In the history of the rock era, no other recording artists have earned as many gold records in one year as the Osmond family. Not even the Beatles were able to receive eleven gold award certificates in one year, but the Osmonds and solo teen idol Donny Osmond still hold that record today. The year was 1971. It began with their first #1 record “One Bad Apple,” a song that spent five weeks at the top of the Billboard pop charts. If it were not for the phenomenal chart conquest by the Osmonds in the early seventies, there might never have been a New Kids on the Block in the eighties. Likewise, the Jackson 5 certainly helped pave the way for five white Mormon brothers from Utah to hit the charts. The story of the Osmond family goes back for many years before their amazing chart success.
Growing up in a large Mormon family in Ogden, Utah, the Osmond brothers began singing together at a very early age. As with most performing families, it’s hard to trace the first time the brothers began to harmonize together, but the four oldest boys began singing in their church about 1959. The Mormon religion encouraged talent and performances among families and “family night” activities led to the group’s formation.
The performing members of the original Osmond quartet, born to George and Olive Osmond, were Alan (born 1949), Wayne (1951), Merrill (1953), and Jay (1955). Donny was born in 1957 and would join the group at the age of 6. There are two older brothers, Virl (1945) and Tommy (1947), who are hearing impaired and later were in charge of the business side of the group. The only female sibling, Marie, was born in 1959 and the youngest boy, Jimmy (who would later have a Top 40 hit on his own), was born in 1963.
In 1962, the Osmond quartet learned barber shop-style harmony and their father took them to Los Angeles to try for an audition with Lawrence Welk. When they were unable to get an appearance with Welk, the rejected siblings were taken to Disneyland as a consolation. The young performers, still dressed in their barber shop clothing, caught the eye of a quartet performing in the park. This led to a spontaneous performance, acceptance with the crowd, and their first professional job. It was at one of these performances that Andy Williams’ father, Jay, saw the family and suggested they audition for Andy’s new television show. The Osmond brothers were signed as a regular act on the show, which ran on NBC from 1962 through 1967. Donny first appeared as a member of the group on the show in 1963 and during one of the programs, Marie Osmond sang with her brothers for the first time. The Osmonds performed for five years with Andy and from 1967 to 1969 on the “Jerry Lewis Show.”
During their early television appearance years, the Osmonds recorded four albums on the Barnaby and Uni labels, none of which created any chart hits. They recorded a song called “I Can’t Stop” for Uni in 1969 with the help of Bobby Darin. The song would later chart for one week (at #96) after the success of “One Bad Apple.”
In 1970, they were signed to MGM records by Mike Curb who, before becoming active in politics in California, created many a teen idol during the seventies such as Shaun Cassidy and Leif Garrett. Curb only had to look at the biggest selling act of 1970 as proof that the Osmonds could become a gold mine. Five brothers from Indiana had made it to #1 with their first four singles. They, of course, were the Jackson 5. Curb reasoned that a white version of a singing family could become even more accepted in mainstream America than the Jackson 5. He set up his new group with a producer from Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama, where many R&B artists had cut their hits. One of the staff writers there, George Jackson (no relation to the “5”), came up with “One Bad Apple,” a song that had more than a passing resemblance to the music of the Jackson 5. It was the perfect vehicle to break the new group on the charts. The record entered the National Top 100 the very first week of 1971 and “Osmondmania” was set to begin.
Alan Osmond, the oldest member of the group, was twenty-two in 1971 and recalls the moment when “One Bad Apple” went to #1:
“I can remember sitting in our home– not sitting, standing, listening to KHJ, which was a Top 40 station at the time in L.A. They were doing the countdown. Number three, number two, and finally Number One! Our eyes were as big as saucers. We looked at each other and just screamed because you have to realize where we came from. We came from a Utah, up-in-the-mountains background of just good ‘ol boys. We were told that we would never be a hit act because we just weren’t ‘with it.’ We were not a drug kind of group. We felt that we could do it our way, which was a little different. When we finally did it there was a lot of emotion there!”
