AND THEY CALLED IT…
Ian Wishart catches up with Donny Osmond ahead of his upcoming tours downunder and discovers a pop survivor
(to listen to the podcast of the interview, click here)
It was Wellington, 1973. There was only one TV channel, it was black and white and in our home it beamed in on an old (even then) Bell TV set with an iconic late 50’s US design and a rotating dial numbered 1 to 12 that acted as a channel selector, provided you could find a spanner to wrench it with. With only one channel, programmes rated through the roof, all of them. And in kids TV that season, it didn’t get much bigger than Lost in Space and the Osmonds TV cartoon series.
If it wasn’t enough watching the cartoon Donny being chased by hordes of screaming cartoon chicks across the screen, you could get a dose of the real Donny later in the evening when the weekly dose of the Osmonds live screened for older audiences.
AND THEY CALLED IT….
In other words, the first Donster was inescapable and – being a child superstar – held out by parents everywhere to their kids: “See, look what he’s achieved, and he’s just a few years older than you”, mine would say as they read my lackluster school reports. I remind Osmond of this down the phone line to his Utah home, and he bursts out laughing.
“Yeah, before they ended up hating me!”
They may have called it puppy love once, but thirty-something years later there’s a more mature mongrel edge to the former kid crooner, a sense that life has dished out the same things to Donny Osmond as it has to most of us: love, loss, pleasure, pain, success, crashing failure, hard work, making an honest living and rising again from the wreckage.
Few people know that, apart from singing, Osmond is a master electrician and completely wired his recording studio and home from the ground up. These are skills you learn when the stardom rollercoaster has ground to a halt and you suddenly find yourself with time on your hands and people to feed, as Osmond did when his Donny & Marie TV show ended in 1979. The years that followed pushed him almost to bankruptcy.
“Hand to mouth, basically. It was pretty lean in the early to mid 80s. I was bankrolling everything and I couldn’t get a record deal, couldn’t get a publishing deal, so I was doing demos, and whatever I could do. There was a residual interest out there for Donny and Marie, but that kind of ended in 1985, 1984 because I saw a dead end there. I thought, if I’m going to turn my career around I’ll have to do some drastic things. But I had to do Donny and Marie gigs just to feed the family. I had two mortgages to worry about, trying to sell a home.”
The transition from child star – he was on US national TV at the age of six – to teen idol, was a natural one. But Osmond says the gap between teen idol and adult performer is a much wider bridge to cross.
“Huge! Huge. To make that cross. How do you change the mindset of a whole generation? There’s a certain generation that remembers me for Puppy Love. There’s a certain generation that remembers me just for the Donny and Marie show. How do you alter that, how do you alter history? You just can’t do it.”
“You actually did it quite well in 89 with Soldier of Love,” I venture, recalling the out-of-nowhere hit that took all of us working in radio by surprise that year. I remember the programme director at Auckland’s 89FM playing the new track and trying to make us guess who was singing it, and a collective “you’re kidding??” when the Osmond name was mentioned.
“Yeah,” concedes Osmond, “but see what’s interesting – by the time the Donny and Marie show ended, which was 79, to 89 – that’s a ten year gap. So to a lot of people it was either a surprise to hear that Donny Osmond was recording music like that again, it was a novelty, and it was a whole new generation that discovered me. When Soldier of Love hit it didn’t really feed the bank account that much, but what it did is that it brought up the notoriety to where the demand became a little bit greater. Then Joseph came along and pretty much saved us, and from that point on we were back on track.”
He’s talking about Joseph & The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical, and his invitation to star in the Canadian production in the early 1990s. That, in turn, led to him starring in the movie version of the musical released worldwide in 1999, and public acclaim that continues even to this very afternoon that we’re talking.
“As a matter of fact, this happened today. I was at the hospital watching over my dad, and as I was pushing him outside the hospital, giving him some sunshine in his wheelchair, this little eight year old girl was being pushed and she’d broken her foot or something, she was coming into the hospital, and she was crying but she saw me, looked up to her mum and said, ‘Mum, there’s Joseph!’
“So to her, Puppy Love – what’s that? Donny and Marie – who’s Marie, you know? I’m a different artist to that generation of people.”
And just look how different they can be:
“For instance, this just happened to me an hour ago. They’re building a house right behind our house, and construction workers are no-bull kind of people, and this guy came around with the biggest beard – he looks like a Deadhead follower basically, or he’d go to a Stones concert – and he came over and he was staring at me. And I was putting up a playset in the back yard for my kids, and I thought – this is freakin’ me out here, you know? And so he said, ‘You Donny?’, and reluctantly I said ‘Yeah, what’s your name?’
“He says, ‘I’m Dennis. Do you need any help?’
