Some years seem to promise better things. Other years deliver them.
This was one of those other years for Josh Groban.
Last April, when we first profiled Groban on 20/20 and ABCNEWS.com, the story was headlined "A Star in the Making." A few weeks ago, in a recording studio in Los Angeles, we heard music producer David Foster sum up what the last eight months have brought.
Addressing the musicians gathered to record a Christmas standard, "O, Holy Night," with Groban, Foster said: "The last time we were in this room together with Josh, he hadn't sold one record. Now he's sold 3 million records."
Debut Exceeds Expectations
Sales of his debut album, titled Josh Groban, made up only one of the elements that increased the visibility and stature of a career that has exploded this year, and which began to deliver gains that surprised even some people in the music industry who believed in his potential. Foster believes that Groban, only 21, will fill a void in the market for male pop balladeers.
Several million viewers heard Groban for the first time on a 2001 episode of Ally McBeal. He played a clumsy, self-conscious kid his own age who sued a girl because she dumped him as a prom date. It was the revelation of hearing Groban's singing voice at the end of the show that started phones ringing the next day.
"It was kind of like, 'Well, that was fun. Don't expect to hear anything from that,'" Groban said of his appearance. "Then, that morning, I got a call from my manager, Brian. And he said, you know, 'Oh, Star Radio in San Diego wants to interview you.'"
Groban called the radio station and was told that disc jockeys had been playing his song, "You're Still You," all morning. Internet inquiries about Groban came in so fast that he became what one executive called "the first Internet star." A site for him was assembled hastily — and his debut CD this year became one of the top sellers on Billboard's charts.
Raised in a Los Angeles family with no show business connections, Groban was noticed for his voice at an early age. He remembers one comment in particular. "Somebody came up to me and said, 'You've got a really beautiful voice. You've got a nice light bulb, you just don't have the power yet.'"
Groban's big break came when a vocal coach sent a tape to Foster, a top producer who was looking for young talent to perform at charity events.
One of the moments that helps place Groban's career in perspective occurred four years ago, when Foster was rehearsing a song, "The Prayer," for the 1999 Grammy Awards. The song was scheduled as a duet between Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli. But Bocelli couldn't make the rehearsal, so Foster called Groban and asked him to stand in. At first, Groban said no. He didn't think he could sing in the right key.
"I didn't want to go in there unprepared," Groban said.
But Foster convinced him to do it, and Dion remembers vividly what happened. "This young man comes on stage almost going backward he was so scared," she said. "He took the microphone, and when he started to sing, he couldn't be any more powerful than that. … This kid was incredible!"
Foster was ready to make the investment if Groban, who eventually canceled his college plans, would make the commitment.
A Voice That Needs No Gimmicks
This year, Foster's faith in Groban is paying off handsomely. In the last 10 months, Groban's career has gained 10 years' worth of momentum. He sang at the closing ceremonies for the Olympics; at the Kennedy Center's Sept. 11 "Concert for America"; at the World Series; and on his own special on PBS, which was later released on a DVD. He sang on a float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
When it was announced that Barbra Streisand would release an album of duets with one appearance by a surprise artist — the artist was Groban.
If you try to analyze what kind of presence is working for him, it is in some respects an absence of the kind of gimmicks many new performers use to get attention (or cover up a lack of vocal ability). With his voice, he doesn't need them. In his first television special, he clearly held the stage on his own.
Of all the appearances he has made this year, one of the most rewarding was a reminder of how far he had come. The gawky kid who was called in as a rehearsal stand-in with Celine Dion four years ago stood as her co-star four weeks ago, singing the same number, "The Prayer," at a concert for World Children's Day.
Groban said the times he feels he is at his best as a performer are when "you're in this zone, and it's only when you've got absolutely nothing going on except the emotion of the song, that everything seems to click."
"I think one thing is going to happen in five years," Foster said. "You're just going to say the word 'Josh' and there is going to be no other Josh, it's just going to be Josh Groban."
To see more of the exclusive footage of Celine and Josh and other artists, you may purchase a DVD of the Concert for World Children's Day at http://www.rmhc.yahoo.com. All of the net proceeds go to benefit the Ronald McDonald House Charities.