In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
In 1970, the Jackson 5 were a comet blazing across the sky. What they managed in that one year was monumental and historic: four consecutive singles, all of them perfect or near-perfect pieces of pop music, hitting #1 over the course of a single calendar year. And then they never got back to #1. The Jackson 5 (later known as the Jacksons) kept scoring hit singles into the ’80s, but they never hit #1 again, at least as a group. (Michael Jackson, obviously, was a different story.) And the year after that quick and dominant Jackson 5 era, they were replaced atop the charts by a group of toothy Mormon brothers. The Osmonds were such transparent, obvious Jackson 5 wannabes that their one big song was a literal Jackson 5 reject.
There were nine Osmond kids. Not all of them were musicians, and two of them were born with degenerative hearing loss. They all grew up in a huge Mormon family in Ogden, Utah. Their father George was a big fan of barbershop music, and four of them Osmond brothers formed a barbershop quartet in 1958, when they were all little kids. Eventually, they became performers at Disneyland, and then regulars on The Andy Williams Show. (They were variety-show kids years before two Osmonds got a variety show.) Around 1969, the kids decided that they wanted to switch over to pop music, and younger brother Donny joined their ranks. Their father wasn’t thrilled, but the Jacksons had happened, and the record executives of America knew that there was money to be made with the Jacksons’ non-union white equivalents.
MGM Records signed the Osmonds, and then the label shipped them off to FAME Studios at Muscle Shoals, Alabama so that they could work with the producer Rick Hall. Within R&B, Muscle Shoals was hallowed ground. That’s where people like Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett had helped perfect a hard, churchy Southern soul sound. The Osmonds must’ve been a weird fit. But the FAME staff songwriter George Jackson had a song called “One Bad Apple” that he’d written with the Jackson 5 in mind. Berry Gordy had turned the song down, but the Osmonds took it and made it huge.
There is, of course, something so gross about all of this: a bunch of black kids electrifying pop music and then a bunch of white kids finding success but wholeheartedly ripping those black kids off. Everything about “One Bad Apple” screams Jackson 5. The lyric is puppy-love stuff about how this one girl should give love another chance, which was the same basic thing the Jacksons sang about on “I Want You Back.” The arrangement is joyously jumpy, full of moving parts and dinky little hooks. (That flute/xylophone riff is an especially egregious offender.) And Donny Osmond’s strained tenor yip is simply a faded Michael Jackson Xerox; we can even hear him reaching to sing the word “girl” the exact same way. This shit is the 1971 equivalent of Lil Romeo wearing an iced-out Bugs Bunny after Lil Bow Wow came out with the iced-out Mickey Mouse.
The Osmonds could not do what the Jacksons could do. They needed two different singers — 17-year-old Merrill sang the straight-ahead lead bits and 13-year-old Donny did the whoops and howls — to even attempt to replicate Michael’s vocals. The arrangement is more leaden that what the Motown musicians managed, and the Osmonds couldn’t convey the same level of feeling that the Jacksons could. Even as kids, the Jacksons had grit in their voices. The Osmonds had to get over on chipper charm and nothing else.
But if you’re going to baldly rip someone off, you could do a whole hell of a lot worse than the Jackson 5. And while “One Bad Apple” had no business existing, it’s still a sharp, giddy, driving pop song. (If the Jacksons had accepted it, it could’ve even been a very good song, though it probably had no shot at greatness.) The song’s got a big, squelchy beat, and bunch of strong string and horn hooks, and a general hard-to-hate giddiness. It did what pop music was supposed to do. The Osmonds didn’t stick with R&B; they headed off for country and easy listening and variety shows as soon as it became expedient to do so. But they managed to knock out at least one pretty good pop single, even if that pretty good pop single is a nefarious ripoff of some much, much better ones.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s a sample-happy white-label 1988 “One Bad Apple” remix from Norman Cook, the man who would later be known as Fatboy Slim:
THE NUMBER TWOS: Wouldn’t you know it: The Jackson 5’s giddily liquid “Mama’s Pearl” peaked at #2 behind “One Bad Apple.” It’s an 8.