Story by Jeanette W. Bennett, utahvalley360.com • Photography by Kenneth Linge, www.kennethlinge.com
Merrill Osmond’s cell phone rings up to 50 times a day.
His children call to ask him advice on their careers, which range from public relations to country singing. His wife Mary wants to know when he’ll be coming back to their new Ephraim home. And Jermaine Jackson called a few weeks ago to check in with Merrill, whose life has mirrored his own personally and professionally.
“Jermaine called and said, ‘We both sing lead in our families, we’ve both seen ups and downs, we both have more famous younger siblings, and now we’re both 49,’” Merrill relates. “Jermaine asked me, ‘What can we do together now?’”
Merrill began telling Jermaine about how he lobbies Congress in Michigan for funding for all-black colleges. Jermaine was overwhelmed by what he heard.
“I believe one of my next big projects will be to walk arm in arm with Jermaine and send the message that the two races can work together and love each other,” Merrill says.
“Love” is the major theme in Merrill’s life. In fact, his newly released book is titled “Let the Reason Be Love,” which candidly portrays his growing up years, his career now, and his views on family and religion.
Although Merrill is allowing his experiences to take center stage, he has a humble view of his position.
“I’m just a little old country boy from Ogden who got the opportunity to see the world a few times over,” Merrill says.
Merrill is celebrating at least two major landmarks in 2003. He turns 50 on April 30, and he’s due to become a grandfather within the next six weeks.
“My kids like to tease me about getting old,” Merrill laughs. “And I guess they are right.”
But Merrill’s schedule screams anything but “retirement.”
Merrill’s calendar rarely says “at home.” He performs on cruise lines, in Branson, Mo., as well as speaking engagements and product endorsements.
And wherever he goes, he gets recognized for his “Osmond eyes.”
“People can tell that I’m an Osmond, but they don’t always know which one,” Merrill jokes. “I’m known as the bearded Osmond.”
But people are kind — whether they know his first name or not.
“We have people of all ages who have followed our careers and loved our religious beliefs,” Merrill says.
On a recent cruise trip, a woman purchased her ticket just so she could see the Osmonds perform. When she was also able to spend a few minutes with them, she was giddy with gratitude and excitement.
“We are reaping the rewards now of meeting those people we have touched throughout our careers,” Merrill says.
Merrill continues to be sought out for his Christian beliefs. He has been invited to appear on CNN’s Larry King show to talk about unconditional love and Christian values.
He’s also talking with the Christian Network, which traditionally does not feature LDS people or concepts, about doing a regular talk show. He is currently working on scripts and content.
“I would welcome the opportunity to talk about unconditional love and Jesus Christ in a forum such as the Christian Network,” Merrill says.
Ironically, Merrill feels more comfortable on a national stage than he does in Utah.
“We do very little performing in Utah,” Merrill says. “Some of our biggest critics are here, but that is OK. I believe our role is not here — it is out there where we can spread good messages and good faith.”
Merrill loves keeping his quiet home in Utah, however. He recently sold his cabin in Fairview and purchased a home in Ephraim, where he has a short commute to the Manti LDS temple where he serves.
But Merrill isn’t in Utah Valley or Ephraim very often. And it doesn’t look like that will change any time soon. Merrill, Wayne and Jay recently signed a four-year contract with Andy Williams that will require nearly six months each year at their Branson studio.
Missouri feels almost as much like home as Utah does to Merrill. LDS Church Presidents Kimball and Hinckley have both thanked Merrill for his role in Missouri where he is making friends and opening doors.
Merrill recently baptized some of LDS prophet Joseph Smith’s posterity.
A New Book
“My life has not been normal,” Merrill says. “I have been blessed with an enormous range of experiences.”
For years Merrill has talked about writing a book where he could share the many lessons he has learned both on and off the stage.
“My assistants and close friends became frustrated with me for changing directions time and time again,” Merrill writes in his preface.
But eventually, with the help of Pleasant Grove’s Janice Barrett Graham, a readable, honest, intriguing book came together and is now being sold in Utah and around the world.
The best part about the book is that it is sprinkled with bits from Merrill’s lifelong journals, which give insight into his daily routines, friends and conflicts.
Merrill talks about giving up his color purple to Donny, missing out on carefree childhood days, hanging out with Paul McCartney, arriving at performances hidden in ambulances, and getting turned down by J. Willard Marriott for funding for the Inaugural events for President Ronald Reagan.
In the preface, Merrill writes, “Some may be surprised at the experiences I reveal in this book.” And his family was largely surprised by his feelings and revelations. But the results have been positive.
“Donny didn’t know half of the things that have happened to me, but he has had a positive reaction, as did Marie who encouraged me to put the book out quickly,” Merrill says. “Dad hasn’t said much to me about it yet. And he probably won’t.”
Merrill writes candidly about his father’s stern nature.
“My father was a strict man, but as I look back I know that it had to be done that way,” he says. “No one could have given us a better platoon. When the world was beating us down, our family gave us a support system.”
The Osmonds are a tremendously close family and have been since their early performing days. Although they’ve remained close, their relationships have changed and developed through the years.
“In the ‘70s, I felt like there was a bubble around us that kept us in tact,” Merrill says. “We were aware of what was going on around us, but we were protected from it. Eventually the bubble had to burst so that each of us could experience what we needed to for ourselves.”
Merrill’s life experiences include ups and downs in financing, relationships and self-esteem, which he writes about in detail in “Let the Reason Be Love.”
Although he hopes Utahns will find enjoyment in his book, he thinks his audience is beyond the Beehive State.
