The Wizard Of Osmond
It's August 1972, and Tiger Beat has nailed Donny Osmond in Hawaii. This time, the teen magazine's caught him with his pants down, or at least his shirt off. His bangs hanging in decidedly ungroomed, wet mop strings over his forehead, Donny stands on the cover fresh from a dip in the Pacific. As per Tiger Beat policy, Osmond's nipples are covered by a promo teaser: "Hawaiian Special: A Date with Donny." The teen dream's forearms are bright red, making it look like the Honolulu sun has spanked Osmond painfully. And the mag hasn't bothered to hide what appears to be a rather vicious scar, perhaps a leftover from his famed appendectomy.
Nevertheless, Donny Osmond is smiling. And why not? His mug, which had virtually become a teen mush-mash mag logo up to that point, would only show up on the next five hundred and fifty-nine issues of Tiger Beat, Teen Beat, Sixteen, and every other rag catering to pimply, giggly girls.
Thanks to such incessant PR, Osmond scored twenty-eight Top 40 smasheroos in the Seventies. And from 1976 to 1979, Donny and his sister Marie thrust themselves upon millions of Americans via their TV variety show.
Then, as suddenly as it had inducted him into its wholesome apple pie family, America decided to get hip or something and ruthlessly wipe the grin off Osmond's billion-
dollar puss. ABC pulled the plug on Donny and Marie, and "One Bad Apple" became an autobiographical, entertainment-biz statement. "Puppy Love" was put to sleep. "Too Young" was too old.
It's June 1989, and Donny Osmond--or, as he calls himself at one point on his new album, Don "O" Smond--steps out of a limousine in Tempe. He looks remarkably like someone who's just earned a Ph.D. in Faust: George Michael hair, black sunglasses, black jeans, black soft-leather boots, white tee-shirt, denim button-down.
Smond has flown to Phoenix to promote his born-again career on local hot-hits heavyweight KZZP. Make that his born-again serious career. His mid-tempo bump 'n' grind disco ditty, "Soldier of Love," has just shimmied up the singles chart to No. 2, and his non-humorous eponymous LP is at No. 54 with a bullet.
Alas, "Don `O' Smond talks straight about his new life as an artiste" isn't what morning show ratings are made of. KZZP has brilliantly decided to make a circus out of this day, placing the ex-teen idol in the center ring . . . right next to multiple plastic bowls filled with corn flakes. 'ZZP has picked this morning to promote its new breakfast cereal, Kelly & Co. Morning Flakes. And they're doing it at the suburban Tempe home of listener Lisa Gurtler, who won the right to host the Smond celebration.
When the white limousine pulls up to the Gurtler house, hormonal shrieks cascade through the neighborhood. Smond lingers in the limo while old and new fans squeeze together to rubberneck. When it seems as if the tension will send the Earth out of its orbit, deejay Bruce Kelly plays chauffeur and springs Smond on the crowd. A woman snorts philosophy: "He's grown up since he was 16 years old."
It isn't long before Smond finds himself answering queries from giddy fans in the Gurtler living room. A Smondophile holds up a circa '72 photo of Smond and blurts out, "Do you remember this picture?"
"Yes, I remember that picture," Smond says patiently, being careful to flash only 16, perhaps 17, of his pearly whites.
When it's time to entertain the masses with a live version of his new single, "Sacred Emotion," Smond is obviously relieved. It's his chance to flaunt his new, no-nonsense image. While a KZZP flunkie taps out the tune on a Yamaha keyboard, Smond starts snapping like a mutant combination of Daryl Hall and George Michael, then belts out the pale soul ballad, closing his sparkling brown eyes for the meaningful part.
Still, when the song ends, Smond's newly found maturity hasn't infected everyone in the room with the hoped-for case of amnesia. Some jokester produces a beat-up teen mag with Smond on the cover and wiggles it in front of the poor 31-year-old's face. Smond is paying for Donny and Marie, "Sweet and Innocent," "Crazy Horses," "Deep Purple," and all the other nightmares he used to plague Americana with like some giant-toothed apple-cheeked Freddy.
How did mega-pube Donny Osmond become Don "O" Smond, Faustian record industry monster? Genes, genes, and more genes. That Smond has clawed his way back to the top after a decade of flopping around in the record business basement is a tribute to none other than his father, George. Smond's revived career is simply the greatest show biz comeback since, well, 1962, when George broke in the Osmonds in L.A. after being turned down by power broker Lawrence Welk.
The father of an endless string of singing children, George dragged four of the older boys from their Mormon Eden in Ogden, Utah, to the gritty show-biz chaos of Los Angeles. According to the Billboard Book of Number One Hits, it was George's dream to foist the kids on Welk so the polka king could babysit this aspiring barbershop quartet on the air. Welk checked his watch and decided he didn't have time for George and his offspring. The father, employing the kind of quick thinking Chevy Chase used to such effectiveness in the Vacation flicks, declared right then and there that this trip was no longer about business, but about pleasure. So George loaded the kids into a station wagon or van or some other vehicle and whisked them over to Disneyland.
And perhaps just like any other four children on vacation at Disneyland and not looking, in any way, shape or form, to get discovered, George just happened to dress the Osmond boys in matching costumes. It wasn't long before the look-alike brothers had either caught the eye of--or was it that they had pushed themselves upon?--the Dapper Dans, a pro barber shop quartet performing on Main Street. The Osmonds auditioned for the Dans, and one thang led to another. Alan, Wayne, Merrill, and Jay had themselves a steady gig at the 'Land.
