The architect behind one of the best metal anthems ever: Crazy Horses
by Todd K Smith
“It was the influences of Paul McCartney and the Beatles that caused us to write the kind of music that we did. The only other band that had that much effect on us was Led Zeppelin.” ~ Merrill Osmond
They call him “the bear” for a number of reasons. On records his voice is melodic, husky and strong, a combination of his influences that include Elvis Presley and Neil Diamond. He’s the middle child; five out of nine with a head full of hair that merges into a well-groomed beard. He’s rubbed shoulders with the King, met the Queen and befriended the Beatles. Merrill Osmond was the voice behind his family’s biggest hits including the number one smash “One Bad Apple,” and top five “Down By The Lazy River” and “Yo-Yo.” He is complex, compassionate and not shy about affirming his faith, discussing his family or admitting his love of rock music. During their heyday (1971-1974) The Osmonds competed with Janis Joplin, Three Dog Night, Wings, Rod Stewart and a host of rocks luminaries to scale the top of the charts. They were there before The Sweet, Slade or Bay City Rollers, carrying the tag bubble-gum pop as the first boy band.
Competition was fierce between their “white bread” R&B sound and the Detroit funk of the Jackson 5. Signed by MGM executive Mike Curb, the Utah-based quintet were shuffled down to Muscle Shoals, Alabama to work with Rick Hall of Fame Studios, home of the “Muscle Shoals sound” and recording hot spot for Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. Occasionally, a scruffy bunch of rednecks would drive up from Jacksonville, Florida unbathed and unshaved to work with Blood Sweat and Tears man Al Kooper. They called themselves Lynyrd Skynyrd. “I never wanted to be the lead singer of the group,” says Merrill in our chat before his appearance in the UK production of the Spirit of Christmas at Reno’s Eldorado Casino. “Rick kept asking each of us to step up to the mic and sing. He pointed to me over and over and told me to sing louder. I always thought Jay had the better rock and roll voice.”
Long hours and a mom and dad willing to sacrifice it all for their superstar kids made the Osmonds the biggest household name among Middle America. “We had a destiny, if you want to call it that,” says Merrill. “Our parents understood balance. When it came to moving forward in the entertainment industry they made sure our morals and values were in check even though they were completely opposite of what the music industry was pushing.” In the midst of their image makeover came a call from the King. “I had no idea my mother knew Elvis Presley,” continues Merrill. “One day Elvis called to speak with her and we all thought it was a joke.” Their friendship with Presley spilled over into their diamond-studded jumpsuits and Karate-styled stage moves. “He once told me that when your fans bring their kids to your show, you’ve bridged the generation gap. I think we did that when we sold out Wembley Stadium for our 50th Anniversary world tour.”
Osmania in the early Seventies was on par with Beatlemania in the Sixties. The band even hired ex-Beatle agent Ed Lefler to run their publicity but the relationship turned sour when prostitutes and drugs were planted in the group’s room. “A lot of people in the music business wanted to see a scandal with the Osmonds,” says Merrill. “It was astounding how far they would go for sensationalism.” The struggle to be taken as serious musicians was a constant battle. “Ringo Starr wrote a scathing piece in one of the UK magazines just blasting us,” relates Merrill. “We were big fans so it crushed us we didn’t know what to do. Then, a couple days later, Paul McCartney wrote a rebuttal in the same magazine claiming he liked and admired what we were doing. Imagine two Beatles in controversy over the Osmonds. We later met Paul in France and our friendship really took off. He encouraged us to be original and keep writing.” Merrill admits the group’s first three albums Osmonds (1971), Homemade (1971) and Phase III (1972) were contrived and designed to be slick pop records that would sell millions. They did just that… to the tune of 46 million. Then, they met Led Zeppelin.
“The record company wanted us to put out a record every six month plus tour and promote,” says Merrill. “It was an exhausting schedule. We wanted our own place to record and more time to write so Mike Curb built us a studio on the back of the MGM lot.” When it came time to do the fourth record the Osmonds no longer relied on session musicians; they had become self-sufficient as a band and were writing more power rock. “When we were on tour in Europe, Led Zeppelin invited us on stage for one of their big events,” continues Merrill. “Later we hung out backstage and talked about how we really dug their entire music concept.” The older three Osmonds, Allen, Wayne and Merrill were coming into their own as songwriters and Wayne really took to Jimmy Page. “He harnessed that energy and came up with the riff to ‘Hold Her Tight,’ says Merrill. “That was the heaviest thing we ever wrote…then came ‘Crazy Horses’.”
The songwriting credits to “Crazy Horses” lists the older three Osmond brothers. It had a thunderous bass beat, chugging guitar and electronic whine that not only caught the attention of fans, but proved the band had the chops to compete with Grand Funk Railroad and the budding Blue Oyster Cult. “It was our version of hard rock,” says Merrill, “We gave them their music with our lyrics.” The rock-oriented Crazy Horses (1972) marked a dramatic departure and increased confidence within the band. They formed their own label, Kolob music and set about writing their most ambitious body of work to date. “I was deeply influenced by the Beatles ‘White’ album,” says Merrill. “Some very spiritual things happened to us around that time and we wanted to write about it.” What developed was a prog-rock concept piece with undercurrents based on their religious beliefs. “The label hated The Plan (1973),” confesses Merrill, “but I consider it our ‘White’ album.”
Over time, critics and fans have come to view the Osmond’s later recordings in a more favorable light. Google “Crazy Horses” and you’ll find over half a dozen hard rock outfits have covered the song including Tank, Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Pretty Maids, Mission UK, KMFDM, Mortals, Throat, The Gomers and most recently stoner band Puny Human. Racer X/Mr. Big guitarist Paul Gilbert covered “Hold Her Tight” on his Eleven Thousand Notes DVD all the while the Osmond’s several compilations featuring both tracks continues to sell. At the height of the group’s commercial success came a call that would change them forever. Says Merrill, “Right in the middle of the band, the television offers started pouring in. It was Red Silverman that contacted us about putting together a variety show with Donnie and Marie. The mindset of the Osmonds has always been ‘one for all and all for one.’ The band engine came to a full stop and reversed itself to support the Donnie and Marie show. I became the show’s Executive Producer and it became the highest-ranking variety show of all time.”
Next year marks the Osmond’s 50th anniversary in show business. To celebrate they are planning a world tour of which several dates have already sold out including the above-mentioned Wembley shows. “If you would have told me even two years ago that the ground swell in Europe would be what it is today, I’d have thought you were crazy,” says Merrill. “We sold out Wembley in seven minutes twice - now they have extended the tour into Asia and Australia. The show will be divided into three segments beginning the first hour with just the brothers, then Donnie and Marie and finally “little” Jimmy. Says Merrill, “Were going to open up with ‘Crazy Horses’ just to prove we can still kick ‘em in the teeth live.”
Website: Merrill Osmond, Eldorado Casino