“One Bad Apple” spent five weeks at the top and the Osmonds, who had invested years learning to play a total of about thirty musical instruments among themselves, began to play live in-concert. Alan remembers the first test concert:
“We set foot onstage and these young gals are screaming their lungs out! I’d never been screamed at before. We were heavily choreographed, much like the groups are nowadays, doing the ‘Black music’ and doggone it if they didn’t scream at us! We were told by major sound companies that did the sound for the loudest rock’n’roll groups at the time, that the Osmonds were the loudest group on the road. It was because of the decibels that we had to push out, to go over the top of the screaming voices that were coming at us. It was very, very exciting.”
“One Bad Apple” did draw quite a few comparisons to the music of the Jackson 5, and Alan admits that there were a lot of similarities between the two groups:
“There were only two young groups on the market at the time, that were families and our age. We did get mistaken and what a compliment. Because the Jacksons were very good friends and we were big fans of theirs at that time. We laughed about those things in those early days.”
Even before “One Bad Apple” had left the charts, Donny Osmond’s teen idol solo career began with his first Top Ten record, “Sweet and Innocent.” Donny would go on to have thirteen Top 40 records, six Top 10 records, and five million-selling discs, including his first #1, “Go Away Little Girl,” in 1971. He was the longest running teen idol of the seventies, since his last charted hit record (until more recently) was in 1978. Because of his age, Donny remembers little of the early Osmond years:
“It was just jam-packed with a lot of stuff. It seems that when you really jam your life with a lot of things, you start to forget a lot. A lot of that stuff is kind of a gray area in my mind. I was just doing so much at five, six. It really started at seven. That’s when I started doing some world traveling with my brothers.”
Aside from Donny’s solo hits, which all of the brothers were involved in in one way or another, Donny was also right up front on most of the Osmond’s hits. They had two more in 1971, “Double Lovin'” and “Yo-Yo,” which was written by the late singer/songwriter Joe South. With all of the hits and constant touring, the little that Donny now remembers isn’t incredibly enjoyable:
“I was just running around so fast and we were doing so many concerts and being so many places at one time. I wasn’t really able to enjoy it that much,” he says. “We took a lot of film that is in my vault, that I haven’t even looked at yet. One of these days, I’m gonna pull it out and take a look at all that stuff and probably enjoy it then!”
As for his long run as a teen idol, Donny has some very good advice for all performers who achieve success so young. When asked if he had regrets about his teen idol days, Donny responds:
“There are regrets. When you get typecasted in one thing, it sticks for a while. But the advantage of it is that you can hit at such a young age, stay away for a while, and then come back as basically a new artist to a new generation. Your generation, who remembers the old stuff, looks at it as nostalgia and you kind of have two or three different careers by hitting so early.”
During all of this, sister Marie was watching with admiration what her brothers were accomplishing. She would soon get her chance at a recording career, but she recalls the early days of “Osmondmania” quite vividly today:
“I did a big convention show [in 1990] and a bunch of these doctors and lawyers came back and they were with their wives, who were about my age. All of them, dressed in their gowns were saying, ‘Oh yeah, man, I scaled the fence at such and such concert in ’72,’ and, ‘I tried to sneak in to the hotel with an axe and break down the back door.’ All of the husbands were looking at their wives going, ‘This is bizarre!’ It was really funny because I watched all this. It was really an amazing time.”
The fact that Donny Osmond became the #1 teen idol of the seventies, even eclipsing his brothers’ success on the pop chart, was not a source of rivalry at all in this family.
“Our upbringing and the kind of life that we live, the kind of family that we are, we have a philosophy and had it at that time, that we didn’t care who was out front as long as their name was Osmond,” Alan states. “We were all supportive of that. We all very honestly, basically shared financially together equally and we all took that profile that if I happen to be the lead singer, it doesn’t make me any better than you guys, you’re working just as hard as I am. So if one wanted to step forward, if we felt that’s what would work, that’s what the fans would want and it would be successful, that’s what we did.”
The Osmond Brothers as a performing act provoke a mostly negative response from adults today. But aside from the bubblegummy/teen idol material put out by young Donny at the time and Donny and Marie in the middle seventies, the Osmond Brothers actually were quite a rock’n’roll group. Their music tended to be loud and hard. Songs like “Down by the Lazy River,” “Crazy Horses,” and “Hold Her Tight,” all Top 20 hits written by the brothers, almost bordered on heavy metal. In fact, “Hold Her Tight” is basically a re-worked version of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.”
