Essex's career took a decided upswing after theater writer Derek Bowman became his manager. With Bowman's guidance, he worked to refine his singing and acting techniques and took up dance. This led to his selection in 1971 for the role of Jesus in the theatrical musical Godspell, for which he won the Variety Club of Great Britain's award for "Most Promising Newcomer." He became a stage star at age 24 and, two years later, was chosen for his first film role, in Claude Whatham's That'll Be the Day (1974), produced by David Puttnam -- based in part on the producer's boyhood and set in the early '60s, principally at a holiday camp, the movie (which co-starred Ringo Starr, then still basking in the glow of post-Beatles stardom, the Who's Keith Moon, and one-time rock & roll legend Billy Fury) became a major hit in England and a cult favorite in the United States. It also heralded a huge year for Essex, for in addition to starring in the movie, he wrote the song "Rock On" which was used in the film and went on to top the charts in England and reach the Top Five in the United States. A dark, brooding song -- vaguely recalling pre-Beatles British beat idol Marty Wilde -- "Rock On" made him into an overnight pop star in England. An album of the same name duly followed it up the charts at home, and Essex followed this first wave of success with a movie sequel, the much darker Stardust (1975), directed by Michael Apted, which included Moon, British rock & roll star-turned-actor Adam Faith, and contemporary rock & roller Dave Edmunds in its cast.
Essex never charted another hit in America, although the Grammy nomination he got for "Rock On" was enough to give him a cult following among an audience not limited exclusively to Anglophiles, and get his subsequent records released in the United States. He enjoyed follow-up hits in England with "Lamplight," "Gonna Make You a Star," and "Hold Me Close," among other songs. Essex's producer on all of these singles and the accompanying albums was Jeff Wayne, a transplant from America who had some composer and arranger credits associated with West End theater and commercials. Wayne's method of production was unique at the time, and gave Essex's music a special sound -- utilizing top-notch players such as guitarist Chris Spedding and bassist Herbie Flowers, he avoided the usual sterility of multi-track recording by getting his core musicians to perform live against the backing tracks, thus creating a finished record that utilized the best elements of live performance and multi-layered studio sound in one, with a very visceral impact. This was one of the reasons, beyond his voice and talent, that Essex's early singles, though essentially '70s teen pop, seemed to command such attention and respect from the rock press, far outstripping the impact of earlier practitioners such as the Herd and most of his contemporary rivals.
Essex's music career slowed due to two events, the advent of the punk era and the gradual aging of his youthful audience. They moved on to other pop/rock idols, while the next wave of young listeners didn't take to his music in the same way, and his more ambitious records, such as Out on the Street (1976) -- a loud, edgy record engineered by post-punk star producer Martin Rushent -- failed to find large audiences, despite some worthy ambitions. By 1977, Essex was producing himself, having parted company with Wayne for the Gold & Ivory album. They weren't done working together, however, as Wayne recruited Essex for his most ambitious project, The War of the Worlds. A boldly conceived and executed two-record set with elaborate libretto and supporting artwork, this album -- which became one of the top-selling "soundtracks" ever released in England (though it isn't really a soundtrack) -- became a vehicle not only for Essex's singing but his acting, as well. That seemed to presage the transformation that would take place in Essex's career -- he closed out the '70s in the role of Che Guevara in the original studio recording of Evita (1978), appearing in the legitimate stage play Childe Byron, and starring in the movie Silver Dream Racer (1980), for which he also wrote the score (including the hit "Silver Dream Machine"). By the mid-'80s, he was concentrating on theater work, including Mutiny (an adaptation of Mutiny on the Bounty), while in movies he appeared in Shogun Warrior with Toshiro Mifune. By the '90s, with his success in Sir Peter Hall's production of She Stoops to Conquer, Essex was a fully established, legitimate stage actor who was recognized as being able to carry a whole show -- seemingly in recognition of his continued presence in British popular culture, a new hits compilation emerged that year on CD from Polygram in England. His more recent composing projects have branched out to include the ballet Beauty and the Beast (1995). At around the same time, he resumed his recording career with Cover Shot, Missing You, and Back to Back, and has performed concerts on occasion in the years since. He has interspersed his various composing projects with extensive charitable work -- in addition to working with the aid organization Voluntary Service Overseas, Essex has also done recordings to benefit the World Music Fund and has done educational and charitable work in Zimbabwe and Uganda, among other African nations. He has also been active in charitable causes closer to home, such as the Gypsy Council, devoted to the welfare of gypsies living in England. In 1999, Essex was awarded the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in recognition of his stage, screen, and music career and his charitable work. In 2004, Edsel Records began releasing Essex's classic British CBS albums on CD, in carefully annotated and beautifully remastered editions. ~ Bruce Eder