The Osmonds: 50 Years of Pop, Country, and Family

50 years ago, the debut album from The Osmonds turned a family act into pop superstars.

The Osmond family

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When you’re asked to think of pop-sensation vocal groups that featured five brothers, the youngest of whom is a breakout star in the making, your first inclination is probably The Jackson 5. However, that description could also apply to another group that released their first album the same year that “I Want You Back” went to number one. Emerging from Ogden, Utah, and following a course that led them to being seasoned performers with a national profile before they were all in their teens, The Osmond Brothers were well-known TV regulars in the 1960s. But as the boys got older, they wanted to try to their hand at a more pop and rock style. Reinventing themselves as, simply, The Osmonds, they released their self-titled debut album 50 years ago this week.

George Virl Osmond, Sr. married Olive May Davis in 1944The two oldest of their nine children, George Jr. (who goes by Virl) and Tom, both had the same condition that resulted in hearing loss. Virl retained about 15 percent hearing, while Tom was almost completely deaf. Nevertheless, both would learn to play music. The remainder of the couple’s children (Alan, Wayne, Merrill, Jay, Donny, Marie, and Jimmy) did not have the condition; George Sr. taught Alan, Wayne, Merrill, and Jay to sing barbershop style, and they started performing in 1958 (Alan was nine; Jay, only three). Their first goal was to earn enough money to buy hearing aids for their oldest brothers. George Sr. tried to arrange an audition for Lawrence Welk a few years later, but it didn’t come together. On a visit to Disneyland, the boys drew attention while spontaneously singing with one of the street performing groups at the park; Disney’s Tommy Walker booked them on the Disneyland After Dark episode of The Wonderful World of Disney, which aired in 1962. The father of entertainer Andy Williams saw the boys, and enthusiastically recommended them to his son; Williams added them as regulars on The Andy Williams Show from 1962 thru 1967. They moved over to the The Jerry Lewis Show in 1968, and back to Williams’s revived program in 1969.

“One Bad Apple” by The Osmonds (Uploaded to YouTube by TheOsmondsMusic)

During their run on the Williams show, Donny joined the group, and both Marie and Jimmy made their debuts, though not as direct members of the quintet. They started making public appearances and even toured Europe. As the second turn on the Williams show ended, the brothers in the quintet decided that they wanted to reinvent themselves as a pop/rock group. The boys already played instruments: Jay was on drums; Alan played piano, guitar, and co-wrote and co-produced a number of songs; Wayne was a multi-instrumentalist, but focused on lead guitar; Merrill played bass, co-wrote with Alan, and traded lead vocals with Donny, who played keyboards. When record producer Mike Curb saw the boys play out in their new configuration, he was impressed at their solid vocals and musicianship (they also had moves choreographed in part by older brother Virl, who, despite his diminished hearing capacity, was able to focus on the beat and become an accomplished dancer). Curb helped get the boys singed to MGM Records as The Osmonds.

Osmonds hit stores on November 14, 1970. Obvious comparisons were made between the group and The Jackson 5. Ironically, Motown’s Berry Gordy passed on a song written by George Jackson (no relation) so that the Jacksons could record their future hit, “ABC.” George Jackson’s song was picked up by the Osmonds, and it appeared on their debut album. “One Bad Apple” would be their first hit single (also released on November 14) and go all the way to the top of the pop charts by February of 1971.

“Puppy Love” by Donny Osmond (Uploaded to YouTube by Donny Osmond)

The next few years found the group evolving out of both personal choice and necessity. While the group racked up more hits, they also played on songs credited to just Donny; “Puppy Love” went to #2, and “Go Away Little Girl” hit #1. With each album, the brothers asserted themselves a little more, writing more material and leaning into a harder rocking sound. At the same time, Donny’s voice changed, which drove him away from some of the high-sounding bubblegum material he had started on. Through the early to mid 1970s, the group was enormously popular, touring frequently and earning an animated series, The Osmonds.The Jackson 5 also had an animated series, furthering the image of competition between the groups; however, it should be noted that Donny and Michael, both seventh children and frontmen, became good friends, even co-presenting awards\. In an interview with Dr. Phil, Donny would even recall Michael playing Thriller for him in the car before it was released.