“That’s why I find our image today very interesting,” says Donny. “It’s because when the teeny-bopper thing hit, it hit so hard, nobody really looked at the hard side of the Osmonds, the rock’n’roll side. You listen to some of the stuff we did on “The Plan” and the “Crazy Horses” albums, it’s pretty heavy, strong rock’n’roll. I agree with you that ‘Hold Her Tight’ does have some Led Zeppelin sounds to it. [It’s] a bit more representative of what the band was all about back in the seventies.”
Alan has a different theory as to why the Osmonds aren’t looked back upon as a hard rockin’ group today:
“It was because they grew up with ‘The Andy Williams Show’ with us. When we visited overseas, the first thing they remembered was ‘Crazy Horses’ and ‘Down by the Lazy River.’ We’d go out there, and where we may have had young screaming girls here, we had heavy rockin’ out guys with long hair over there. We were quoted as being right up there with Led Zeppelin. That’s what we were: a very strong, heavy metal type of a group. We’re metal inside, brother!”
Marie Osmond finishes her brothers’ thoughts about why the band isn’t regarded as a cool rock act today and puts things in perspective with the seventies:
“During the seventies, it was a real interesting period,” states Marie. “We grew up with a very strong sense of family. We abstained from drugs and alcohol, those type of things, which was really uncool in the seventies. It’s pretty cool now there’s health reasons to back it all up. But in the seventies, it wasn’t particularly cool to do. Also, some of it had to do with the fact that so many girls loved my brothers, some of the guys were really ticked off about it!”
The Osmonds and Donny Osmond were hitting the charts repeatedly from 1971 to 1974, the main years of “Osmondmania.” Even “Little” Jimmy Osmond reached the Top 40 in 1972 with “Long Haired Lover from Liverpool.” He became something of a teen idol sensation in Japan and other parts of the world. Marie Osmond did not record until 1973, when “Paper Roses” reached the Top Ten.
Marie asserts that there never was any pressure as an Osmond child to perform:
“There was never any pressure, although I think intuitively, we all just kind of felt like that was something that we did. It was difficult being the eighth member of the family to find the courage to follow in the family tradition. I guess I was one of the later starters. I recorded my first record when I was twelve and a half!”
It was by choice that Marie Osmond sang country music. She always loved it and was the only one in the family who listened to it growing up. Sonny James, the legendary country performer, produced her first two singles. The Jordanaires, Elvis Presley’s back-up group, sang on the tunes. Marie selected the songs with Sonny and chose her first million-seller, “Paper Roses,” because she felt comfortable singing it. She wasn’t quite as comfortable in the recording studio at the time.
“I was horrified,” Marie recalls. “I remember walking into the studio and thinking ‘Good grief!’ I’d seen my brothers do all this stuff, but it’s really different when all of a sudden everybody’s waiting for you to sing it right. It was really an overwhelming, but very enjoyable experience.”
Meanwhile, Donny continued his pop success with “Puppy Love,” another million-selling remake, in 1972. It’s a song that he finds very painful to listen to now.
“I’m sure years from now,” projects Donny, “when I’m re-establishing what I’ve been doing and people accept me for what I’m recording now, I could look back at it and it won’t bug me. I’d rather not hear those kinds of things [today].”
In 1974, one year after Marie’s first hit, she was in Las Vegas with the family, when on the spur of the moment, she and Donny performed a duet together. They sang the Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway tune, “Where Is the Love.”
“We had a lot of people comment, ‘Hey, your voices really sound good together,'” Marie recollects. “I believe it was Fred Silverman [from ABC TV] who saw us and said, ‘Hey, that would be a wonderful idea for a TV show: she loves country and he loves rock’n’roll and they’re brother and sister.’ I vaguely remember what went on because I was about fourteen when it all happened. All I remember is that one day I was handed a pair of ice skates and I was told to learn how to skate!”
