(April 11, 2021). There’s nothing like a good debate, even if it involves two guys in their 50s engaging in friendly banter that might’ve been better suited for people one quarter their age and maybe occurring a half-century ago.
Such a thing occurred a couple years back (yes, I’ve matured since then) when a friend of mine and I debated the merits of two groups who gained prominence in the early 1970s, heartthrob groups who were as big in pop culture then as people like Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and BTS are today.
Okay, maybe not BTS, but the times and technology are clearly different, and I digress.
The following is a reprint of a piece written two years ago by that good friend (borne out of that debate) and posted on his Facebook page as a memory a few days ago. He had originally posted it two years to the day in April 2019 following a routine Sunday conversation between the two of us about our favorite topic: old-school music.
This friend – who goes by Dean Michaels (a/k/a “Retrodawg”) – and I got into a lighthearted debate about the Jackson 5 and the Osmond Brothers, two forerunners of the Boy Band genre who competed for chart supremacy back in the early 1970s.
It was in the winter of 1971 – now just over a half century ago – that the Osmonds famously prevented the Jackson 5 from earning their fifth consecutive No. 1 song out of the gate when the Ogden, Utah band’s debut single “One Bad Apple” reigned supreme over the boys from Gary, Indiana and their hit, “Mama’s Pearl.”
“Mama’s Pearl” was thus held to a No. 2 peak, becoming the first of J-5’s five singles at that point to NOT reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Ever since that chart triumph by the Osmonds (with a song that was actually intended for the Jacksons before Berry Gordy famously turned it down), fans have been comparing America’s favorite Jehovah’s Witness family to their favorite Mormons, even if done unfairly and apparently even now, by yours truly and my fellow quinquagenarian.
Despite “Mama’s Pearl” not being able to join its predecessors as a chart topper, the Motown sensations’ first four singles – “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There” – all reaching No. 1 is a feat that no other group before or since has matched (at least one solo artist has done it though, namely Mariah Carey with her first five!). Plus the J-5’s four total No. 1s easily outnumber the lone chart topper the Osmonds cranked out with “One Bad Apple.”
Interestingly, after “Apple,” neither band would ever see No. 1 ink on the Hot 100 again. But their young heartthrob lead singers both subsequently reached No. 1 as teenagers with solo singles over the next two years (plus Michael tagged on twelve more as an adult over the next three decades). Donny squeezed in a near-miss with his big comeback No. 2 hit “Soldier of Love” in 1989.
Fast forward to 2019 and the convo between me and Retrodawg, where he posited a view on a topic I had never considered up to that point; specifically, whether the Jacksons or the Osmonds – without their respective young lead singers Michael and Donny – were the more talented group.
Read on to get Retrodawg’s perspective, and why – despite my lifelong loyalty to the brothers originally from Gary, IN – I actually think he makes some compelling points in favor of the boys from Utah…compelling yes, but convincing?
Read on and judge for yourself.
Here’s his piece from April 7, 2019 (originally posted in the Facebook group “Album of the Moment”), followed by the blogger’s (DJRob’s) more current reaction.
I have a fairly regular Sunday morning conversation on Messenger with DJRob. We are both obsessed with music so that is the content of most of our discussions.
An upcoming (NCAA-tournament styled) contest on another page to which we both belong has led to Michael Jackson being a major topic of discussion (again). Jackson has seven songs competing in this particular tournament.
Although I’m not allowed to vote (for reasons too complicated to explain), I pay attention to what’s going on in the tourney.
We were drawn into the Michael subject – oddly enough – by Jackson Browne, the rocker who happens to be a contestent in today’s song match. It reminded me that Michael and his brothers recorded a version of Browne’s “Doctor, My Eyes,” which was a top-ten hit for them in the U.K.
So with some good natured ribbing about Jackie and Tito Jackson’s dubious singing talents, I brought up that if you took Michael and Donny out of the equation, the other four Osmonds (Alan, Wayne, Merrill and Jay) were much better vocally than the other four Jacksons (Jackie, Jermaine, Tito and Marlon).
There was no disagreement there, however it reminded DJRob that he had recently seen the Osmonds in an old performance clip on YouTube where sister Marie had announced her brothers as “the original boy band.” I get that. DJRob didn’t.
My first point to DJRob was to send him as proof of Marie’s claim a video of the Osmonds in 1964, Donny-less, in fact. I also sent DJRob a video of a pre-hit Osmonds song that sounded like it could have came from the same factory as the Partridge Family. DJRob remained unconvinced of their originality (although acknowledging their early days on the variety TV show circuit), but he’s someone who will weigh your assertions fairly.
The fact is inescapable that the Osmonds had indeed stolen the Jackson 5’s sound for their mainstream 1970s success. However a couple of points must be made.
