David Essex was born David Albert Cook in Plaistow, London. His father, Albert, was an East End docker and his mother, Olive (née Kemp), was a self-taught pianist and an Irish Traveller.
His first musical occupation was playing drums in his early teens for the Everons. Essex recalled to Circus:
"Lots of people think I came into music from the theater, but I started in a blues band playing drums when I was 14. They were called The Everons, meaning 'never off' — shocking names they used then. then it was very flukey, because all I ever wanted to be was a jazz drummer and I used to get all these records by And Art Blakey and Joe Morello.
Then all of a sudden the lead guitarist decided he couldn't play blues solos and sing at the same time, it was hurting his concentration. I used to smoke 50 a day when I was a kid and I had a bad throat, so they decided I sounded bad enough to sing."
Derek Bowman, then theatre critic for the Daily Express, was told about the Everons. He saw them at a pub in Leytonstone and was impressed buy their charismatic drummer. When Cook left the band, Bowman became his manager persuading the teenager to change his surname to Essex, one he felt was more suited to both music and the theatre.
Essex begun an unsuccessful solo recording career that included a series of not very good singles for Fontana, MCA, Pye and Decca. They included '"And The Tears Came Tumbling Down," "Can't Nobody Love You" and he even recorded in 1966 a novelty song about mini-skirts, "Thigh High." Essex later recalled: "I used to look at the grooves and think, Man, my voice is in those grooves, it was just a marvelous adventure."
Somewhat disappointed with his singer's lack of chart success, Bowman turned to the world of theatre. Essex's first role was in a provincial production of the American musical The Fantasticks. In 1970 he understudied Tommy Steele in pantomime and the following year he landed the role of Jesus in the London cast of Stephen Schwartz's rock musical Godspell. This was Essex's "big break".
"Yeah, I like to do research," he later recalled to Q magazine. "I went along and auditioned and they just went nuts so I read the Bible a few times. But it took a whole lot of courage to do that show because I felt so responsible to people's beliefs. Before it opened I was getting letters from people saying 'You will burn in hell.' There was headlines in the Evening Standard saying 'Docker's Son To Play Jesus' and it was all new ground and very controversial so I felt an unbelievable weight of responsibility on my shoulders."
Essex took a seven-week break from Godspell
to play the part of Jim McClain in That'll Be the Day
(1973), in which he co-starred with Keith Moon and Ringo Starr. The score was produced by Dave Edmunds
David Essex wrote "Rock On
" for the soundtrack of That'll Be the Day
. The song didn't make the film, but Essex used it to get a record deal with CBS, which released it as his first single on the label. It was an international success, giving him his only Top 40 song in America and leading to a series of British hits that established Essex as a teen-idol.
David Essex's song-writing partner during this period was the New-Yorker Jeff Wayne, who had played keyboards for The Sandpipers before coming to London in the mid-sixties. Essex first met Wayne via Liz Whiting, an understudy in Godspell who had started dating the American producer. Essex recalled: "Jeff was a fan of the show and one evening while visiting England he came to the show and afterwards asked me if I would like to sing on an advert. I agreed and ended up recording the Pledge polish commercial."
In 1978 Essex returned to the theatre, appearing in Rice and Lloyd Webber's Evita as Che Guevara and having a hit single with "Oh What a Circus". He won the Variety Club Personality of the Year for his portrayal.
Essex embarked on his most ambitious project to date in 1983 with the concept album Mutiny which spawned his tenth UK top 10 hit "Tahiti." The following year he mounted the musical Mutiny, based on the album, which took for its subject the story of the mutiny on the Bounty. The show opened in London's Piccadilly Theater with Essex co-starring as Fletcher Christian.
In 1990 Essex became president of Voluntary Service Overseas and he has since has travelled the globe on the organisation's behalf, attending functions. He was awarded an OBE in 1999 for his patronship of VSO.