Interview: Jimmy Osmond's tribute to Andy Williams in Wellingborough
He's had a career packed with many pop hits, but the latest show by Jimmy Osmond has seen his career go full circle.
A Tribute To Andy Williams – Moon River & Me is coming to The Castle Theatre in Wellingborough on Thursday, February 8. We chatted to the pop star about his love for Andy Williams, an embarrassing encounter with Elvis Presley and his love for British traditions.
Q: You celebrated your 50th Anniversary in show business in 2016 with the hugely successful show A Tribute to Andy Williams – Moon River & Me and you are bringing it back to the UK in 2018. Andy Williams obviously represents someone very special in your life?
A: I began my performing career aged three singing with Andy Williams on his television series. My brothers were already on the show, so I started working with them when I was very young. I was the little guy who’d run on and be goofy. We ended up as regulars on the show and singing on records like Aquarius.
Q: What was your role on the show?
A: In those early days, I was the novelty guy, like a mascot. I was the kid brother that everyone liked to slag off. I was the obnoxious boy in the corner. Even in our cartoon TV series, I was the bad apple. But after a lot of therapy, I’ve come to terms with it!
Q: Why was Andy Williams’ TV show so iconic?
A: It was that era’s version of a Variety Show. In the UK you had Sunday Night At The London Palladium and in the US we had The Andy Williams’ Show, which featured weekly comedy skits and one recurring comedy sketch involving Andy’s encounters with ‘The Cookie Bear’. The show also featured major guest stars including Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope. It was a brilliant production. We were in it for four seasons. Variety does seem to be making a comeback which is fantastic as there is so much talent out there.
Q: Do you enjoy performing A Tribute To Andy Williams – Moon River & Me?
A: I love it. It’s not about me – it’s about Andy Williams and his music. I perform songs like Music To Watch Girls By, Happy Heart, Speak Softly Love and Can’t Take My Eyes Off You and of course Moon River.
Q: Tell us more about that…
A: The Williams’ family has very kindly allowed me to use clips of Andy featuring everyone from Dick Van Dyke to John Wayne and Bobby Darin, you name it. When I start singing, “You’re just too good to be true”, you’ll see it being performed by Andy on the video walls. And when I do Love Story, Andy sings it with me on the big screen. It brings back great memories for thousands of people.
Q: What else does the show contain?
A: I do a section of Osmonds’ material – Love Me For a Reason, Crazy Horses and Let Me In. I also do a comedy section. During A Little Bit Country, A Little Bit Rock’n’Roll, I put masks of Donny and Marie on people from the audience, so I can get back at my siblings!
Q: Tell us about your special guest on this show, Charlie Green?
A: I first saw Charlie on Britain’s Got Talent. He is amazing and is popular with Andy Williams’ fans but also has a young fan base as well. It would be hard to find anyone who would represent Andy’s legacy so well. I am very excited about Charlie. Andy’s brothers saw him perform in Branson, Missouri at the Andy Williams Theatre and fell in love with him. Andy’s manager said ‘He is the closest thing to Andy I have ever seen’ - now that is an endorsement if ever I heard one. I am very close to Andy’s family and whenever they turn up to one of my shows I realise what a huge responsibility it is and I never want this man to be forgotten.
Q: What do you think made Andy so special as a performer?
A: He had such a smooth voice. You could tell he was a genuinely nice guy. I say, “Please don’t think I could ever sound like him, but let’s celebrate his melodies together.” The show is coming from a sincere place. There are not many people who could pull it off because they wouldn’t have that connection with Andy.
Q: Andy was a terrific mentor to you over the years. Can you talk about the many different ways in which he influenced you?
A: He surrounded us and himself with the very best people – that’s key. Also, he was always willing to hear what was wrong rather than what was right about a performance. That is really helpful. Even today after a show, I always ask, “What needs to be improved?” That’s a really good way to lead your life.
Q: How do you feel when you sing Andy’s most memorable songs, especially his universally adored “theme tune”, Moon River?