“Yo-Yo” by The Osmonds (Uploaded to YouTube by TheOsmondsMusic)

A number of factors began to pull the group in different directions. By the time of their fifth album, 1973’s The Plan, the band may have gotten too ambitious. The disc is heavily influenced by their Mormon faith, but also traffics in a variety of styles, even prog rock. While it’s an obvious musical growth statement, it was pulling away from the material that made them popular. Also, as the older brothers in the group began to get married, they wanted to stay home more and tour less. With Donny positioned as a solo act (at least in name, as the brothers still backed him on most of those records), Marie and Jimmy also started solo careers. Marie had a #1 country hit at age 13 with “Paper Roses” in 1973, and Jimmy had his own #1 hit in the U.K. (“Long-Haired Lover from Liverpool”).

For the next couple of years, hits for the band still came, but they were slugging it out on the charts with newer, hotter acts like The Bay City Rollers and other groups that trafficked in the same territory (including other family groups like the Jacksons, of course, The DeFranco Family, and The Sylvers). All of popular music would soon be in upheaval, as disco took over the charts in the mid to late 1970s and the attention of listeners would be divided by other teen idols and the influx of other new acts hailing from funk, rock, and punk. It was around this time in 1976 that the family switched to a new focus: television.

The opening of the first episode of The Donny and Marie Show (Uploaded to YouTube by Donny Osmond)

The entire family was involved in The Donny and Marie Show, which ran from 1976 to 1979 on ABC. The show was a big hit, but it caused a number of problems. The family built a studio in Orem, Utah for the show, which was a financial drain. Since the four older brothers from the band worked on the show as producers and performers, touring fell by the wayside, as did the prioritization of new music. The only two years of the ’70s without an Osmonds group album were 1977 and 1978 as the show ran. The cancellation of the show was a huge financial blow, as was the failure of Donny and Marie’s film Goin’ Coconuts, which the family had also produced. The final album of the original era, Steppin’ Out, didn’t have a big impact, nor did the failed 1980-1981 revival of the TV show. In debt and in flux, Donny split from the group as he, the brothers’ band, and Marie went their own ways. Jimmy would eventually join the band even as he continued acting.

“Soldier of Love” by Donny Osmond (Uploaded to YouTube by Donny Osmond)

During the 1980s, the whole family went through a reinvention phase. Marie found further success on the country charts and on Broadway. The brothers invested in a successful theatre in Branson; Alan, Wayne, Jay, and Merrill refocused The Osmond Brothers as a country act during that time, earning a few hit records. Donny grappled with his image in the 1980s and worked with artists like Peter Gabriel to develop new material. In 1988, without an American record contract, he considered opening a home security business. However, he ended up recording a song for U.K. release by Evan Rogers and Carl Sturken (who have since crafted hits for Rihanna, Christina Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson, and their own group, Rhythm Syndicate) called “Soldier of Love;” it was hit overseas, and found its way to Jessica Ettinger, at that point program and music director for WPLJ-FM in New York. Knowing that Donny was considered out of fashion in the States, she added the single to the rotation under a “mystery artist” label. Reaction to the song was huge, so they rolled out the “mystery artist” concept nationwide. When Donny was revealed as the singer, Capitol Records immediately signed him to a new deal. “Soldier of Love” went #2 in the States in 1989, followed by the #13 “Sacred Emotion.” Donny also successfully went to Broadway (as Gaston in Beauty and the Beast) and touring theater (appearing as Joseph in more than 2,000 performances of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat).

The family has essentially never stopped working. Donny and Marie reunited for a TV talk show, and then did a Vegas residency for 11 years, just wrapping in 2019. In October of 2019, the original quartet did a “farewell performance” on The Talk (on which Marie was a co-host), to signal the retirement of the original group, though Merrill and Jay still perform and tour together. Jimmy became the business backbone of the group over the years, running theaters in Branson and even taking over the operations of their old friend Andy Williams’s theater there. Donny, already familiar with the mystery artist idea, surprised viewers as The Peacock on The Masked Singer in 2019. Their legacy features more than 100 million albums sold around the world, a younger generation of performers (the nine Osmond kids have a total of 55 children among them), and a solid place in the hearts of more than one generation. With over 60 years in entertainment and 50 years as a pop act, the Osmonds managed to be successful, beloved, and somehow avoid having a single bad apple in the whole bunch.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, colorized by Algorithmia

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