The teaming of Donny and Marie turned out to be one of the most successful of the decade and one of the most profitable arms of the ever-growing Osmond empire–which now included television production. The Osmond family also had their own record label by then, Kolob records, as well as publishing, merchandising, construction, and record production branches of the family business. With the start of the “Donny and Marie” series, they became the first ever brother and sister team and the youngest co-hosts of a prime time variety series in TV history. The show aired on ABC from January 1976 through January 1979. Looking back at the very successful series, which opened up its first two years with Donny and Marie skating around on ice, both Donny and Marie have a difference of opinion today.
“I enjoyed doing some of the comedy sketches and a lot of the music, particularly the concert spot where it was ‘A Little Bit Country, a Little Bit Rock’n’Roll,'” Donny acknowledges. “I didn’t enjoy the slapstick. The tacky comedy. The pie in the faces. The cutesy stuff. You know, ‘Cute, Marie, real cute.’ But my hands were tied because we had a script to go with and we were under a tight schedule and there was no time to change things.”
Marie remembers the program more fondly today “When I look back upon that time, I don’t know many people that were my age that got to work with the Bob Hope’s and the Groucho Marx’s and the Lucille Ball’s. It was a great learning experience.”
Marie comments on her relationship with Donny during the television show:
“We had a unique relationship. I don’t think everything was smooth all the time. We’re both pretty strong-headed. When you have two hundred and sixty some-odd pages of script to learn in two and a half days, it doesn’t leave you a lot of time to really fight. I think even today, the two of us are very close, because we experienced the same things. We went through a lot of stuff that other members in the family didn’t necessarily go through. So we’re close in that sense. I admire Donny a great deal. I think he’s extremely talented.”
Donny’s biggest regret about those “Donny and Marie” days is that he wore purple socks. “Although,” he now says, “when Prince picked up on the color, then it was cool!”
“I think there are things that you never live down,” Marie admits. “Donny’s had some things to overcome, I guess because he was a child star. But I think he’s done a great job. I think we all have things. It’s difficult to have people let you grow up. Donny and I have talked. Maybe someday we would do a special or something together, but we are still very different musically.”
As a team, Donny and Marie added six more Top 40 records to the growing Osmond family collection. Most of them were remakes, like those Donny’s teen idol career had been built on. “I’m Leaving It (All) Up to You” was the first Top 10 smash, followed by “Morning Side of the Mountain” and “Deep Purple.” The latter was a remake of a #1 hit from 1963 recorded by another brother and sister act, Nino Tempo and April Stevens (originally it was a #1 hit in 1939 for Larry Clinton and his Orchestra).
Despite Marie’s objections, Donny continued to push the duo toward an increasingly pop feel. The very last time that a member of the Osmond family reached the Top 40 was in 1978, a Donny and Marie disco/dance tune called “On the Shelf.” It was from a movie bomb that they starred in which was produced by the Osmond empire, “Goin’ Coconuts.” By that time, Donny and Marie had become so uncool at hit oriented radio stations that copies of the single were sent out with the artist listed simply as “D&M.” No member of the Osmond family would reach the pop charts again until Donny made a comeback in 1989.
The last charted tune by the Osmond Brothers was in 1975. After four solid years of chart hits, things finally slowed down for them on the pop charts.
“I personally think there are cycles,” Alan states. “Donny was the longest run idol on the teen magazines. We had many, many good years of radio play. We still extended our career of thirty-five years and going. Maybe it was time that we took a back seat for a while. We were changing. We were getting older. Some of us were getting married and having families. Focus, priorities changed a little bit.”
The Osmond Brothers took a few years off but continued managing their empire. They returned to recording in 1982 (without Donny), this time as a country act signed with Mercury and then Warner Brothers records.
Alan explains: “The brothers went country because we were family men, we had a lot of kids, we were living up there in the mountains. Country music itself had changed quite a bit. It was going from a more traditional to almost a rock-country. The other thing was, we came from a background of harmony music and singing together– it just seemed that country would be synonymous with what we were about at the time. It wasn’t because we wanted bucks, because the bucks were in rock’n’roll. It’s just that we felt, creatively, that’s where we would be best accepted.”
So, in the early eighties, the older Osmond brothers followed Marie’s lead, and went country. Donny chose not to go with them.
