This was 1982, when Thriller was just coming out and Osmond's career was floundering. Jackson and Osmond both emerged as breakout stars from their family bands: The Jackson 5 and The Osmonds. They were both pushed into solo careers and became teen idols in the early '70s: Jackson with hits like "Rockin' Robin," "Ben," and "Got To Be There," Osmond with "Puppy Love," "The Twelfth of Never," and the #1 "Go Away Little Girl."
But teen stardom can hang like an albatross, and while Jackson reached spectacular heights in his 20s, Osmond found his name and image were holding him back. Then "Soldier Of Love" happened.
After years seeking a record deal, he signed with Virgin in 1988 and made an album that was released in the UK and a few other territories, but not in America. The lead single, "Soldier Of Love," came with a video showing Osmond rocking a leather jacket and blue jeans. The cantankerous British press held it in high contempt; the song stalled at #29 on the UK singles chart and Osmond was dropped by the label.
But back in America, the mighty New York City radio station WPLJ got a hold of the song and played it on the air as a "mystery artist," inviting listeners to guess the singer. The phones lit up, the song went into rotation, and Osmond came to New York for the reveal. This victory for "Soldier" goosed other radio stations into playing it. Suddenly, Donny Osmond was cool again. He signed with Capitol Records, and the song climbed to #2 in America.
Osmond kept re-inventing. From 1992-1997, he starred in the touring production of Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat; in 2008, he and his sister, Marie, signed up for a six-week run in Vegas that turned into an 11-year engagement. Along the way, he won Dancing With The Stars, showed up in Weird Al's "White And Nerdy" video, and made a lot of music. Start Again, released in September 2021, is his 65th1 album. On August 31, he launched a new show in Vegas, Donny, a multi-million dollar production that has already been extended into 2022.
Here, Osmond talks about making the album, points out some highlights from his Vegas show, and shares his thoughts on some of his best-known songs.
Donny Osmond: Well, it's not my first rodeo. [Laughs] But this one is probably the one I spent the most time on – more than any of the other 64 albums. I wrote over 40 songs for this album and narrowed it down to just 12.
The experience was cathartic. It was difficult because you've got to dig deep – you can't just come out with average lyrics.
Songfacts: What was the lyrical inspiration behind the song "Who"?
Osmond: In the show, back in the summer of 2019, it was after Marie and I announced that we were closing, and the audience was just on fire. It was the perfect show. It was one of those moments where I had so much adrenaline. I could barely sleep that night, because I wanted the show to continue on and on.
So, that was the inspiration for "Who," because when you read the lyrics after knowing the story behind it, when we start, "Who keeps me up all night? Who can make it feel so right?" That was the inspiration behind it. It was the amazing audience that night. The adrenaline rush was amazing.
Songfacts: What are some memories of filming the song's video?
He said, "Excuse me?!"
I sent him a test that I directed, and obviously, you've got to manipulate the audio. And when we were shooting it live, there were some people there watching, and they showed it to me and said, "This makes no sense." I said, "Oh, it will after we edit it." Because it goes fast to slow to regular speed to slow to fast. If you really watch it with a fine eye, it's like, "Wow. It changes all over the place, but it never edits."3
Songfacts: You collaborated with many different performers and songwriters on the album.
Osmond: Immediately, I go to Charlie Wilson [of the Gap Band]. I wrote "Let's All Dance" – this is before COVID hit – and I had tried probably two or three different arrangements of producing that. I always thought in the back of my mind, "Charlie would nail this thing." And I had been a fan of Charlie's since "You Dropped A Bomb On Me" came out in '82. I was like a kid in a candy store when I was producing his vocals.
But I called him up and said, "I would love to do a duet with you." He said, "Send me the song." He calls me back, and goes, "Dude! Set up the session! I've got to be on this!"
He took it to a whole new level. But when I first met with him in the studio, I said, "I became such a fan of your voice not just from the songs, but from how you sang "but you turn me on" on "You Dropped A Bomb On Me." And he starts laughing, and I said, "Just the way you sang turn, I'm a Charlie fan."
So, I'm producing these vocals and I stopped and said, "Charlie, we've got to find a place in the song where you can sing, 'But you turn me on.'" It's at the very end of the song on the outro, and it just fit perfectly. He was having so much fun that he laughed at the end of it, and I said, "I've got to put the laugh in." We actually close the show here in Vegas with "Let's All Dance," and it just ignites the whole room.