“ ‘No, I’m fine,” I said.
“ ‘OK, I just wanted to talk to you, because I’ve been following you, I quite like you’.”
“But my point is that if you can have staying power, there’s an amount of respect that not just the industry but the public at large can give you.”
Having endured the hard knocks, Osmond is more appreciative of success these days.
“I guess I’m in a better place now than I’ve ever been, because I’m in control of my career. You analyse the early years, and I was pretty much being dictated to about what to do, when to do it and where to do it. What to sing. Now I can guide the ship myself, and at this point in my life I don’t really have to worry about what next plateau I want to go to, it’s which next plateau would make me happy – just satisfy me as an artist – rather than just a good strategic move to make.”
“Were you happy as a child performer?,” I venture.
“I didn’t know any other life. I didn’t have anything to compare it to. Certainly some things weren’t very pleasant, like the amount of work that goes into being in show business. You analyse a lot of other careers and they’ve kind of gone to the wayside, in my opinion, directly because of the lack of work that they won’t put forth, because it takes a lot of work not only to get a career but to maintain a career.”
I wonder aloud if it is a product of faster-shifting tastes, a musical here-today, gone-tomorrow mindset amongst the public.
“Well, there’s several philosophies there,” reflects Osmond. “I’ve certainly had a lot of time to think about why that happens. I call it the iTunes society, everybody just wants little bits and pieces. Music has really become disposable, and along with it so are the bands and the artists. They become yesterday’s dinner, you know, leftovers. And more and more it becomes, instead of flavour of the month, or flavour of the moment, it’s flavour of the nano-moment, nowadays.
“Because you can gain stardom quickly if you get a lucky break – what do they call it over there, Australian Idol – well if you can get a lucky break there you’ve got your 15 Minutes of fame, but then the work starts after that 15 minutes.”
So why is Donny still in the business, still hauling in crowds?
“Tenacity,” he suggests, having released his 54th album last year.
Nostalgia? I ask, or is it that we’re harking back to the seventies and eighties as part of a subconscious yearning for lost innocence?
“Interesting observation,” he reflects after a moment. “I have no idea whether it’s to recapture the innocence, but that’s an interesting way to look at it. I’ve never looked at it that way.”
But for Osmond, he’s also been finding success with cover versions of songs like Neil Finn’s Don’t Dream It’s Over. Why that, I wonder?
“Ah, because I wanted to come back to New Zealand and have a great aud –” Osmond cracks up laughing down the end of the phone, and I have a vision of his trademark grin and wall to wall teeth. “No, I just liked the song! It was weird, when I did that album “Somewhere in Time”, I thought, this is a recording artist’s dream, to be able to just take hits – cherry pick the ones you really love – and do them the way you want to do them, and that was one of them.”
“You also did a good cover of Without You, the Harry Nilsson hit?”.
“That is one tough song to sing. You’ll never see me sing that in concert. It took me three days to get the vocal that I kind of settled on. I mean, there’s always places where an artist wants to tweak and make it a little bit better, but my producer said ‘Leave it alone, that’s exactly the way it should be’. But it was three days of spitting blood trying to hit those high notes.”
Still, according to the comments of those attending his concerts, the boy can still deliver. Nevertheless, when your fanbase stretches from unlikely ZZ-Top look-alikes to eight year olds, and then “legions of nostalgic forty-something women – all clad in de rigour Osmondmania uniform of silky scarf and over-tight spangly T-shirt” as one British reviewer put it, there are “dynamics” to be balanced.
“The difficulty there though is that when you do a concert tour, and mum is all excited about coming to see Donny Osmond, the last thing the teenagers want to do is exactly what mum’s doing. Because that’s for the ‘older generation’. So there’s a dynamic that you kind of have to balance, but every once in a while you look out in the audience and it’s just such a cross-section. But primarily I would say it is the 25 to 55 year old women.”
Father of five – the youngest is eight and the oldest 26 – Donny Osmond is now a grandfather at 48, and happy to have found resonance in his life and 28-year marriage to wife Debbie.
“I’m pretty busy [now]. To the point where it’s nice to be able to turn down gigs. But I like to balance my life a little bit more now than I used to. So I turn down more than I accept.”
Having said that, he’s also apologetic about having to postpone his NZ concerts until the end of July due to a terminal illness in the family, but says he’s looking forward to making his first trip here since 1981, trusty video iPod in hand to keep him company on the long flight, packed with thousands of songs including current favourites, Coldplay.
The Donster epitomizes the drive within him. From a seventies child star when CDs hadn’t even been invented, not only has he outlasted most of his peers but he’s happily embraced the latest technology and bands. If that’s not staying power, I’m not sure what is.