With bucketloads of charisma and good looks to melt the heart of his fans, singer-songwriter and actor David Essex was a star in the making in the early 70s and finally hit the big time playing… a star in the making. And his first number 1 was about, yep, a star in the making.
Born David Albert Cook on 23 July 1947 in Plaistow, Essex, his father Albert was an East End docker and his mother Olive was an Irish traveller and a pianist. Albert contracted TB and underwent hospital treatment, so Olive and David lived with Olive’s sister in the early years. When Albert was finally better and David was two, the Cooks moved to Canning Town.
As a schoolboy, Cook was obsessed with football and played for West Ham Juniors, but that all that changed when he visited an R’n’B club called The Flamingo in Soho at the age of 13, and he learnt to play the drums, driving his neighbour mad to the point where he had a fight with Albert and was knocked out.
By the time he was living in Romford, Cook had played with a handful of blues bands, but manager Derek Bowman encouraged him to become a singer. He changed his name to ‘David Essex’ and recorded a single for Fontana in 1965, And the Tears Came Tumbling Down. For the next two years he toured nightclubs with a band as David Essex and the Mood Indigo, while also cutting his teeth as an actor in repertory theatre.
As the 70s began he built up momentum, at least in his acting, with small roles in the thriller Assault (1971) and drama All Coppers Are… in 1972. But it was getting the lead role in the stage musical Godspell in 1971 that really took things up a notch. Also among the cast was Jeremy Irons.
In 1973 Essex really struck gold when he was cast as the lead in the coming-of-age drama That’ll Be the Day. Set in the late-50s and early-60s, the film told the story of hedonistic teenager Jim MacLaine, and Essex was picked due to his inherent charm in an attempt to make the character more likable. Set to a nostalgic rock’n’roll soundtrack, it also starred musicians including Ringo Starr, Billy Fury and Keith Moon.
As the film was in production, Essex was also working on his debut album with Jeff Wayne. The son of actor and theatre producer Jerry, Wayne had composed the music for his father’s musical Two Cities in the late-60s. Inspired by his role in That’ll Be the Day, Essex wrote eventual title track Rock On, which name-checked James Dean, Summertime Blues and Blue Suede Shoes. Entering the studio for a vocal demo, Essex banged on a bin for the rhythm, and with echo applied, they liked the groove that formed. When it came to recording the song proper, they stuck to the sparse approach, with only three session musicians, and the bass played by Herbie Flowers brought to the forefront. Rock On was a slinky, sexy, edgy tune, and it deservedly became a big hit.
A year later, Essex was working on his eponymous second album and also filming Stardust, the sequel to That’ll Be the Day, marking MacLaine’s rise to fame later in the 60s. Once again inspired by his second job, he wrote Gonna Make You a Star, which became the opening track on David Essex.
Had Essex carried on down the path Rock On set out, he may be considered a more credible artist than he is. Instead, his two number 1s widened his fanbase by taking him down the family-friendly, lovable entertainer route, and to be fair, it certainly worked for him.
Although Gonna Make You a Star is inferior to Rock On, it’s an enjoyable commercial pop tune, which is partly down to Wayne’s colourful synthesiser work, which adds a nice bounce and sprightliness to proceedings. That line ‘Oh is he more, too much more than a pretty face’ shows a witty touch of irony from Essex, as does the retort ‘I don’t think so’. Pretty decent 70s pop-rock with a wink and a cheeky smile. Shaun Ryder, mentioned in my previous blog, was clearly a fan, as he quotes the chorus in the Happy Mondays track Lazyitis (One Armed Boxer), melding Essex’s song with The Beatles’ Ticket to Ride.
Written by: David Essex
Producer: Jeff Wayne
Weeks at number 1: 3 (16 November-6 December)
Comedy writer Stephen Merchant – 24 November
Welsh racing cyclist Wendy Houvenaghel – 27 November
Folk singer-songwriter Nick Drake – 25 November
21 November: The Birmingham pub bombings became one of the worst atrocities in the Troubles, when 21 people were killed and 182 injured by Provisional IRA explosions at the Mulberry Bush and Tavern in the Town. It was the worst terrorist act on English soil between the Second World War and the 2005 London bombings.
24 November: The Birmingham Six were charged with the pub bombings. Sentenced to life imprisonment in 1975, they protested their innocence and claimed they were coerced into signing confessions through severe psychological and physical abuse. They weren’t released until 1991 after their convictions were declared unsafe. It’s one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in British history
25 November: Home Secretary Roy Jenkins announced the government’s intention to outlaw the IRA in the UK.
27 November: The Prevention of Terrorism Act was passed.
5 December: The final episode of Monty Python was broadcast on BBC Two. The last series of the classic surreal sketch comedy had shortened its title and lost a member, when John Cleese declined to take part other than the penning of a few sketches.