Seventeen years later, when Donny's name was mud in H-Wood after ABC axed his show, he must have remembered the entertainment TD pass George had thrown in L.A. on the '62 Statue of Liberty play. Donny dug in for the Eighties, grimly determined to overcome the age problem.
He starred in a revival of Little Johnny Jones, a Broadway play that ended forever when the curtain closed on opening night. And according to the Billboard book, Donny is, or was, gearing up to spring on the western world "a satellite television network that will beam programs and advertising into giant screens installed in shopping malls across America."
It seemed like the only way the music industry would let Donny play was if he agreed to poke fun at himself. In 1985, according to Capitol Records, his new label, he appeared as an auditioning singer in a video for the Jeff Beck song, "Ambitious," confessing, "I used to sing with my brothers and with this chick named Marie."
By 1986, he'd finagled his way into snarling ironically for a photo opportunity with Billy Idol.
The next year, Smond networked with Peter Gabriel at a benefit show in New York and had more luck with Mr. "Sledgehammer" than his father had had with Lawrence Welk. According to a press release from Capitol, Gabriel gushed, "I've always been intrigued with what you were going to do next with your career."
By last year, Smond had found himself working with a Gabriel associate on a new album. Virgin Records picked it up in the U.K. and enticed BBC's Radio One into spinning the single, "Soldier of Love."
In record shops all over Limey-land, Smond's album photo peered at customers from behind dark glasses, unsmiling and unshaven. Brits everywhere may have snickered at this George Michael clone, but Brits everywhere also bought the disc.
Don "O" Smond, who's been sitting rather calmly for the past two or three minutes at a table at the Gurtlers' home in Tempe, suddenly punches the air to make a point. He's explaining why Capitol Records has decided to market him in such a whispery way and not make a video for "Soldier of Love."
"The first thing that people would want to do in my position is `BAM! I've got my foot in the door, blitz the market,'" Smond says smugly. "Well, I've analyzed so many careers, and they sacrifice the long term for the short term gain, you know? They overexploit themselves. So it's a good thing we didn't do a video."
Capitol's been working overtime to underhype Smond. The label's told teen mags, talk shows, and other supercilious media to beat it. Early on, Capitol cut deals with a few radio stations to play "Soldier of Love" without identifying the artist. Then Smond would hop a jet to the station at the end of the week to let listeners in on the secret, according to John Fagot, Capitol's vice prez of promotion.
Fagot's decided to take the low road with Smond ever since he first slapped on the import CD early this year. Fagot immediately determined that the LP was three or four hits deep, and it wasn't long before he was barging into Capitol prez David Berman's office for a listening party.
"I didn't tell him it was Donny Osmond," Fagot recalls.
Berman, dubious at first, asked Fagot, "Are you sure this is a hit?"
Fagot was sure.
When he finally let his boss in on the man behind the music, Berman tittered in disbelief and asked the veep, "Are you sure you want to work a Donny Osmond record?"
Fagot was sure. Sure that he wanted America to find out about Smond the same way Berman had found out--a radio-ready game of Name That Goon.
Smond reveals at the Gurtler residence that it was a game he was more than willing to play. He confesses that since the Eighties began, John Q. Public has expected him to play the show-biz buffoon, and all the real Smond has wanted is to boogie way down low.
"My image was something that--even though it was me--it wasn't really my musical loves," Smond complains at the Gurtlers'. "On the Donny and Marie show, we did the spectrum because it was variety. But my true love is R&B music. I remember listening to, and loving, Tower of Power and people like the Ohio Players, Average White Band, and of course, Stevie Wonder. Again, it might come as a surprise that that's what I like. But it's a perception problem.
"That's what through these past ten years really got to me--people expecting me to be one thing, and I was really something else. But it was so difficult to break down that wall."
Now that Smond's got fans panting for his new material, he's planning to pull a 1984 on an upcoming concert tour and pretend like the Seventies never happened.
"I'm in a whole, new different thing," Smond says. "Let's put that to bed. It was another time, another place, another era. I've moved on to new things, and people have got to expect those new things and appreciate those new things, because that's what I want to do. And that's why I'm waiting so long to tour. I want people to be familiar with the album and want them to get into it musically and lyrically."
So is the gentle 31-year-old father of three admitting that his adolescent singing career perpetrated some of the worst cultural crimes in American history? Nope, Smond's not about to trash the monster that's kept royalty checks flowing in since the demise of Donny and Marie.
"I'm not gonna put down that career, you know, because it really doesn't just belong to me. It belongs to a lot of other people, too, because it was their childhood."
Perhaps to give his Tempe fannery just one more glimpse into the past, Smond pulls one final Donny and Marie-style gag at the Gurtlers'. Bruce Kelly wants Smond to sample KZZP's flakes, and he seats the entertainment man-child at a portable table for a taste.
Smond takes a slurp of flakes and milk, chews, swallows, and naughtily says, "PTTPUH!" He pauses for laughter, then grows up. "No, they're actually very good."
KZZP has decided to make a circus out of this day, placing the ex-teen idol in the center ring . . . right next to multiple plastic bowls filled with corn flakes.
He appeared in a video for the Jeff Beck song, "Ambitious," confessing, "I used to sing with my brothers and with this chick named Marie."
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