Cotswold Character: Jimmy Osmond
16:19 24 October 2016
©2009 Jim Lersch
The legendary pop star and now popular Masterchef contestant bought his show to Malvern this month. Kate Jarvis called his home in Utah for this fascinating conversation
“Morning!” I say to Jimmy Osmond, even though it’s 3.15 for me, on a drizzly English summer afternoon.
“Morning! How are you?” he replies over the phone-line, in the sorts of cheery tones you’d employ after making a particularly successful cheese omelette on MasterChef. Even though it’s 8.15am for him.
A naturally early riser, hmm?
“Well, no, not really,” he says, in that blueberry-pie accent. “I never have been. But, you know, when you get kids, they all have a million activities. Plus, with the time change, I do a lot of work over there [the UK]; so I usually start even earlier than this. So thank you for calling,” he adds, with consummate courtesy.
Utah. Land of the snow-capped Uinta and Wasatch; deep-gorged land of the Colorado Plateau; seasoned land of salt-beds and lakes. Heaven’s heights; strait gates; and that’s your Lot.
So if I were in Utah right now, what would I be looking at?
“You’re looking at a beautiful sunrise; huge mountains all over the place. And I live right on the river, so you get a lot of birds and deer walking around. It’s really pretty.”
Two different lives; one phone-line.
There’s something I want to ask him. But not yet. Not yet.
Jimmy Osmond came to Malvern – Malvern! Not a bear in sight! – this October, for an Andy Williams tribute show: Moon River and Me.
Andy – the great crooner; but also the man who introduced the Osmonds to the world. They were known as his backing singers, back in the early day. Invited for a one-off guest spot, they stayed for eight years.
“Yeah, we were kind of the featured novelty act, if you will. Walt Disney actually discovered my brothers [they sang an impromptu set at Disneyland, while visiting in their campervan]. When I came along, they were already regulars on his show and it was just the thing to keep introducing an Osmond, you know. So I joined 50 years ago this year.”
Fifty years ago. When Jimmy Osmond was barely a dot on the stage.
“I was just three years old; and I don’t know if I remember those days. Or I’ve just looked at the footage so much that I remember it. You know what I mean?”
It was a strange era; a watershed time: waving a red-lipsticked goodbye to the end of vaudeville; screaming a wild hello to pop and rock. The Osmond boys might not have had friends their own age, but they counted people such as Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra as near-family.
“Yeah, it was like, Uncle Frank. That’s how you knew him. These people were legends but, to us, they were just fellow performers. I had a cool exchange with Nancy Sinatra not so long ago. When I was young, I would perform with her on stage at Caesars Palace [Las Vegas]. This little kid who would imitate her dad and sing That’s Life. I remember she had given me a hat from Frank Sinatra himself.”
He talks about those days with fondness: how grateful he and his brothers were for success; how – unlike today – it wasn’t about fame at all. It was about having a career. He talks easily, and names flow. Not because he mentions them, but because I ask him. The Osmonds shared a schedule with Elvis, who got them into karate (a stage routine choreographed by Chuck Norris) and glittery jumpsuits.
“Elvis was super-real and nice. He wanted to be a preacher, and my mom was a theologian. She loved studying various kinds of religions and she would find the good in all of them. He would call up and talk about the Bible with her.”
Whenever they played together, he’d generously let the brothers stay in his suite.
“One time, we were doing this big production-number called the Hoedown, and my feet hurt so bad. We were sharing a dressing room with Elvis, and there were his jumpsuits and there were ours! And I was there, soaking my feet, and he came down and he goes, ‘Hey, little buddy! How are you doing?’ So we talked about my feet hurting, you know. It was that normal. He was still Elvis Presley and everybody loved him but he was a human being.”
Normal... Define normal. Talking to Elvis, surrounded by his jumpsuits and yours.
We’re a good 20 minutes into the interview now, and I feel as if I can begin to ask him what I want to ask him. This lovely man, who talks with gratitude, wisdom and kindness.
For one, I want to ask him about his friend Michael Jackson. About the fact that he was kind of Jimmy Osmond’s mirror image. His reverse doppelganger. All the things that could have happened to Jimmy tragically happened to Michael.
“I don’t know. I think it’s interesting,” Jimmy Osmond murmurs.
There’s a pause.
“Please protect me when you write this. Because I had so much respect for him and I’m grateful for the friendship we did have.”
I’m not sure quite why he says this, because he goes on to talk respectfully about a plane journey they shared – at the start of the Bad tour of 1987, which Jimmy helped arrange – during which they talked about religion; their parallel lives. He recalls Jackson poignantly asking, “How do you keep your family together?”
“Some of the stuff that’s happened to the Jacksons… I don’t think has hurt their core as it relates to their love for each other as a family,” Jimmy concludes. “Their mom is fantastic. A lot of similarities, though, in our families. The same number of performers.
“And Joe Jackson and George Osmond [their fathers] were both driven guys, you know; otherwise, they never would have pushed us to be the best we could be. A lot of people are critical about that. But the truth is, you don’t get anywhere without discipline in your life and having people around you that push you.”
But it wasn’t a free life.
That’s interesting for people to hear about.
“Well, there’s a very dark and hard side to it all. But the truth is, everyone has those challenges. Whether you’re a plumber or you’re an entertainer.”