First, the Osmonds’ early pop records were helmed by Rick Hall from Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals Alabama. Rick knew a thing or a hundred about making soulful records and I’m not going to trot out his resume. However the cruel reality is the Osmonds were not very soulful. Their early Rick Hall albums are a precursor to the disco version of the Bee Gees, another group with absolutely no soul purveying R&B-based pop music.
The other is that young Donny was pushed out front as a solo artist first (before Michael). I’m sure the teen idol dollar was a major factor, which obviously worked because the fact remains that Donny had two massive solo hits, including the 1971 No. 1 remake of “Go Away Little Girl,” months before Michael had even released his initial foray into solo-dom, “Got to Be There.”
Donny stuck to oldies and I doubt that it was a coincidence that Michael’s second solo single was a blast from the past called “Rockin’ Robin” in early 1972.
If you want to pit Michael vs. Donny directly there is no contest. Both could sing. Check out Donny’s version of “I Knew You When” for proof. On the other hand, Donny was sometimes annoying, especially on the earliest material. But Michael, even at age 13, was pure dynamite!
The thing is that Michael was the lead singer of the Jacksons the majority of the time. The early Osmond hits always featured older brothers Merrill or Wayne singing lead with Donny making a cameo appearance in the chorus. Afterwards, you barely heard Donny at all.
The B-side of the first Osmond hit, “One Bad Apple,” is a cover of the Hollies’ “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” with Merrill singing lead, and he just about nails it. I’m not kidding when I say it can compare to any version I’ve heard without embarrassing itself.
Big brother Jermaine Jackson has talent and, in hindsight, he made the right choice staying with Motown and his father-in-law Berry Gordy when his family flew the coop. He had a huge solo career and his brothers formed an identity without him.
That’s a little beyond the scope of my piece here though. Jermaine did have an early solo top ten with a pleasant remake of “Daddy’s Home,” but his big lead moment in the J5 was “I Found that Girl,” which piggybacked the 5’s (third) single “The Love you Save.” He acquits himself well, but vocally it can’t compare to any number of Merrill’s leads. And the less said about Jackie’s falsetto, the better.
My purpose here isn’t to bring down the Jackson 5. It is instead to give a few kudos to the Osmonds who didn’t exactly suck at what they did. They will always be a distant second to the Jacksons overall, but they are still more than worth your time.
DJRob’s 2021 response:
First of all, my sincerest thanks to Retrodawg for allowing me to print his piece in the blog. As with anything he writes, it’s certainly provocative.
As for the Jackson 5 vs. the Osmonds debate, Retrodawg makes some compelling points about the “other four” brothers from each group – although he makes no specific mention of Alan or Jay Osmond or Marlon Jackson. I guess for this article’s purposes those guys’ contributions were considered inconsequential, inappropriately so in one case, as I’ll cover in a moment.
Retrodawg gets points for the Muscle Shoals grab also. It’s hard to find a more credible music connection than that to drive home an argument about one’s soul credibility, even though he quickly abandoned it by stripping the Osmonds of theirs. Talk about shooting your own argument in the foot.
As I contemplated this today, an old episode of “American Top 40 with Casey Kasem” aired on SiriusXM’s 70s channel. The original air date was April 8, 1972, and as you can imagine, there were songs by both family acts on this particular countdown (and, oddly enough, so was the original version of the song that sparked this convo two years ago – “Doctor, My Eyes” by Jackson Brown – the highest debut of the week at No. 24).
The Osmonds were represented by two songs on the list, their group effort “Down By The Lazy River” at No. 20 (it had earlier peaked at No. 4). And at No. 5 (falling from its No. 3 peak) was Donny’s solo hit “Puppy Love.”
And, almost as if the cosmos had ordained this, right next to Donny at No. 4 was Michael Jackson’s second solo single, “Rockin’ Robin,” which was on its way to a No. 2 peak later that month (“Got To Be There” had reached No. 4 a few weeks earlier and was no longer on the charts).
Hearing Donny and Michael back-to-back on the countdown with “Puppy Love” and “Rockin’ Robin,” respectively, was affirmation that the pop gods pretty much got it right when deciding which one would have the more “thrilling” career for decades to come.
As for the other brothers, let me just say that the Osmonds’ “Down By The Lazy River” kinda kicks ass! With a raspier-voiced Merrill rocking out whilst singing lead – and the other brothers all apparently playing instruments on the track – it more than acquits the Osmonds as J-5 knockoffs (unlike “One Bad Apple” from a year earlier).
Watch this video of the Osmonds performing it in 1972 (with Donny randomly clunking his hands down on the keyboards before abandoning the instrument for a dance-along with Merrill).
Kudos to Retrodawg for also pointing out Merrill’s stellar vocal performance on “He Aint Heavy” from the year before. Interestingly, it was the Osmonds’ version that I heard first (even before the Hollies’ original) as I had the “One Bad Apple” single it backed and wore both sides of that vinyl 45 out on my little record player as a five-year-old kid back in the day.
