There are moments in life which seem a little surreal, and one came for me last week, on the phone to a performer who was first introduced to the world as Little Jimmy Osmond.
While I’m quick to tell people the first record I ever bought was The Clash’s Combat Rock, I’m now putting it on record (so to speak) that the first 7” single bought for me – thanks, Nan – was Jimmy’s sole UK No.1, the record-breaking Long Haired Lover From Liverpool.
Let’s face it, many would have happily broken that record themselves during its five-week chart-topping run over Christmas 1972, but TAFKALM (the artist formerly known as Little Malc) can only equate LA-born Jimmy’s biggest hit with nostalgia-tinted specs, recalling magical childhood Christmases.
I was only five at the time, but having older siblings soon persuaded me there was nothing too cool about this clean-cut Salt Lake City outfit, not least when the likes of David Bowie, Rod Stewart, Slade and T-Rex were vying for that on-air space. Yet no amount of snobbery in music will dissuade me from an appreciation of his big brothers’ mighty Crazy Horses and some of their more rocking numbers that same year, and I still can’t bring myself to dislike Jimmy’s festive offering.
Why record-breaking? Well, with that single this nine-year-old Mormon kid became the youngest performer to have a solo No. 1 in the UK. Yet impressive as that stat is, I can tell Jimmy was seemingly more impressed by me admitting an early devotion to The Osmonds’ cause, not least as I’m guessing this wasn’t just a random purchase by my Nan, but something I might have been known to sing around the house.
“Oh my goodness. Can I buy it back? The lad you love to hate, right? I was kind of like Bob the Builder in the day. They overdid it. That was your guilty pleasure, right?”
Indeed. And does he know if he’s still the youngest performer to have a solo UK No.1, after all these years?
“I think so. I guess they made a big deal about it, but I never really researched that. But people always talk about it. Will Smith’s daughter almost took it away, but she was a little older. So I think that’s still the case … which is kind of fun to tell your kids.”
It sold a million or so copies too. Was that right that Jimmy’s Mom heard the Chris Kingsley version and thought that would suit him?
“It was actually The Mike Curb Congregation. Mike was a record executive at our label, MGM. But when they released it, nothing really happened. And I had a hit prior to that anyway, becoming the first in my family to have a hit record. I was just five and it was in Japanese. I sang in all these languages. Dad was an Army sergeant who didn’t know the word ‘no’. He said, ‘Put Jimmy on that’, so I recorded it, although I had no idea where Liverpool was. And the next thing I know … well.”
As it was, his wasn’t the first Osmond No.1, fellow young upstart Donny, then 14, having the first of his three UK chart-topping singles with Puppy Love, the other two following in 1973. And while The Osmonds were at least assured a perennial spot of dancefloor kudos with Crazy Horses (just dig Donny’s keyboard riff, the environmental message, Jay’s lead vocal and Merrill’s backing vocal, kids), they were kept off the top spot by Chuck Berry’s novelty single My Ding-a-Ling until that finally gave way to Jimmy’s hit.
The Osmonds did top the charts in 1974 though, Love Me For A Reason (pure teen-pop two decades before Boyzone’s cover) staying there for three weeks. And while this Utah family haven’t reached those heights since, they’ve never really gone away since. Four decades on at least five family members are still pulling in big crowds on both sides of the Atlantic. And while his siblings Donna and Marie do their own thing out on the road, Jimmy and brothers Jay and Merrill’s Andy Williams Christmas Extravaganza is following a few US dates with more over here.
With that in mind, Jimmy, who as well as performing with his brothers, produces Osmonds shows and runs a property business, straight away asked me about the weather in Lancashire when I tracked him down in Branson, Missouri, doing a little homework. Accordingly, I let him know I’d just put on an extra layer rather than cave in and put the heating on during the day.
“Oh really. Well, it’s freezing here right now, so we’re not going to give anything up, coming over.”
I could always pretend.
“Yeah right. I could tell if you were pretending. I’ve been there enough.”
That’s true, this part of the world something of a home-from-home for the youngest of eight Osmond children, following various stage roles and UK television appearances in recent years. He’s an old hand at all that too, having made his TV debut half a century ago, aged just three on The Andy Williams Show in 1966, joining the family singing and dancing business. As he mentioned there, he even recorded a song, My Little Darling, in Japanese when he was five, becoming the first American to sing in Japanese and have a No.1 with it.
