June 21, 2004 12:00 PM

Sure, Sunshine Haeckel is just one of a legion of Josh Groban devotees who call themselves Grobanites and crisscross the country to see his concerts, holding pep rallies arid snapping up all things Josh: luggage tags, mousepads, snow globes and picture magnets. But Haeckel takes her fandom to another level: She has Groban’s face and autograph tattooed on her left biceps. “I love Josh. I love his innocence and passion,” says Haeckel, 56. “Except for Jesus, nobody has touched my soul like him.”

Groban, 23, is understandably overwhelmed by that type of passion. “Sometimes I want to tell the Grobanites, ‘Go back to your husbands,'” he jokes. At the same time, their devotion should come as no surprise. The curly-haired baritone has sold 5.3 million copies worldwide of his self-titled 2001 debut album and 4.1 million of last year’s follow-up, Closer—even though many of his adult contemporary songs are in Italian or Spanish and aren’t ready-made for MTV or pop radio stations. As a result, his audiences are filled with middle-aged women—who often bring along their young daughters as well as their senior-citizen moms. “I think he’s the son I never had,” says Connie McDonald, 60, a dental office manager from Grand Rapids, Mich., who has seen Groban perform 44 times. But “it’s not just old ladies who are his fans,” says Billboard analyst Geoff Mayfield. “I think it’s a personal connection. He seems accessible as a human being, with that otherworldly voice.”

He has certainly connected with audiences at his sold-out concerts. (The tour resumes in mid July in St. Louis.) Life on the road, he finds, “is not that glamorous and a lot of hard work.” Each performance day begins when he wakes up at 2 or 3 p.m. He has a vocal lesson, followed by a sound check and rehearsal with his band. After each 2½-hour concert, he returns to his home-away-from-home tour bus to pass the time as they roll on to the next stop. “If I do coffee and the laptop, those are my two vices and make a very deadly combination,” says the night owl. He often fantasizes about getting a tattoo or a motorcycle. “It’s the badass in me that’s never ever going to come out,” he says.

It was sounding like an angel, however, that wowed producer-songwriter David Foster in 1998. Foster discovered the then-17-year-old Los Angeles native in 1998 while auditioning singers for Gov. Gray Davis’s inaugural celebration, and later asked him to rehearse with Celine Dion for the 1999 Grammy Awards. By 2000 Groban, whose mother, Lindy, 61, is an interior designer and dad Jack, 58, owns an executive recruiting company, was working on his first CD.

Before long, he was a millionaire (though to this day, he says his only extravagance was buying a Porsche). He performed at the closing ceremony of the 2002 Winter Olympics, appeared on Ally McBeal, hit No. 1 three times on the adult contemporary charts, dueted with Barbra Streisand and dazzled Oprah Winfrey on her show. Winfrey’s pal Gayle King first pestered her to listen to Groban’s debut CD. “His voice makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up,” says King. “On the songs in Italian, I don’t know what he’s saying, but I love it.”

On top of his good fortune, Groban, who lives in a two-bedroom L.A. condo, is savoring his relationship with actress January Jones. The couple met last August, when a mutual friend introduced them at a party in Hollywood. Neither had ever heard of the other. “I was really nervous when I put his CD in the car radio,” says Jones, 26, who starred in this year’s Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. “I so wanted to like it.” She did. Their schedules can keep them apart for weeks at a time, but that “keeps it fresh,” says Jones. “Every time I see him, I’m nervous and giddy and I blush.”

Plus she has nothing to fear from the Grobanites. His fans show Groban their love not by throwing panties, but by waving pen lights when he sings his inspirational anthem “You Raise Me Up.” That’s fine with him, except for one thing. “The security guards at my shows,” he says, “don’t have anything to do.”

Bob Meadows. Linda Trischitta in Miami Beach

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