Regarding the Jacksons, while it is true that – from a singing perspective – there isn’t enough evidence to show how brothers Jackie and Tito would have held up in a hypothetical battle against the remaining Osmond collective, sans Donny, the two eldest Jackson Bros are not completely out of the picture.
In fact, the unsung Jacksons began taking on more prominent roles later in 1972 on J-5 singles like “Little Bitty Pretty One” (particularly Jackie on falsetto) and “Corner of the Sky” (at least three brothers had a lead turn, with Marlon singing the memorable line “I’ve got to be where my spirit can run free”). Several brothers take turns on the song “To Know,” an album cut from their Lookin’ Through The Windows album (and a B-side to “Corner”).
Watch this mercilessly truncated performance of the J-5 singing “Corner of the Sky” on “Soul Train” in 1972.
Also, I’d point RetroDawg and readers to J-5’s under-appreciated 1973 album Get It Together, which featured tracks with lead vocals by all five brothers, specifically the songs “Hum Along And Dance” and “Mama, I Got A Brand New Thing (Don’t Say No),” both remakes of earlier Motown tunes. Marlon is notably present on the coda to the latter.
In fact, I’d argue that Marlon could’ve easily been labeled the group’s third lead singer. When Jermaine left in 1976, it was Marlon who filled in all his big brother’s parts in concert. For further evidence of Marlon’s contributions, one should really listen to his duet with Michael on the track “Give It Up” from their 1980 standout album Triumph. (Plus Marlon almost topped the chart as a solo artist 14 years later on the song “Don’t Go”.)
Here’s “Give It Up” from Triumph.
Regarding the two sets of brothers without their then-youngest members, as Retrodawg already mentioned, it’s probably more accurate to refer to Merrill as the Osmonds’ true lead singer when examining their entire body of work, as Donny mostly provided hooks and occasional ad-libs to sweeten the teen-pop pot (and even that only lasted until 1972 when his voice changed and he became as relevant to the Osmonds as, say, Marlon was to the Jacksons?).
That detail aside, the better J-5 comparison to Merrill would be brother Jermaine who contributed far more to the Jacksons’ catalogue than Retrodawg gave him credit.
Aside from “I Found That Girl,” Jermaine sang the choruses on “I’ll Be There” and post chorus on “I Want You Back” (in a call-and-response with Michael). There are countless album cuts and B-sides on which Jermaine sang lead, including remakes of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Oh How Happy” (from their Third Album), “She’s Good,” “I Will Find A Way,” and “I’m So Happy” (all in 1971), among others.
And yes, Jermaine even got a lead on the second verse on that 1972 remake of “Doctor, My Eyes” (also from the Lookin’ Through The Windows album).
But Jermaine’s biggest (and arguably best) J-5 contribution as a lead singer was on the group’s last top-40 hit with Motown, the 1975 opus “I Am Love.” On that song, Jermaine sang lead on all verses and choruses during the song’s first half (before Michael took over during the psychedelic uptempo portion in Part 2). Thanks to reader Michael Fox in the Facebook group Lost Pop Hits for pointing out that glaring omission.
Those outings no doubt laid the foundation for Jermaine’s later solo career which hardly needs defending. After all, he had the No. 1 soul song for the entire year of 1980 with the Stevie Wonder written and produced smash “Let’s Get Serious,” which was also a pop top-10 hit. His other pop chart solo successes included top-20 hits like “Let Me Tickle Your Fancy,” “Dynamite,” and “Do What You Do.” He also famously rejoined his brothers for the 1984 top-20 single “Torture” (on which he sang opening lead) from the group’s Victory album.
Jermaine’s career far outshines Merrill’s not because of any great talent gap between the two, but likely because Merrill chose to remain with his family act while Jermaine went solo – both in 1972 with the aforementioned “Daddy’s Home” and ultimately when his brothers left Motown for good in 1976 and he elected to remain with father-in-law Berry Gordy for obvious reasons.
In the long run, the Osmonds brother-act may have had greater success touring and recording throughout the decades without Donny than the Jacksons have without Michael. But that could also be a testimony to just how astronomically talented and successful the late King of Pop was, which presented a backdrop against which no set of brothers would have been able to thrive – no matter how talented they were (or weren’t).
Thankfully, both groups gave us many years and albums where Merrill, Donny and Michael (and even Jermaine) were all present and we didn’t have to contemplate such scenarios in friendly debates like this.
But you be the judge. Leave your thoughts in the comment section below or in any of the social media feeds where this article is posted. Just try to refrain from any comments equating the two debaters to today’s Swifties and Beyhive members engaging in a Stan-war in a Reddit subgroup.
Oh, and R.I.P. MJ – the only member of either group who has since passed on.
DJRob is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
Retrodawg is a regular contributor to the blog’s “Three Old Guys” series in which 3 guys of a certain age each offer their combined opinions on an album from the past. We haven’t done a joint review in a few months, but hopefully we will soon pick up where we left off. Dawg’s other writings can be seen here:
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