“People here have plenty of good books to read, but my book is perhaps to those who don’t understand us or our way of life,” Merrill says.
Journal, age 18
I just met Elvis Presley. He reminds me of an older brother. We are using his clothes designer. He loves talking to Mother and has been reading The Book of Mormon.
Short excerpts such as this one are sprinkled throughout each chapter. His selected entries aren’t presented chronologically, but rather as they fit in with chapter topics, which range from “Pop Hysteria” to “Out of Step.”
The trick for Merrill and Janice was gleaning the best from his volumes of journals.
“I probably have 20 books worth of material from my journals and from my life. I don’t even remember half of the things I’ve written about,” he says.
Merrill treasures his journals because they help him think through past and present problems — as well as unique opportunities, such as being friends with the Jacksons and being around Elvis as he took three missionary discussions.
Merrill has used his journals throughout his life as therapy. When he sits on a plane — which he has done more than once or twice — he pulls out his journal and begins to unwind as he shares his day with paper and pen.
“My mother never pressured me to write in my journal, but I’ve known from when I was young that I wanted to remember everything that happened to me,” he said. “Now my children have picked up my habit and are keeping their own journals.”
Merrill has two large families that he adores. He grew up with seven brothers and one sister, and now he is raising six children of his own, three of whom are married.
Although he has busy months, each summer Merrill takes his children on a lengthy family vacation, and his Christmas holidays span three weeks.
“Christmastime is one of the only times you’ll see the entire Osmond family under one roof,” Merrill says.
Merrill occasionally takes his wife and/or children with him on his performing tours, but most often they stay behind to do the things on their own “to-do lists.”
“I have the most wonderful, supporting wife,” Merrill says.
In fact, he dedicates his new book to Mary because she “has endured much living with a man like me.”
Ironically, Merrill, who had millions of girls swooning for him — met his wife on a blind date.
“The dating thing didn’t work for me — it didn’t work for Donny either because he was a teen idol,” Merrill says. “But when I found my wife, it was the most wonderful change for me.”
Merrill writes about being a newlywed in his book. He reveals that his wife hadn’t seen him perform before they got married.
“Her eyes were so big — she was shocked when she finally saw me up on stage,” he says.
Only one of Merrill’s children is pursuing a performing career, and that is just fine with him.
Heather Osmond Hallows recently traveled to Nashville where she is working toward a recording contract.
“Be wise. You know what is right, and I’m behind you to support you and help you. The music industry is corrupt. It’s a balancing act, and if you don’t have balance it will eat you up alive.”
Heather has had a front-row seat to Merrill’s career as she serves as his assistant when he’s in Utah.
Although his other five children may not pursue music, Merrill has applicable advice for all of them.
“I tell my children that if they fear failure, they’ll never have the faith to accomplish their life’s work,” he says.
Merrill’s intense life has brought him to believe in a few absolutes.
• Progress should be emphasized more than perfection.
• Success needs to be measured.
• You can’t achieve without stumbling occasionally.
Merrill has learned these truths and others during his nearly 50 years of balancing fame and family life.
“Donny, Marie and myself have each suffered from bouts of depression,” Merrill says. “This life was made for us to go through many experiences. I’ve failed at financing and relationships, but each of these experiences has pole-vaulted me into the next sphere.”
Merrill believes he has been refined by his difficulties. Now when he faces a trial, he asks the Lord, “Will you teach me?”
The one lesson he doesn’t need to be taught is to love.
“The older I get, the more I realize that I truly love people, and when I or anybody else can affect someone’s life, that is what is most important,” he says.
Merrill has learned that money is not the most important pursuit.
“Money can drive an individual to think about things that are not as eternal in nature,” he says. “I’ve noticed in my own life that when I’ve had money and then lost it, that experience has helped get me back on course. I can clearly see that pattern in my life.”
Merrill doesn’t need to be a wealthy man, he says.
“I’m already a rich man because I’m working on my ‘wealth’ that relates to a higher sphere,” he says.
Merrill also believes success should be kept in perspective.
“People want success so much. What people really need is faith in God so that they have the self-confidence to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ when it’s appropriate,” he says. “The Lord has allowed the Osmonds to have success because the Osmonds are willing to bear testimony.”
Merrill doesn’t believe in taking the easy road. As a risk-taker himself, he admires others who do the same.
“Show me a person who has taken a chance in life, because I would like to talk to those kinds of people,” he says. “We humans want to hover in our comfort zones, but we don’t accomplish anything there.”
Merrill has been described as the Osmond who will never run out of ideas. Some of his current projects include his own Black Bear Foundation, which provides scholarships for music students around the country.
Someday he’d like to revisit “The Plan,” which was one of the Osmonds albums in the 1970s.
“It has a message that I’d like to see us put out there again,” he says. “Maybe I’ll turn it into a rock opera or play.”
Merrill speaks at BYU and UVSC classes occasionally and gives firesides. But all of his pursuits are somehow related to music.
“Music is so important — there is magic in music,” he says. “There are a lot of negatives in the music industry, and we need balance.”
The artsy side of Merrill is also expressed on canvas. He paints abstract pieces about dreams he has had. The art provides a much-needed outlet for his emotions.
“I’ve learned much about myself through my art,” he says. “It gives me a quiet mode of expression.”
Very few moments in Merrill’s life have been peaceful. Even a leisurely walk down the sidewalk often ends in signing autographs and posing for photos.
“I don’t understand why people want to be a part of our lives,” Merrill says. “I can hardly believe it.”
Believe it or not, Merrill will likely not fade from the spotlight anytime soon. He just hopes that “the reason is love.”