Songfacts: What can people expect from your Vegas show?
Osmond: Well, it's completely different than what people I think anticipate. When I first started designing the show, I thought, OK, this is my 65th album. Which songs from which albums do I put in the show? So, I put ALL of them in! I put every one of them in.
And the way I did it, I have this segment where the audience basically takes over, and it's about 10 minutes of improv. I put all 65 albums on the huge video wall on the stage, and they can pick any song from any album, and we do it – just like that. We do maybe a minute or so – we can get to five or six songs.
But what's cool about it is the band loves it, because it's different every night. It challenges them, it challenges me, and the audience eats it up. And they'll go back to songs from when I was 13 years old, all the way to this current record. It's one of the fan favorites of the show.
Songfacts: I'd like to get your thoughts on some of the famous songs you recorded over the years, starting with "I'll Make A Man Out Of You."
Osmond: I was doing Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in Chicago when I got a call from the producer, Pam Coats, and she said, "I really would like to have you on this movie. It's called Mulan." Nobody knew what Mulan was at the time – this was in the mid-'90s.
So, I had two days off, I flew from Chicago to LA, go to the studio, lay my vocal down. They show me some pictures of Li Shang, and they said, "This is the character you will be playing. It's the emotion that we want in the song."
I sang it a few times, and they said, "You nailed it. This is perfect!" So I thought, Cool. I'm in a little Disney animated film. Little did I know it would be one of the classics. It gets millions of streams every month, even to this day.
In fact, I got the permission from the powers that be at Disney to use footage from the film itself when we highlight that song in Vegas. It's not just the song, they let me pick anything out of the movie that I wanted. I edited this eight-minute segment, and we do stick dancing. We brought in a martial-arts pro and helped choreograph this thing. It is another one of the highlights. We turn the theater into a Mulan experience.
They just sent me everything. Not only the soundtrack, but the sound effects, and it's just as pristine as you can possibly imagine. From the first generation, right from the film.
Songfacts: "One Bad Apple."
Osmond: That one – allegedly – was written for The Jacksons. Mike [Jackson] and I were talking about it years and years ago, and he said, "I think that was written for us, but you guys got it." And I said, "Well, I got one back on you, Mike. 'Ben' - your song - was written for me!" He starts laughing, and says, "You're kidding me!"
Because I found out years later after he had the hit with it that they wanted me to sing it. I was on tour with the brothers, and they needed to finish the film [1972's Ben]. The producer said, "Well, let's get this kid Michael Jackson. He's got a high voice. Let's get him to do it." And it became Mike's first #1 solo record. But that was written for me, and "One Bad Apple" was written for them.
Songfacts: "The Twelfth of Never."
Osmond: "The Twelfth of Never" was one of my favorite solo records. I never really spent a lot of time listening to this record – I didn't know of this song prior to my hit. I can't remember who recorded it... was it Johnny Mathis? [yes it was] He had a hit with it years and years before I had my hit.
But the chord structures, even musicians today in my band – and it's rumored I've got the best band in Las Vegas – they say, "This song is absolutely beautiful. It's gorgeous."
I recorded it at two different times: one as a teenager, and one about 15 years ago. It's one of my favorites.
Songfacts: "Go Away Little Girl."
Osmond: My first #1 record. In fact, here in my dressing room, I have the Gold record – the single – that I got for that record. That put me on the charts.
I can't remember who I kicked out of the top spot. I want to say it was Paul McCartney. [Donny is correct! It was "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey."] But that put me as an official hit-maker as a solo artist in the industry.
Songfacts: "Puppy Love."
Osmond: That one I had problem with for many, many years, because it kept me from being recognized as a legitimate songwriter and recording artist. It defined me as a "teenybopper." It wasn't the biggest hit of mine, but it's the one that I'm mostly known for.
When "Soldier Of Love" came out, I was in New Jersey doing a show, and I did not want "Puppy Love" in the set. I did not want it in the setlist because I was trying to move on. So I'm doing this show, and everyone in the audience is saying, "Sing 'Puppy Love'! Sing 'Puppy Love'!" It just got me so mad.