A: I’ve worked my whole life in showbiz - I remember my mom changing my outfits three times on Andy’s show – and I have such fond memories. When you sing a wonderful song so many times, it takes you back to your memories of growing up. These songs remind me of performing in Las Vegas not just with Andy, but also with Frank Sinatra and Elvis.
Q: What do you remember about working with Elvis?
A: We shared a dressing room at the Las Vegas Hilton. So my parents thought it would be cute for me to do a number dressed as Elvis. But one night I was sick on stage. The problem was that the food was free for performers, and I was a precocious kid ordering orange freezies and grilled cheese sandwiches like they were going out of fashion. I threw up all over the front row. My brothers picked me up and I kept going. But then I saw that Elvis was watching from the lighting box, and I was mortified about it.
Q: How did Elvis react?
A: He was great about it. He was so friendly. In the dressing room, I’d see his jumpsuits and try on his shoes. He’d say to me, ‘All right, little guy.’ We knew the stars as people who put their pants on one leg at a time. But those things will never leave me. They’re burnt into my memory.
Q: You run operations at the Andy Williams Moon River Theatre in Branson, Missouri. How did that come about?
A: Andy asked me to keep his legacy alive. His family weren’t interested in continuing the theatre – it’s a very hard job. At first I said no but then I produced a Christmas show there, and it went very well. His family said, “If you don’t take it over, we’ll have to sell it.” So I bought it!
Q: Why does that theatre retain such a hallowed place in musical history?
A: Everyone wants to play there because it’s Andy’s place. Since I’ve owned it, we’ve averaged 400 shows a year. It’s a 2100 seat theatre, and it’s become so important to the town. I put a lot of love into it, and it seems to have paid off!
Q: You have also released an album too Jimmy Osmond - Moon River & Me – A Tribute To Andy Williams can you tell me about it.
A: Yes. I was very keen to do it in the way that he would have wanted. It features 18 tracks in total and includes many classics – Charade, Can’t Take My Eyes Off You, Happy Heart, Born Free, Almost There, and the title track amongst others.
Q: Andy Williams was a great mentor to you - are you continuing this tradition?
A: Yes. I’ve started mentoring and teaching interns. It’s an accredited course called the Business of Show in Utah and Iowa. Iowa is where Andy was from. My hope is to continue to do that. It was great fun. All the proceeds from my album will continue to pay for the interns. Maybe someday when everyone is done with me, it’d be fun to be a teacher who inspires kids. There are so many talented kids out there, but they have to put their phones down. They are more brilliant than we were, but they have zero social skills. My theatre is a concrete box with no phone signal, and I don’t want to fix that!
Q: You have always had a special relationship with British audiences. Can you put this into words?
A: I’m so surprised the fans have stuck with us. But I’m delighted by their loyalty, especially in this country. For me it’s special in the UK because it is not just about me being an Osmond. It’s about me being me. I’ve done reality TV shows in the UK and that has put me out there. It’s just for fun and not to sell anything. The British public like that. They like people who can laugh at themselves. And there’s a lot to laugh at if you look at my history!
Q: Can you explain more about that loyalty?
A: If you are the person who first brought people to the dance, then they’ll be loyal to you. That’s what happened to us. It’s really cool to see different generations at our shows. We are often part of a girls’ night out. At the start, the guys would sit there with arms crossed saying, “I dare you to sing Puppy Love”. Then they’d see that you’re actually a decent performer and having fun, and they’d begin to drop their guard and really enjoy the evening.
Q: What do you think now of your record-breaking hit, Long Haired Lover from Liverpool?
A: Everybody still loves that song. It’s still the biggest selling Osmond record. It sold close to 2,000,000 copies, although I didn’t get a dime for it! I now do a rocking version of it with a flaming guitar. People love that because it’s me having fun with it. Everyone over the age of 20 knows all the words.
Q: When you look back over your marvellous career, is it possible to pick out the highlights?
