Ocean City -- "No wonder I had an image problem," deadpans Donny Osmond, looking at himself bell-bottom clad, mop-topped and ever-smiling on an early 1970s record jacket. He shakes his head. "Look at that outfit, man."
The old album was thrust at him onstage at Scandals nightclub in Ocean City, where Mr. Osmond, now 33 and still wholesomely handsome, played a short solo set Sunday night in front of about 300 fans.
He opened the show with "Love Will Survive," the first single from his new album "Eyes Don't Lie," and the audience -- most of them women about his age and just as clean-cut -- applauded warmly but not giddily. Displaying only a hint of good-natured frustration, he then launched into "Go Away, Little Girl," a song he first sang to them when they really were little girls. Suddenly swept back to blissful adolescence, the women squealed, swayed and swooned.
Ah, the perils of the comeback trail.
Mr. Osmond is blitzing music stores, nightclubs and TV talk shows around the country, trying to promote his second comeback album and to convince audiences that the teeny-bopper idol with whom they were once in puppy love is now a grown-up talent. But it's a tough sell.
"We heard his current music, and we thought, 'We don't want that,' " says 30-year-old Kim Smith of Ocean City, who showed up at Scandals with three friends and two very old Donny Osmond albums Sunday night. "When we were kids, we were in love with him. It's nostalgia."
"It's great to hear a crowd," Mr. Osmond admits. "When they're cheering your name, man, it's great. But you do too many live things and you start believing the hype. It can't replace staying in the studio and writing.
"On the new album, I co-wrote 80 percent of the songs. That's something I didn't do in the past," he says. "I realized that I've got to write my own material or else I'd be nothing more than a novelty act."
He says he is especially proud of "Before It's Too Late," a cut from "Eyes Don't Lie."
"I wrote it for two reasons," he says. "We've got to start turning things around for this planet. And we've got to stop the deterioration of the family. I'm a family man myself, and I worry about that."
But he gently deflects questions about the four children he and his wife are raising at their Orange County, Calif., home, pleading a need to give his family the privacy he never had as a youngster. He admits that growing up in the public eye wasn't always as much fun as it looked.
"My childhood wasn't typical," he says. "I didn't have the friends and peers and public school most kids had. But I didn't have any other lifestyle to compare it to. That was all I knew."
When he was a teen star, the pop media made much of his family's devotion to the Mormon faith. He says he's still a practicing member of the church.
"Yeah, I'm a Mormon," he says. "But we live in a free country and I'm not going to shove it down people's throats. As a singer and songwriter, I can write songs like 'Love Will Survive' [with lines that echo the biblical promise that all else might fade away, but love will endure] and let listeners paint their own pictures."
How would he react if someone wanted to sweep his children off to overnight stardom, as Andy Williams did when he discovered 4-year-old Donny and the other Osmond Brothers?
"I don't know," Mr. Osmond admits. "One of the things that saved me was my family. If my kids did get into the business, I'd stay close to them and teach them some good values the way my parents did for me."
"It's all peaks and valleys," says the man, who sang, danced and hammed it up in hokey comedy skits with his sister, Marie, in a hit ABC variety show in the '70s. "If you really hit big," he says, "expect to hit rock bottom."