Later there was a spell living on his own in Japan, aged 14, presenting his own television show there, earning hundreds of thousands of dollars. But at the same time his brothers were facing financial struggles, Jimmy helping them out back home so the family business could survive. But let’s get back to Jimmy’s fondness for Lancashire first.
“Oh, I love it, and have so many friends there now … and really cool friends who come and hang out.”
Well, we’re pretty much all cool over here, I let him know.
“Yeah! You guys are cool.”
Jimmy was at a theatre (or should I say theater?) he owns in Missouri when I called, one carrying a weight of history it seems, for we’re talking the Andy Williams Performing Arts Center in Branson. And it turns out that Jimmy, Jay and Merrill’s Christmas run started stateside in November, with just a few US shows to go and preparations for the big trip East well underway when I called. Was this a case of the day-job meeting his night job?
“It always has been, although it’s winding down with regards to working with my brothers, which is kind of bitter-sweet, you know. It’s sweet from the stand-point that we’ve worked together for so many years, but it’s sad to see it’s kind of winding down – not for me, but for working with them. Every day it’s a joy to go to work, and every show is different and fun. It’s been great.”
Andy Williams, who died in 2012, was a key part of The Osmonds’ story from the start. Did Jimmy remain in touch with him through the years?
“Yeah, as a matter of fact he was the one who told me about Branson, Missouri. I followed him, and opened the Osmond Family Theater 25 years ago. I ran it, and was his neighbour. We’d trick or treat him, and it was nice. More than the rest of the family I really got to know him as a peer in business. Not only did we learn from him for all those years as his featured act, but I got to learn from him in business – co-opting advertising, asking how he did things, trying to emulate that as much as I can.”
So for this English lad to get a steer on the geography involved, how far is Branson from your home in Utah?
“It’s probably a 24-hour drive, so quite a way. But we’re right in the middle of the country, by St Louis and Kansas City. If you look at the population of the US, the majority is within driving distance to come to this little town. And there are so many theatres here. They kind of overdid it!
“But thank goodness Andy built this amazing theatre, which I never thought in a million years I’d end up owning – it’s one of those amazing things that happen in your life and you just have to pinch yourself. It’s been fun to keep his wishes going and his music alive. And there’s been an Andy Williams Christmas show since the ’60s, uninterrupted. It’s become almost like a Radio City thing. It’s a tradition, people want to come and see the spectacle, hear the music and bring the family. And Andy was kind of the pioneer of variety television in the day.”
Get along to see Jimmy, Jay and Merrill this month and you’re promised a show Jimmy feels is ‘proven to warm hearts and get you in that warm and fuzzy Christmas mood’. Also on the bill are guests Steve Hewlett and Charlie Green (both Britain’s Got Talent), plus the Moon River Singers & Dancers. Jimmy promises ‘family-friendly action-packed variety’, and there will be archive Christmas footage of Andy Williams performing, plus festive favourites such as Silent Night, Last Christmas, Merry Xmas Everybody and Sleigh Ride.
Meanwhile, you can expect the three brothers to perform a few Osmonds hits, including Let Me In, Love Me for a Reason and The Proud One, plus more rocking numbers like Down By The Lazy River, Goin’ Home, and the afore-mentioned Crazy Horses.
This is the second year running for the UK leg of the show, a 12-date run starting earlier this week at Isle of Wight’s Shanklin Theatre and heading through to December 30th at Newcastle’s City Hall. And the tour calls by at Preston Guild Hall on December 21st, my excuse for talking to my 53-year-old interviewee.
“Oh cool, I love Preston! I’ve spent loads of time in Preston when I did summer seasons in Blackpool. We lived in Lytham St Annes. A great area, really cool. In the olden days we’d go to different places and see pigeons in the back halls of the venue. But for the past 15 years since I’ve been producing shows over there and being in them, so I get to drive myself and check out the towns and play the same venues and get to know people. And it’s really been a fun experience.”
You’ve certainly got to know a few English seaside towns like Blackpool over the years through the acting and performing. Is this partly to do with you being born in California rather than Utah, like the rest of your siblings? Does the sea air do things to you?
“I think so, although I think you just go where you have opportunity. I’ve done loads of pantos, and they usually end up putting you on in a seaside town. When I toured with Chicago and Grease I got to see all these different venues in that kind of place, and you kind of go where you have opportunity and where you feel welcome. People are way too nice too … I don’t deserve it.”
At times you get the impression Jimmy is a UK resident, what with all those TV shows we’ve spotted him on in recent years, including I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here, All Star Family Fortunes, Celebrity Come Dine with Me, Popstar to Operastar, and most recently Celebrity Masterchef …
“Actually, the last one aired was probably Antiques Roadshow.”