A: I have performed for The Queen twice. On one occasion, I had to sing that “unmentionable song”!!!! I can remember it clearly as I was standing in the line after the show next to Roger Moore and Liza Minnelli and as The Queen approached me I said ‘Hello, Mrs Queen’. I think she saw the funny side!! Much later on in life we had just lost our mother and we were performing once again at the Royal Variety Show – this time in Scotland. Coming down the line The Queen stopped in front of me and remembered my mom who had previously presented her with a copy of The Book of Mormon. I was really touched – what an amazing memory and so much compassion. One of those moments you never forget. Another highlight was Las Vegas with Elvis – just fabulous.
Q: You have appeared in a lot of musicals over the years. Do you have a favourite?
A: Chicago is my favourite because it’s so grown up. It’s a bit naughty for me, but I got used to wearing stockings and suspenders!! When I was originally asked to do the show I had a couple of meetings with the producer David Ian who very kindly agreed to make a couple of small changes to it during my run. I really had a ball doing it and made some great friends on the tour.
Q: You also starred as Teen Angel in Grease in London’s West End and recently returned to this role in theatres around the UK – did you enjoy revisiting the character
A: Yes and it’s also quite fun because Frankie Avalon is appearing at my theatre in Branson and so I have been teasing him that I have been playing his part again in the UK.
Q: You are a big fan of Panto and have starred in Cinderella, Peter Pan and most recently Aladdin – what is it that you enjoy about this British tradition?
A: I really get British Panto as I grew up as a vaudevillian on television and that’s basically what it is and love the interaction with the audience especially being a baddie. This year I played Abanazar in Aladdin (Chrismas 2017)
Q: You wrote and illustrated a successful semi-autobiographical children's picture book, Awesome Possum Family Band. What prompted that?
A: The problem for today’s kids is a lack of self-esteem. I’m very conscious about that with my own children. So when I got asked to write a book I said, ‘I’m going to write it about my life, but I’ll try to make it positive.’ It was about a family of possums. All of them were accomplished, but the littlest one didn’t get it and was trying to find his place. I made all of the possums wear flares like The Osmonds! I’m the ninth child, and the book was about possum number nine. You may be one of many, but you can still make a difference. In the end, we all have value. Teachers have since used it to motivate children. To write an autobiography would be boring, but that way I could make my story more fun and interesting.
Q: You are also a very talented caricature artist. How did you start doing that?
A: When I was young, we were on tour in the UK. Back in those crazy days, the crowds of fans were so huge, we couldn’t even stay in a hotel – we had to stay in a private house. We had police around us all the time to protect us from the crowds. I remember being taken off the tour and rushed onto a plane with a policeman. I was sitting waiting for everyone else, and the bobby drew half a character. He said to me, “You do the other half”. I did it and he said, “Hey, you’re quite good at this!” I was just eight, but he inspired me.
Q: What is the most unusual place your cartoons have ended up?
A: In a Japanese magazine. I was the first American ever to sing in Japanese. My first record there, which translated as “My Little Darling”, was an instant hit because it was so unique. I was voted male vocalist of the year and beat out Frank Sinatra, but only in Japan! I also recorded in Swedish, Spanish and Tongan! I was in a TV series in Japan. I played an exchange student who would mess up the Japanese language, which is quite easy to do. My manager knew that I cartooned and asked if I’d be willing to do a cartoon strip there. So I did. For a couple of years, I drew Japanese Jimmy and the Noodles!
Q: What do you enjoy about cartooning?
A: I love it. It’s therapy from me. If you’re frustrated with someone, you can draw them and distort their features and get it all out! Over the years our family have been in so many situations, and cartoons always create levity. I always draw one of my brothers if he is in trouble. I’ll do a cartoon on something traumatic and it brings lightness to the situation. I adore cartooning because it always gives back.
Q: You were tremendous on I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! People loved you, particularly when you smuggled in contraband inside a teddy bear. Did you have a good time on the show?
