60 Years of the Osmonds

60 years ago (April 15, 1962) an important show biz act, then known as The Osmond Brothers. made its television debut. The group was a barber shop quartet made up of adorable Mormon kids from Utah: Alan (b. 1949), Wayne (b. 1951), Merrill (b. 1953), and Jay (b. 1955).

Squeaky clean and talented, the group had been taught by, and was originally managed by, the family patriarch George Virl Osmond (1917-2007), much as was the case with dad-driven acts like the Beach Boys and The Jackson Five. In 1962 Osmond brought his boys to Southern California to audition for The Lawrence Welk Show. While there, he landed them a temporary gig singing at Disneyland, resulting on their television debut on the show Disneyland After Dark (no doubt a wholesome enough show, but it hardly sounds it, given how much it sounds like a twisted spin-off of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy After Dark).

At any rate, the Disney exposure led to their being hired as a regular guests on The Andy Williams Show, a gig that lasted from 1962 through 1969, which is how they first became household names. During this phase, they were increasingly joined by younger brothers Donny (b. 1957) and Jimmy (b. 1963). Sister Marie (b. 1959) would soon make a mark as well.

Interestingly, hit records by Osmonds didn’t start to arrive until nearly a decade after their TV debut. I am old enough to remember this phase of their career, although I was quite small when they began hitting the charts, which they did in all manner of permutations: in a quintet with Donny, now called The Osmonds; Donny solo; Marie solo; Donny and Marie as a duo; and Jimmy solo. By this point they had remade their image to be more like The Cowsills or The Carpenters; Beatle length hair, choreographed dance moves, and songs with a modern pop/soul sensibility. The quintet’s first hit, the Jackson 5-esque “One Bad Apple” went all the way to #1 in 1970. It was followed by “Yo-Yo” (1971, #3), “Down By the Lazy River” (1972, #4), “Hold Her Tight” (1972, #14), “Crazy Horses” (1972, #14), “Love Me For a Reason” (1974, #10), and “The Proud One” (1975, #22). Old video clips of the group performing these forgotten songs surprise one with the presence of hundreds of screaming girls in the audience. Those were very different times. And, as with the Jackson 5, the Beatles, and others, there was even an animated Saturday morning kids show, The Osmonds, produced by Rankin-Bass, which aired originally in 1972. As a 7 year old at the time, you know that I was there for that!

Meanwhile, teen heartthrob Donny had a string of solo hits with nostalgic covers of songs from a decade and more previous. “Sweet and Innocent” (1971, #7, originally a hit for Roy Orbison), “Go Away Little Girl” (1971, #1, originally a hit for Steve Lawrence), “Hey Girl” (1971, #9, a Goffin-King tune), “Puppy Love” (1972, #3, by Paul Anka), “Too Young” (1972, #13, previously a hit for Nat King Cole), “Why” (1972, #13, a hit for Frankie Avalon), “The Twelfth of Never” (1973, #8, an earlier hit for Johnny Matthis), and “Are You Lonesome Tonight? (1973, #14, famously a hit for Elvis). The Elvis cover was a good touch — Elvis and the Osmonds were rocking the same white, rhinestone studded one-piece jumpsuits during these same years.

Donny’s older brothers can hardly have been pleased with his solo chart success; it clearly ate into theirs as the 70s progressed. Then in 1973, Marie had her own #5 hit with a cover of the old Anita Bryant song “Paper Roses”. Then Donny teamed up with Marie and they charted as a duo on more covers, such as “I’m Leaving It All Up To You” (1974, #4), “Deep Purple” (1975, #14), and “Ain’t Nothin’ Like The Real Thing” (1976, #21). It was at this stage that the pair launched their own TV variety show which we wrote about here, which lasted until 1979. The other Osmonds were frequent guests on the show. (I especially recall chubby kid brother Jimmy’s appearances, which added a certain “Cousin Oliver” factor to the proceedings.) Interestingly, their hits stopped coming while the show was on the air, I’m guessing due to a combination of overexposure and a public image distinctly at odds with the increasingly sexualized pop music milieu during the disco era. Then, even the show was cancelled.

The various Osmonds remained in show business throughout the ensuing decades. Wayne was in the TV movie I’ve always nicknamed “The Worst Christmas Special Ever” which I wrote about here. I seem to remember that Donny had a heavy metal phase not unlike that of Pat Boone’s. Marie mostly made the headlines with a series of highly publicized “issues”, things like eating disorders (as with Karen Carpenter) and post-partum depression. (In true Mormon tradition, Marie is one of nine siblings and has had eight children herself. It’s just what they do.) It’s strange to see someone who suffered from eating disorders hawking Nutrisystem on television, but, hey, she looks good. (I’m sorry; Gilbert Gottfried is dead now, and someone had to make that joke).

To find out more about show biz past and present (including television variety), please consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,