It's sometimes hard to believe that Donny Osmond was once on top of the music world, giving serious competition to fellow child prodigy Michael Jackson.
Through 1978, when he last released a record in this country, Donny had accumulated 26 Top 40 singles--compared to Michael's 23. Osmond's hits included records with his brothers ("One Bad Apple," "Yo-Yo"), duets with sister Marie ("I'm Leaving It All Up to You," "Morning Side of the Mountain") and solo works ("Puppy Love" and "Go Away Little Girl").
But Michael went on to become possibly the biggest pop star since Elvis. And Donny?
Saddled with a cutesy and unhip image that was cemented by his tenure on the "Donny and Marie" TV variety show, Osmond, now 31, has been fighting for 10 years to persuade the music industry that he is a serious artist. During that time, he recorded two albums that were never released.
But Osmond hopes that the false starts are behind him. His dance-accented pop single "Soldier of Love" reached the Top 30 in England last summer, leading Virgin Records to release an album of aggressive dance tunes by Osmond there last month. According to the singer, who co-wrote five of the songs, some labels are considering picking it up for U.S. release.
"They're not going to expect this kind of music from Donny Osmond," he said recently, relaxing between vocal sessions in a Hollywood recording studio. "Radio stations are gonna have fun with it. They're gonna say, 'I'm gonna play this for ya, and you try to guess who it is, 'cause you'll never believe it.' "
Last week, that prediction came true.
WPLJ-FM, the influential New York City station, began playing "Soldier of Love" without revealing who the artist was. According to music director Jessica Ettinger, the song was a Top 10 request every night (only three people guessed who it was), and when Osmond made an appearance on the air a week later for the revelation, said Ettinger, "the phone response was unbelievable."
Donald Clark Osmond broke into show business in 1962 at age 4 as a guest in his brothers' barbershop quartet act in Lake Tahoe. He later officially joined his brothers--Alan, Wayne, Merrill and Jay--in the group as regulars on Andy Williams' weekly variety TV show. After recording a series of flops for different labels, the Osmonds exploded on the music scene in 1971 with "One Bad Apple" under the guidance of Mike Curb, who had signed them to MGM Records. Donny's pairing with sister Marie as a recording duo in 1974 led to their successful TV show from 1976 through '78, followed by "The Osmond Family Show," which lasted just 10 weeks in 1979. Osmond, unhappy with the direction of the TV show, began looking for a way to break away from the simple pop tone of his '70s music in 1979 but couldn't find a record company that would give him the necessary freedom.
He says the biggest blow came in 1982 with the patriotic Broadway musical, "Little Johnny Jones." Though Osmond was again playing an all-American boy, it was a bold attempt to build credibility in a new field. And he says he put his "heart and soul" into it.
But the play was ravaged by the critics and closed on opening night.
"If there's anything I'm more proud of, but more (demoralized) by, it's that play," he said. "The dancing . . . was absolutely top-notch and the singing was brilliant. We had to stop the show twice for standing ovations!"
What irritated Osmond was critics who made jokes about his toothy smile. "They started talking about the image rather than the show," he said.
The remarks hit so hard that Osmond grew a beard and withdrew from the spotlight for almost two years. Looking back, he says, "I was trying to hide, because it was really the first time I had failed at something."
Finally, he pulled himself together for another try at re-establishing his career. "I shaved off my beard, and said, 'Come on, get off your duff.' "
In 1985, Osmond moved from Utah to Irvine with his wife, Debbie, and their three sons (now ages 3, 7 and 9).
That year, he made progress in changing his image when he appeared as an out-of-work singer in Jeff Beck's "Ambitious" video. His line in the video, as he auditions for a lead-singer gig: "I've sung with my family, and I used to sing with a chick named Marie."
After that, Osmond began showing up at Hollywood parties, posing for pictures with such unlikely companions as Boy George and Billy Idol. And, in March of 1986, he surprised many by speaking out against the Parents Music Resource Center, which has called for warning labels on albums that might be unsuitable for youngsters.
"The whole strategy was to let people know I'm a real individual--a real human being," said Osmond. "And not some concocted fad, fly-by-night pretty face who was in the right place at the right time."
Frank Rand, a talent executive at Epic Records at the time, was typical of industry insiders who didn't take the former teen star seriously. "I had that total, unequivocal image of him," he said. "And it scared the (hell) out of me--the thought of his name connected with mine."
But Rand became one of Osmond's biggest supporters.
"It's amazing one person could have so much musical talent and not be able to (release records)," said Rand, who signed Osmond to Epic in 1986.
Peter Gabriel, who met Osmond at a U.N. benefit concert in New York where both performed, also believed in Osmond and urged him to see producer George Acogney, who had arranged Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" hit. Osmond went to England to record with Acogney, but he was dropped from Epic--by Rand's new superior--before the project was finished.
Simon Draper, head of Virgin Records in England, liked the tracks that Osmond had done with Acogney and signed Osmond, who completed the project with New York-based writer/producers Carl Sturken and Evan Rogers. One of their collaborations: the hit single "Soldier of Love."
Despite all the pessimism that he's heard heard about his comeback effort, Osmond maintained a stubborn perseverance through it all.
"I get a lot of that from my father," he said. "He had a very difficult life. . . . He came from a broken home. He lost his father when he was 3. He had to fight for everything he got. It certainly wasn't served to him on a silver platter. When I think of all the hardships he had to go through, it's an inspiration to me."
Confident with his first new album in 10 years, Osmond says that having a big seller is not necessarily his main goal. And he's not deterred by the fact that his album has yet to make the British charts. "I always said it's going to take two or three albums. I just want it to regain some respect for Donny Osmond and the talent that he does have. This album will bring people up to date.
"Virgin's treating me just right, and I want to find the same thing here." But he says he's not concerned about which label will pick up his album in the States.
"They like my album, they can listen to it," he says. "But I'm not going out knocking on doors anymore. That's not my gig anymore, because I'm starting to realize that I'm just as good as anyone else out there."