A: I loved it. Although they cut out a lot of the stuff that I did. I can’t help it, but I sing all the time. My wife calls me the little jukebox. I just can’t stop! The producers of I’m a Celebrity didn’t want to pay the clearance fees, so in the jungle we wrote our own songs.
Q: What effect did I’m A Celebrity have on your career in the UK?
A; That show was great. Before, people wanted me to sing Long Haired Lover from Liverpool. Afterwards, I had guys coming out of pubs saying, “How’s Teddy?” It created an incredible new relationship with the audience. People were having a laugh with me and all having fun together. After that I did Pop Star to Opera Star, Challenge Anneka and in 2016 I did Celebrity Masterchef and made it to the finals. Now people know I’m not afraid to try anything – although I probably should be!
Q: You are clearly an enthusiastic chef. What do you like about cooking?
A: I love cooking. When I was a little boy, Donny, Marie and I would travel together. They would pretend they had a hotel called Donmarie. The only way I could play along was by opening Jimmy’s Restaurant. I had a padlock on the fridge and if the family wouldn’t pay me to make them food, I’d throw a tantrum! I had my first restaurant when I was 13, and I still own one. I was the first person to sell frozen yoghurt in Utah. It sold really well and made my siblings mad, so I loved it! Now I cater at Andy’s Theatre.
Q: Do you cook for your family and friends?
A: Yes. Cookery is a show. My wife is a great cook, but I can make something out of nothing, and my kids love that. I created a dish called “tacone”. I love ice cream and I love Mexican food, so I put them together. Now my kids constantly ask me for “tacone”.
Q: You are clearly a very close family off stage, as well as on. What’s your secret?
A: Because we were raised together, we learned to get over things very quickly. We still have scars, but we really love each other. We had great parents who loved each other and gave us a great code of life. We always put family first. Some people think we’re crazy, but I believe in that philosophy. How we treat each other really matters.
Q: Why do you think The Osmonds still so popular?
A: We’re still around because we haven’t burnt any bridges. We’ve always tried to leave a little bit on the table. It’s such a greedy business, but if you leave a bit on the table, you will be asked back. It’s not about amassing loads of money. It’s about the experience. That’s why I love live events. You are giving that unique experience to people.
Q: What do you do to relax?
A: I like to fly remote-control planes in Utah. I put cameras on them and photograph the landscape. I land them, but I crash them more than anything else!!! We buy great planes and fight with them and whoever loses has to do some major forfeit. Cars are my other weakness. I used to have a lot of cars when I was single. I had a DeLorean, a Ferrari and a Porsche. But I lost money on them. I’ve calmed down now. My wife won’t let me have so many anymore!
Q: I know when you were younger, you were close to Michael Jackson. What are your memories of him?
A: As kids, we were in the Churchill Hotel in London together. There were 5000 girls outside, so we couldn’t get out. So we ended up playing soccer in the corridor together! Later on, I promoted Smooth Criminal and raised money for Bad. He was a lovely guy, but I lost touch with him later.
Q: Having enjoyed huge success over more than 50 years in showbiz, you remain very well balanced and happy. How have you managed that?
A: After this many years in the business, we could have sat back and just celebrated what we’d done. But the way I was raised was always to look for improvements. My dad was an Army sergeant, and after every show, he made us examine what was wrong with it. We were all hard on ourselves. When Long Haired Lover from Liverpool was number one, I said to him, “Dad, isn’t that cool?” But he just gave me a broom and told me to clean the yard! But I’m very grateful for that. That approach saved us because it taught us not to believe our own hype. We could have gone off the rails, but that attitude helped us to keep our feet on the ground. We don’t put our gold records on the walls. It wasn’t ever about that. It wasn’t about accolades. It was about learning the craft. I’ve never taken myself seriously. That’s my secret to being happy!
Tickets cost between £27.50 and £30. To book call 01933 270007 or visit www.castletheatre.co.uk