I stand corrected. I hadn’t realised he’d got that old. He looks pretty good on it, after all.
“Well, It goes to show I’m not afraid to try anything!”
Getting back to Celebrity MasterChef, has he followed up his success there in the kitchen back home?
“I’ve always loved to cook, but was never that good at it. But after being mentored at that level, to become a runner-up isn’t a bad thing. I never expected that. Mind you, it’s funny how everyone wants me to cook for them and not sing anymore!”
Touching on his family’s Mormon faith, would he be calling at the Church of the Latter-Day Saints’ Preston temple in Chorley during his UK visit?
“I don’t know if we’ll do that this time, but we love stopping there. I actually worked there once, while performing in Blackpool, and my wife too. She worked in the laundry. It was fun and I made a lot of friends there. There’s a really nice bowling centre close to there. too. Can’t remember what it’s called, but there’s shopping there. We’d go there all the time, and I loved it.”
I think he means the Hollywood Bowl, and not the famous concert venue 20 miles from his Canoga Park birthplace in California, but the ten-pin bowling centre on Middlebrook Retail Park, Horwich, handy for Bolton Wanderers FC.
“Yeah, Manchester way, right?”
Reckon so. Now that would confuse me, I tell him, looking across and doing a double-take as I spot Jimmy Osmond on the adjacent bowling lane.
“I don’t think so – that’s what’s been so great! Mostly in the ’70s there were all these screaming teenage girls and whatever. Now it’s so much fun. I’ve done all these reality shows and plays, and now I’ll be on a bowling lane and a bloke will say, ‘Hey Jimmy – good shot!’ or whatever. That’s real nice – nothing crazy, just friendly. People feel they know you and are genuinely nice.”
The tour also calls by at Burnley Mechanics (December 28), and five days before he’s at Birmingham Town Hall. So what will his four days off from Christmas Eve involve? And will there be a large family and friends entourage with him?
“Oh yeah! Usually what I do – and I’m doing it this year – is rent a house, kind of central, and this time it’s in Oxfordshire, in a converted pub. We’ll have a proper Christmas and I’ll get to cook dinner and do all the traditions – the British ones as well as the American ones. My kids will be flying over with my wife. The only difference is that this year my eldest son will be on a mission for our church, so it will be a different Christmas – our first without him.”
Is that Zack?
“Yeah … hey, you know!”
Well, I was getting on to Jimmy and his wife Michele’s four children – Sophia, 22; Zack, 19; Arthur, 16; and Bella, 14. Not least as I’d read Arthur’s middle name is Wyatt, which is fair enough by me.
“Well, he goes by the name Wyatt! Arthur’s also my middle name, but he doesn’t use that.”
It’s a cool name. Not sure I’d call one of my own Wyatt Wyatt, mind.
“Oh my goodness!”
Talking of family. I’m the youngest of five kids, but that seems a mere trifle when I think of Jimmy having eight older siblings. Was the Osmond house a chaotic place to grow up?
“It still is! There’s always something going on. We were trained to be workers and love what we do – otherwise we wouldn’t do it. But if you looked at Google Earth and watched all these dots moving, seeing our family move around, it would be a constant moving machine. It’s crazy. There’s Donny and Marie doing their tour, my brothers and I doing our tour, and even the nephews and nieces – everyone’s so busy nowadays. It’s also kind of sad in a way. In the old days it was kind of concentrated and we’d all come together for a show or whatever.”
I guess it’s even harder to all get together these days.
“Yeah, we still see each other, but not as much.”
In more recent years, Jimmy’s appeared in a few stage productions too, and – like Donny – played the lead role in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. It seems like the competition remains, however good-natured, having its roots in those days when the fickle nature of fans’ adulation played its part in The Osmonds’ story. When Donny was the golden boy with regards to chart and fan status, that was probably hard on Jay and Merrill, the family’s first real stars. It was possibly the same when Donny’s No.1 with Puppy Love was followed later the same year with Jimmy’s Long Haired Lover From Liverpool. In fact, it even came to a point where the record company insisted the hit records Merrill had sung were re-recorded with Donny out front.
