, there are enough Beethoven or Liszt piano pieces. You need new product to bring people into the fold."

High-low crossover is nothing new, of course. Luciano Pavarotti has sung duets with Tom Jones and Meat Loaf. Liberace and Enrico Caruso were classically trained performers who knew how to bend the ears of the masses. And Billy Joel and Paul McCartney are only the most prominent of a growing list of rock 'n' rollers who have taken stabs at "serious" composing in their graying years.

But the grooming of the teen brigade, the Grobans and Charlotte Churches, was probably inevitable in a culture so obsessed with youth and potential.

The pair are scheduled to perform their duet, "The Prayer," on Feb. 24 at the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics. Other acts will include 'N Sync, Christina Aguilera and Bon Jovi.

"Staying power," Blumenthal notes dryly, "really doesn't matter as much as it did," say, back in Beethoven's day.

But Groban claims he's in this for the long haul. "People might want to classify me as operatic, I suppose," he said recently, "but I won't even be touching arias for a long time."

The wait, no doubt, will be excruciating.