So finally, I just stopped the show and I went right to the edge of the stage. I looked at the audience and went, "You want 'Puppy Love'? You got 'Puppy Love'!" I turned around and off mic I said to the band, "Give me a heavy-metal version of 'Puppy Love'!" And they said, "Yeah man! Let's do it!" So, I'm screaming into the mic, and everyone's laughing.
But after the show, as I'm walking out of the stage door, there's all these fans waiting to get autographs, and this one lady stops me and says, "Why did you make fun of 'Puppy Love'?" And in a cocky way, I said, "It's my song. I can do whatever I want to it." And she said something that changed my life. She said, "You may have had a hit with that song, but that song was a big part of my childhood memories, and you had no right to mess with my memories." It just stopped me and it changed me. I realized she's absolutely right. That song doesn't just belong to me, it belongs to a lot of other people.
So I put it in my show here in Vegas, and I sing it with respect. I do it properly, with a huge orchestration.
As I've grown up, it's a little easier to look back. Yes, I've had success after that, but I look back and embrace it rather than push it away. And I sing it with respect now because it was a great record for me.
Songfacts: "Any Dream Will Do."
Osmond: Joseph. That's what really turned me around right after "Soldier Of Love." I had worked for 10 years to get back on the charts because everybody wrote me off. I just could not get a record deal, let alone be on the charts. In fact, there was an article in the UK that said, "The day Donny Osmond has another hit record is the day pigs will fly." Well, in 1989, pigs were flyin', because it was this massive hit. But it became a hit anonymously.
It's quite interesting, because back when Thriller came out, Mike needed a ride over to A&M Records because he was meeting with Quincy [Jones], and I said, "Yeah, I'll take you." So, I'm in the car with him, and I ask him, "How do I get back on the charts and do what you're doing right now with Thriller?" Because it was just coming out. And he said, "Well, Donny, your name's poison. You've got to change your name." And I'm thinking, "WHAT?! You've got to be kidding me!"
Fast forward to 1989, and that's exactly what happened. Not that I changed my name, but we released it anonymously and it became the "mystery artist" at radio stations. A great promotion for everybody. A guy by the name of Lou Simon, he's the one who came up with the idea. He was a program director of a radio station [KCPX in Salt Lake City] – he got the record, and then it went to WPLJ in New York, and it became the #1 requested record in New York at the #1 pop station... and nobody knew who it was!
So, they said, "We've got to fly him in and announce it." And to be honest, I didn't want to do it because I didn't want to kill the requests - I didn't want to kill the record with my name. And it did just the exact opposite. I'll never forget, it was on a Friday in the morning – drive time - and the phone lines just lit up like crazy. That's what changed everything.
And the reason I tell you this story about "Soldier" is because I worked so hard to get back out on the charts, and now, Joseph comes along in '92, and I leave the recording industry! Because I'm going to do this play for six months, which turned into six years. But I thought, I'm taking a calculated risk here. I'm changing everything about my career. And that six-month engagement just kept getting bigger and bigger. Six years later, I said, "OK. Let's go back and start recording again."
But "Any Dream Will Do" and "Close Every Door" – those two songs – it's very difficult to sing Andrew Lloyd Webber music. Particularly "Close Every Door." "Any Dream Will Do," not so much. But Andrew likes his songs sung exactly the way he wrote them, and I changed the melody on one of his songs. When he came to see the show, he came backstage and very seriously looked at me, and said, "You changed my melody." I said, "I'm so sorry." And then he looks at me with a smile, and says, "But I liked it - keep it in!"
Songfacts: "Love Me For A Reason."
Osmond: That's one of my favorites I did with my brothers – besides "One Bad Apple" - because that started the whole thing. But "Love Me for A Reason" – from the album Love Me For A Reason – was a huge hit for us over in the UK. I had no idea it was going to be that big of a hit, but it's become one of those "Osmond classic songs," that keeps rearing its head – besides "Crazy Horses."
The harmonies that we did on that song I miss, because it's over – we're not going to do that anymore because most of my brothers don't perform or sing anymore. In fact, we just did that song the other night in that request segment because somebody wanted to hear it. It was so good to hear those harmonies again.