Not as if Mr Osmond Sr. allowed them to let that fan adulation and chart success get to their heads. But Jimmy feels that if his Dad hadn’t been as strict, they would have ‘gone off the rails, big time’. As he put it in an earlier interview, “We were offered everything. Thank goodness we had our Mormon belief, which gave us a code to live by. The biggest temptations were drink, drugs and girls. Our fame got so crazy, there were times when I feared for my life. We always had 15 or so bodyguards with us and one time in America they had to carry me out in a trunk! I was given a panic button to wear and taught how to leave finger-prints in case I was kidnapped. That does weird things to your brain.”
It all seems a little familiar to the story of the family’s main ‘70s chart rivals, The Jacksons. And as it was, Jimmy later got to know Michael Jackson well, working alongside him in the 1980s while involved in concert promotion. As he put it, “Michael was a great guy. It was so sad how he ended up”. So how does he think their upbringings compared?
”Quite similar in a weird way. Our Moms had the same birthday, and both Dads were kind of strong characters. Later in life I worked with Michael for a couple of years, helping package his tours and some of his videos. It was fun to go places with him and talk about how similar we were. Their Dad made them watch us on The Andy Williams Show and they hated that – no one wants to be compared. And my Dad would make us watch them! That was real funny. We’d laugh about how similar we were.”
So is there still a sense of competition between Jimmy and his brothers? They’ve always been close, however far apart geographically at times.
“Every family has stuff, but somehow because of the way we were raised, we were supportive of whoever was the flavour of the month, pushing them forward. That comes with the price, but by and large we love each other and it’s proven every day, which is quite cool. Everyone loves to be fulfilled in what they do as individuals, so it’s nice to see my brothers do their own projects while I do my own, yet we still come back together.”
They may be apart for much of the year, but Jimmy still lives fairly close to his brothers (while Marie in Las Vegas) and calls them ‘the most humble guys you’ve ever met’, even though he admits ‘it’s sad to look over and not see Donny, Wayne, or Alan’ onstage with his own line-up. Yet time rolls on, and the older four of the seven performing Osmonds are now in their 60s, with Donny (59), Marie (57) not so far behind.
What’s more, even ‘Little Jimmy’ has had his own health issues, not least a congenital heart condition which led to a stroke. Although he played that down when I asked him.
“That was blown up a little, although it was scary. I had a stroke, because there was a hole in my heart. A lot of people have that, but don’t realise – you’re born with that little valve that doesn’t close. But because I went and had it fixed, that was really cool as my brothers then went in and got checked as well, and my sister. Several of them had the condition too, so also had the procedure. It was kind of nice that – even though it wasn’t pleasant – it was something I totally recovered from and it also helped them.”
And does he consider himself in good health right now?
“Well, I eat a bit too much, but I’m healthy and happy. I don’t smoke and drink, but I have too much ice cream sometimes.”
And what song does Jimmy enjoy singing the most on stage all these years on?
“I love singing Moon River. I just finished a tour of Moon River and Me, and that was very fulfilling, celebrating all the music I grew up with my brothers and Andy Williams. I have a little hologram I play, so Andy appears on stage with me in that show. It’s quite emotional for me, because I love the guy and he was like family to us. And seeing people’s reaction to that, it’s kind of neat to be a part of that when it happens.”
And are the women still screaming for you, 40 or so years on?
“Yeah, but it’s a bit lower these days!”
And with that we say our goodbyes, pondering again the prospect of bumping into each other while ten-pin bowling some day soon.
“OK buddy, hope to see you someday … and I’ll introduce you to Wyatt.”
Andy Williams Christmas Extravaganza December tour dates:
Wed 14 – Isle of Wight Shanklin Theatre 01983 868000 www.shanklintheatre.com
Thu 15 – Eastbourne Hippodrome Theatre 01323 802020 www.royalhippodrome.com
Fri 16 – Felixstowe Spa Pavilion 01394 284962 www.spapavilion.net
Sat 17 – Clacton West Cliff Theatre 01255 433344 www.westcliffclacton.org
Sun 18 – Portsmouth Guildhall 0844 847 2362 www.portsmouthguildhall.org.uk
Mon 19 – Watford Colosseum 01923 571102 www.watfordcolosseum.co.uk
Tue 20 – Guildford G-Live 01483 369350 www.glive.co.uk
Wed 21 – Preston Guildhall 01772 804444 www.prestonguildhall.co.uk
Thu 22 – Malvern Theatres 01684 892277 www.malvern-theatres.co.uk
Fri 23 – Birmingham Town Hall 0121 780 3333 www.thsh.co.uk
Wed 28 – Burnley Mechanics 01282 664400 www.burnleymechanics.co.uk
Fri 30 – Newcastle City Hall 08448 112121 www.newcastlecityhall.org