Jay Osmond talks Elvis, Chuck Norris and selfless performing with Jill Rayner
The Osmonds were four to begin with – Alan, Wayne, Merrill and Jay. “Walt Disney discovered us and put us on his shows,” the latter tells me from the Scottish Highlands (he hasn’t come across Nessie yet but has a friend in Inverness who tells him the monster is real). He continues, “Then Andy Williams saw us and we were on his show for about nine years.” It was on Williams’ programme that Donny joined them, and it was here that the brothers learnt to play instruments. “Every week we were told we had to do something different. So one week we had to learn to play piano, and the next we had to learn to play saxophone.” The show opened up their understanding, he says, not just of playing music but of its production too. “We were blessed to have that as our vehicle.”
Now aspiring musicians have more vehicles than The Osmonds and The Jackson 5. “There’s a part of me that says it’s really cool that people these days have so many avenues they can pursue their talents in – a lot of people can get their music and marketing out.” Certain vehicles, though, can grant riders instant fame – which comes with “a lot of problems”. Those who achieve it don’t necessarily “go through the hard knocks to know that show business goes up and down like a rollercoaster. The ability to sustain needs to come from a lot of work, practice and dedication.”
People trying for a career in music, he says, should (as well have something to fall back on) be sure it’s what they want. “If you really want it, pursue it, work hard – choose good friends. Do your music, enjoy it, but don’t get caught up in it. I think people get so caught up in the fame and fortune, rather than looking at it as a wonderful way to lift people and a good opportunity to help others.”
He’d know about that. Alan, Wayne, Merrill and he first formed The Osmonds in order to make money for hearing aids for their two older brothers, Tom and Virl (both of whom would also go on to play the Andy Williams Show despite their deafness). Their parents later launched The Osmond Foundation to raise funds for other deaf children. This foundation in time became Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, co-founded by Marie Osmond, which to this day has raised over $5 billion to help children with varying illnesses.
I remember being tied to the television as a little girl, watching The Osmonds, astonished. In 70s Sheffield we were a little bit obsessed with all this glamour taking place elsewhere. Who was responsible for the jumpsuits the band switched to wearing in the late 60s/early 70s? “Elvis really became like a brother to us – we performed in Las Vegas at the same time he did.” The Osmonds would watch Presley’s show at the International and he would catch theirs from the lighting booth at Caesars Palace. “He brought us backstage one night and said, ‘Ok now guys, I want you to change your look, you really need to.’ Actually what he said was, ‘I want you to macho-up your look.’ That’s what he said to us! Of course we listened carefully, and that’s why we changed.” Do the suits still fit? “I wish.”
The King also advised them in the moves department. “Elvis said, ‘Ok guys, you need to put a little more style in your dancing. You need some karate.’ So he got us Chuck Norris, who became a good friend and had a big influence on our dancing – that was a big part of our history, a fun part.”
I tell him I’ve been singing ‘Crazy Horses’ all morning. “Oh you sweet thing,” he replies. Given what an incredible rock album Crazy Horses is, I ask whether it was this genre that the group were most comfortable in. The original four, he says, have their hearts in rock ‘n’ roll, something they might have followed earlier but for the record company preferring the Donny-fronted pop songs – “We kind of became background singers.” Last year though, he and Merrill injected some rock into the festive season. “We put this album together called Very Merry Rockin’ Good Christmas and put some really cool Christmas songs in there.”
As The Osmond Brothers, they also rerecorded a chunk of the family’s tracks for the 2017 album Vintage, and at the time of speaking the pair have started their Christmas 2018 tour. Live performing is different these days. “Half our audience are guys now. To see them sing ‘Crazy Horses’ and ‘Love Me For A Reason’ with us… I didn’t know we had guys that were so into us.” At border patrol recently, his passport was being checked by a male. “He started looking up at me, down at the passport, back up at me, etc. And all of a sudden he breaks out into ‘Crazy Horses’. He said, ‘I was a closet fan, I hope you don’t mind.’”
Do they ever get bored playing the same hits night after night? Not if you think beyond yourself and whether you’re enjoying it or not, he says. “When you get involved with the audience, and you look what they’re doing, and they’re singing your songs with you – you get out of your own self. We’ve learnt that when you’re onstage and you’re doing those songs – however many times you’ve done them – it’s never boring, because you enjoy what the song is but you also enjoy the people that are singing along with you. A lady came up to me the other day and said, ‘Those may be your songs, but they’re my songs too.’”
Yeah, I say, they’re our childhood.
And judging by what I’ve been blasting out the stereo in preparation for our chat, they’re my adulthood too.
The Osmonds play a one-off gig at Union Chapel, London, 21 February merrillosmond.com