Their next album, The Plan, also rocked, but with a concept incorporating Mormon theology (The Osmonds are Mormons; the brothers first started performing to raise money for two-year religious missions). As Donny explains, there was a lot of resistance to The Osmonds as rockers.
Osmond: That's a good question, because Ozzy Osbourne actually told me that "Crazy Horses" is one of his favorite rock and roll songs. We were headed in that direction as a band. If you listen to an album called The Plan – it was a big hit for us in the UK, not so much in the States – that's where we were headed.
Here's the problem: I was recording and we were writing all of this progressive rock and roll music in a studio, and then I'd go into another studio and record bubblegum music. So I was living a double life musically. Actually triple, because I'd go home and listen to Tower Of Power and P-Funk. That was the stuff I was into at home. So I was into funk, recording bubblegum, and writing rock and roll with the brothers. And the problem is my teenybopper career was selling like crazy and it overshadowed anything we did as a rock and roll band.
In fact, I mentioned The Plan album, my brother Alan, seeing what was going on with the dynamics of the Osmonds' career with the juxtaposition of my career, took the album into I think it was KLOS in Los Angeles - it was a heavy rock and roll station. But he white-labeled it – the same thing I did with "Soldier Of Love." So, his name was "Alan from a band," and he had the program director and the music director there. He played the album for them, and they said, "This is unbelievable! This is like The Stones, this is like The Who. It's got all these Zeppelin-type of influences. What's the name of the band?" And he said, "It's the Osmonds." No lie, they turned to him and said, "I'm sorry. We can't play it."
But that's the direction we were headed with Crazy Horses. That's where the band was headed. But history changed and didn't allow it because of Donny Osmond's career.
Songfacts: How did you come up with the trademark high-pitched part at the beginning of the song "Crazy Horses"? Was it played on a theremin?
Osmond: No, it wasn't theremin, it was a YP-30 Yamaha organ with a portamento slide. We had a wall of Marshalls in the studio. It was so loud that you couldn't even walk in the studio, so we had to play the organ from the control room.
My brother Alan actually played it on the record. I played it live. But the secret to it was a wah-wah pedal. We opened the wah-wah just enough to get that really harsh kind of a piercing sound, but it was the loudness of the Marshalls that got us that sound. And then we doubled it. That was the secret to that sound.
Songfacts: What's one of the songs we haven't talked about that's important to you?
Osmond: You didn't mention "Soldier Of Love," but I gave you the story there. It was probably the most important record of my life because that's what brought me back. And Carl Sturken and Evan Rogers, who wrote and produced that – they're pretty much the ones that put Rihanna on the charts – they're responsible for that record, and it's the one that brought me back from the dead. So, I'll always be grateful to them for that.
And the follow-up record, "Sacred Emotion," because "Sacred Emotion" was the top video on VH1. So, between "Soldier" and "Sacred Emotion," I was back on the charts, thanks to Carl Sturken and Evan Rogers.
There's one more other story – it has to do with the new album. There's so many stories behind this one, but the one that everybody is interested in is the one that Justin Bieber inspired. When I saw the video for his song "Lonely," I thought, Boy, if anyone can relate to that story, it's me, because I've been through the same thing. So I wrote "Life After Loneliness," because in it, I talk about the fact that he's a star, and that light that he has will never dim because he's the real deal. He's made the leap that I've been able to - to get away from the teenybopper thing and have people recognize me as a writer and a musician. He's made some odd decisions in his life, but he's found love and some normalcy to his life. So, that song, "Lonely," inspired "Life After Loneliness" on my album.
September 23, 2021
Osmond's official site is donny.com
Commodores founder Thomas McClary
photos: Lee Cherry (1,2,3), Carl Sturken (4)
- 1] 65 is Osmond's count for his album output, which includes his work with The Osmonds and with Donny and Marie. (back)
- 2] Shane Drake is a big-time music video director. His other clients include Carrie Underwood, Kacey Musgraves, Tim McGraw and Kelsea Ballerini. (back)
- 3] Osmond knows a thing or two about video production. He was still a teenager when the Donny & Marie variety show went on air in 1976. His brothers worked on the show, and near the end of its three-year run produced it from their own studio in Utah. In 1998, he and Marie hosted a talk show - also called Donny & Marie - that lasted two seasons. (back)
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