“That’s just not my love,” Donny says. “When I was young, I didn’t really listen to that style of music at all. I was into bands like Tower of Power and people like that, not the country and western thing. Although there are some things that they do harmony-wise that I really enjoy listening to.”
When the subject comes up of a pop/rock reunion of the Osmond Brothers, Alan seems optimistic:
“I’m sure diggin’ rock’n’roll music again. There’ll probably be a record or two coming out from the Osmond Brothers someday.”
Donny isn’t as positive:
“I’m so busy with my stuff right now. If it happens, it happens. I’m not pushing for it right now. I think it would be something that would be interesting and intriguing to somebody someday. But we’re all so busy with our separate projects that it’s not a high priority.”
In the early eighties, after Donny left his brothers, he took a hiatus from recording. He appeared in a few television guest shots and tried to figure out exactly what to do next. As an electronic engineer, he had supervised the wiring of the Osmonds huge production studio in Utah. He looks back on the early eighties with mixed emotions:
“I was kind of shooting in the dark and figuring out exactly where I wanted to go. It was a crossroads in my life. I started taking my own career in my own hands. I tried a couple of things here and there and had some failures, but failures make you grow. It’s good to fail because it makes you a stronger person, if you allow it to. I’m glad that I went through those early eighties. It was a terrible time in my life. But it’s made me a stronger person and made me figure out exactly where my goals are and where I want to be in the next ten years.”
Donny began his career comeback in the mid-eighties in England. He had a string of chart successes on Virgin records there before taking it to America. His comeback hit in the U.S. was “Soldier of Love” in 1989. He is realistic about his continuing chart career.
“I personally think it’s going to take a couple albums at least for me to break through any type of barriers,” cautions Donny, “and there’s gonna be people out there–I’ll never break the barrier. They’ll always remember ‘Puppy Love’ and all of that kind of stuff, no matter what kind of music I put out. That’s cool. I’ve faced that fact. I’ve also faced the fact that as long as I’m happy making the kind of music I want to make, forget the other people.”
The image of Donny Osmond, the former teen idol, is a difficult one to shake here in America, even in the nineties. Most program directors at radio stations are not famous for taking chances on adding artists or songs to their very tight and repetitive playlists. Donny relates a story about how one station played his comeback hit, “Soldier of Love”:
“A friend of mine [in radio] put on ‘Soldier of Love.’ Didn’t tell anybody who it was. Took heat from his executives for doing it, because it was me. But after they saw the response from people calling in and saying, ‘What was that record? I want to hear more of it,’ after they realized it’s good music, then they backed down and the heat was a little less. I admire the people who take chances and look at the song itself and forget about images.”
Donny Osmond continues to record and improve on his new-found pop success. His early career start has enabled him to return years later, younger than most of the artists now breaking into the business. Donny looks ahead:
“I see shocking a lot of people with what I’m going to come out with. I see creating a whole new generation of followers. Teenagers now, who know the name, but they don’t really know the music. Breaking a generation barrier that people think can’t be broken. All it will take is good music!”
Meanwhile, Alan Osmond has seven sons and the four oldest have begun recording under the name The Osmond Boys. For the Osmond family, it’s beginning to look like history might repeat itself. Even their first single, “Hey Girl,” released on Alan’s own label in 1990, was a remake of a Donny Osmond remake.
“They’re getting a lot of young gals screaming,” proud father Alan says. “It’s like deja vu for me! Breaking attendance records on the stages [where] they perform. We’ve gotten a lot of excitement from radio stations around the country. The young guys are taking off! Of all the young second generation, my boys are the ones that are taking it on musically.”
As far as Marie, she continues to have hits on the country charts and has even signed a deal with Gitano jeans which puts her back on television. Her first “Greatest Hits” album came out on Curb records in 1990 and featured many of her country tunes that pop music fans might not know about. Marie continues to tour constantly, over 250 dates per year. She is very optimistic about her current career and as a member of the ever-growing Osmond family.
