In a free-association session, the name "Donny Osmond" might elicit any number of responses: toothy grin, teen idol, bubble-gum pop, Hawaiian Punch, "Goin' Coconuts," lots of brothers, "The Donny & Marie Show," Mormon, "a little bit rock 'n' roll," Utah.
But most of those images represent the old Donny, the precocious kid who at age 5 won the hearts of middle America on the old Andy Williams TV show and who a decade later became a heartthrob for millions of teen-age girls.
The old Donny recorded his last solo album nearly 10 years ago, after helping various combinations of Osmonds rack up a string of about two dozen gold singles and albums during the 1970s. His last appearance on the pop charts came in 1978 with the Donny & Marie duet "On the Shelf," which is essentially where the record stayed after peaking at No. 38.
But with his 29th birthday approaching in December, Osmond is ready for the world to meet the new Donny, who has grown up, heads his own multifaceted entertainment corporation and is resuming his recording career with a more serious attitude than when he was making "music by the pound," as he refers to some of his past records.
"I can't wait to see people's reaction to the new album--I really think we're going to blow a lot of people away with it," Osmond said Wednesday during an interview at the Santa Ana headquarters of Donny Osmond Entertainment Corp. (DOEC), which is producing music videos, films and TV shows and even "yuppie boxing" matches in Orange County.
His long, dark hair falling down past his collar, Osmond looked more the businessman than the rock star when he walked into the spacious office, briefcase in hand, and greeted his staff.
"I should have brought my computer," he said, flashing a wide, toothy grin that showed that some aspects of the old Donny will never change. "I feel lost without it. I'm always making notes."
Orange County audiences will be able to sneak a peek at Osmond's new act on Dec. 1 when he plays the Crazy Horse Steak House in Santa Ana, although Osmond cautions that the Crazy Horse show is "strictly for fun" and will only include a few of the new songs he is planning to record in January and February.
He is saving the real unveiling for next spring, when the new album is released, and he'll embark on his first solo concert tour in several years.
Osmond's first priority in attempting a comeback has been to overcome considerable skepticism, from both the public and the music industry, that Donny Osmond can make real rock records.
"The whole image stigma of Donny Osmond has really been a problem," he said. "It's amazing how time freezes in people's minds, as to what people think I'm doing and how they think I sound.
"I really am serious about the music now. It's not just a music-by-the-pound situation like it used to be. I'm going to be saying some stuff on this album that (is) tough for me to say: about my personal life, (about) growing up with this type of (image) problem, yet growing up with the advantages I've grown up with. Hopefully those songs I'm working on right now are going to turn out real well.
"I've got a name. I'm lucky for that and fortunate that at least I don't have people saying, 'Who?' But it definitely has worked to my disadvantage at times."
The advantage, however, is that he's got a potential audience of millions of former fans of Little Donny Osmond, the Osmond Brothers and Donny & Marie who have grown up with him and could turn into a significant audience for his new album.
Osmond will be recording in London, where earlier this year he scouted musicians and songs for a demo tape that resulted in a new contract with Epic Records. He has since been writing songs with keyboardist Ian Stanley, who plays with Tears for Fears, and said the album will be produced by George Acogny, who arranged Peter Gabriel's hit "Sledgehammer" and other songs on Gabriel's "So" album.
"One thing I really want to be careful of on this album is not to make it a 'guest' album. If I use people like Ian . . . it's strictly for their creativity and not for their name value. So many artists on a comeback basis try to use other people's names to give them credibility, and although that's good, you can't depend on it and you can't look like you're depending on it. So in a way I'm kind of downplaying all that stuff. I'm hopefully letting the music speak for itself."
Both Osmond and Epic Records executives had specific ideas of just how his music should sound to win new fans in the 1980s, and Osmond said, "Fortunately, our ideas were surprisingly similar.
"They said it's got to be rock 'n' roll, it's got to be hard, it's got to be dance, it's got to be totally different, so it doesn't sound like a Phil Collins or a (Steve) Winwood or anything like that. We were in pretty much agreement with each other. So I think it's a real nice marriage."