He talks about being a fly-on-the-wall during meetings between Jackson and his team – manager Frank DiLeo, tour coordinator Sal Bonafede and publicist Lee Solters. The gimmicks employed to sell records. The fact that so much of what the public saw was manufactured.
“We saw how phoney the business really was. Michael did, too. He knew that.”
Strangely, one of the things that protected the Osmonds was a catastrophe, early on in their career, when they lost a shed-load of money – around $80 million, courtesy of financial ‘advisers’.
“The truth is, we were kind of becoming idiots. We were getting a little bit too full of ourselves, as anybody would when they look at themselves in the mirror that much. What really was cool - which is the true test of the mettle of any individual, especially a family – is that, when you go through hard times, you pull together or you pull apart. And we pulled together.
“There’s a lot of scars in every family, you know. But knowing that God loves everybody the same, and that there is a bigger plan than just this silly life; I think that gives you grounding and perspective, which is critical for happiness.”
He’s mentioned his dad, George; mentioned George’s driving ambition for the family. So here’s my next difficult question. What I don’t understand is how his mum, Olive Osmond, let this happen. She must have wanted to protect her children? She must have known this wasn’t an easy, normal life for a three-year-old upwards? She must have been dubious, surely?
His reply – for me, at least - is a surprise. He says it respectfully, but (maybe it’s my imagination) quietly.
“The truth is that most of the ideas came from mom.”
We both stop for a second to think about this.
“Building the TV studio, pushing the kids to develop our talents; all of that came from mom. My dad was the implementer.” He laughs, lightening the mood.
“My dad was head of the house but my mom was the neck that turned the head. That was how it worked. She had a real mission-statement. Don’t take that wrong. We were affecting a lot of people of a certain age at one time, and my mom felt huge responsibility for her kids to have some integrity.”
His quick-fire, easy conversation is slower now.
“My mom [she died in 2004] still to this day is known as Mother Osmond to not just my family but to many people. Because she would take time and write letters and visit with these kids who were going through difficult times. She affected so many lives that I never even realised.
“I used to be jealous of her time because she would spend so much of it with… I call them friends; I hate that word ‘fans’; but I would come home between shows to say ‘Hi’ to [my parents], and there would be five or 10 people in the house that I didn’t know.
“Mom would be making them sandwiches and listening to their problems and trying to give counsel, as if she were their mother, you know. She was a remarkable woman. It’s just, like I said, at the time I would be jealous. She spent so much time listening to other people’s problems, but that’s who she was…
“She had a capacity, though, to let everyone know that you were her favourite – all nine kids. We all felt like we were her favourite, and that is remarkable for a mother to pull off.”
He has no such ambitions for his children: he delights in the ordinary. An ordinary that seemed so extraordinary to him.
“It’s new territory for me. I’m used to everyone being so close and, like a school of fish, going everywhere together.
“But it’s great fun to see each one of my [four] kids have their own desires and their own direction. It’s really cool to just vicariously live through their lives and see what a normal life is. Just to see my son go to a prom with his buddies, and they’re taking pictures in our backyard; and you’re holding your wife’s hand as they drive off, and go: ‘Wow!’ I mean, I had bodyguards when I was 14.
“And I’m grateful that I still do what I love to do. But my number one priority is to provide for them. Emotionally, physically, spiritually, financially. Financially is probably the last, because that’s usually what messes kids up.”
You know what’s so hard about this interview? Every interview, you get too many words. But it’s often so easy to strike a whole lot out; to cut it down.
Maybe I’m too emotionally involved – after a mere 40-minute phone call! – but ditching words feels like throwing jewels into a black plastic bin-bag.
We talk about his love for Britain, and how overwhelmed he was by the affection he attracted on Celebrity MasterChef. “I’m used to people slagging me off – my whole life they’ve made fun of me, and I’ve learned how to handle that. But to see people you’d never expect – especially guys – saying nice things… You still get some cheeky ones, but I’m used to that!”
He sounds so happy now; happiness that defies the odds.
So… quirky question, maybe. But a telling one. If he could go back to a period in his own life, where would that be? And why?
He thinks for a while, puzzling over it. No one has ever asked him that before.
“It would probably be when I was really young; back in the 70s, it was so impactive for me. It was fever-pitch; but it was fun, exciting, scary. I can remember doing these shows where I’d have to run and hop into an actual trunk to get out of the theatre because the crowds were so crazy back then.
“I wish I would have savoured those days a little more. I was really hard on myself because the press would be nice to me but they’d also make fun of me. I didn’t know how to handle it that well, and I used to kind of have a little bit of an insecurity: Was I good enough? Did I matter? How did I fit in?
“I’d probably go back to that kid and I’d hug him. “
He doesn’t mind singing the old songs, he says, because he knows it’s not just a song he’s singing; he’s giving back to people a lost part of their lives.
Like when he sings Andy Williams songs. They bring back the memories for him, too.
“There’s one song – Almost there. Every time we would go home to Utah from the road – and we lived on the road, so going home was a real treat – we would be four or five blocks away, exhausted, and every one of us would start singing Almost there.
“Now we all have our own families and we see each other but not like we used to. So it’s a bitter-sweet song.
“You’re fun to talk to,” Jimmy Osmond says to me.
“And you’re one of the loveliest people I’ve ever interviewed,” I reply.
“I’ve totally pulled you, haven’t I?” he jokes.