“I am probably the most positive person you’ll ever meet,” Marie says. “It’s really sick! It’s really disappointing when you talk to me. I’m a very happy person. If you ask if there’s anything that I hated about being an Osmond or that was tough–my life wasn’t easy. I didn’t go to public school and I didn’t have your ‘normal’ life growing up. I’m sure I missed out on a lot of things, but I really tried hard not to.”
The Osmond Brothers continue to work together. Alan, Merrill and Jimmy have expanded their efforts more into production and writing behind the scenes. Jay left the country group in the early eighties.
“Jay has found a lot of peace and resolve in the education area,” Alan explains. “He works [with] and counsels with young people and he finds a lot of peace there and that’s great. Wayne is directing and producing and I can see him also coming on board with the rest of us in the area of production.”
Donny has spoken out against lyric censorship during the past few years. It’s an issue that is very important to him even if he is a clean-cut member of the Osmond family.
“Putting labels on albums certainly is not the solution,” he says. “Record companies put labels on and it boosted sales. As soon as they say ‘don’t buy this,’ people buy it. I could record a Prince song, people wouldn’t probably misconstrue what I’m saying as something dirty because it’s Donny Osmond, right? But if Prince recorded it, then it’s dirty. That’s not fair. To certain generations who have grown up with me and do remember me in the teeny-bopper era, when I release an album, where are they going to put it on the shelf? Next to Prince, or next to the Jungle Book theme?”
Although Donny would like to concentrate on his new career, the fact that so many people are interested in and still request his old songs doesn’t seem to bother him all that much today:
“I think it’s cool because they’re not just my songs, they belong to listeners as well. To them, it represents a certain time in their life, their first love or a certain situation that they fondly remember. I think it’s cool. It doesn’t bug me one bit.”
Alan comments on the same subject: “I have probably not heard our records very much. We just don’t play our own music. We’re always busy working on the next stuff. But now with the boys taking off, I’d like to go back and listen to all our old stuff.”
One thing that the Osmond family has always appreciated and spoken highly of is their fans.
“One of the things that’s amazing,” Marie emphasizes, “is I have some of the most loyal fans. I really appreciate it! It’s nice when people come up and say, ‘I’m your age and I grew up with your family and it’s really fun to be at your concerts!’ They go away having a good experience and that makes me happy, that they still are interested. I don’t know how long I’ll be working, but I’m sure enjoying it now.”
Alan picks up where Marie left off:
“Our fans, I’d put them up against anyone else’s fans in the world, as being the most loyal, the most energetic. No one could probably have had a more wonderful career, if it all stopped today, than the Osmond family. If we in the same turn could have left anything in their lives of a positive nature, it has all been worth it.”
The ruling family of the seventies certainly had an impact in many ways on the music to come. The young singing family group as a successful recording entity was assured. Many families appeared on the chart after they left, including the DeFranco Family and the Sylvers (“Boogie Fever”).
The idea of a group of young people singing together was taken to ridiculous extremes late in the seventies with Menudo, a group whose members were changed the minute they developed body hair. The real pop music families, including the Osmonds, had to grow up sooner or later.
The Osmond family wrote and produced most of their own hits, and invested their money wisely in various facets of the recording industry as well as outside of it. Their influence was certainly still being felt in the eighties, when new super teen groups hit it big.
“Groups like New Kids on the Block,” says Marie, “their manager has blatantly come out and said, ‘Yeah, I just look back at the careers of the Jackson Five and the Osmond Brothers and we copied them.’ As far as people nowadays flying across stages and doing all those tremendous effects, my brothers really started a lot of that stuff. I think my brothers were incredible entertainers. Even with ‘Donny and Marie,’ we were the first people that used R/F microphones– you know, no cords. I look back upon that era and think that my brothers were really ahead of themselves!”
So even Madonna, who uses wireless microphones quite frequently, owes something to the Mormon family from Utah.
The Osmonds started out in 1959 singing barber shop quartet harmony. They first hit the charts with a bubblegum song or two, then switched to a harder edged rock’n’roll sound which won them favor with a more adult audience. By the time their ballad “Love Me for a Reason” hit the Top Ten in 1974, older adults could be counted as fans. Much later came the switch to country/rock. They have proven themselves capable of quite a few different musical styles. Can “Osmondmania II” be far behind?
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