“You probably rang to see if I’m a car mechanic now or something,” says David Essex, the blue-eyed British singer who burst onto the American music scene in 1974 with the single “Rock On.” The throbbing anthem went Top Ten, but Essex never matched its success in the States. That doesn’t mean he’s been checking engines for the past fifteen years. Although he can walk down a Manhattan avenue undisturbed, he gets mobbed wherever he goes in the U.K. Since “Rock On,” he’s had more than twenty other hits overseas.
“Rock On” recently reappeared in a chart-topping version by soap-opera star Michael Damian. “I think it’s quite attractive,” Essex diplomatically says of Damian’s rendition. Coincidentally, Essex re-recorded the song for his latest album, Touching the Ghost. The record is out in Europe but remains unreleased in America, though Essex hopes to make a distribution deal soon.
Lately, building an American audience has become a priority. “I’ve been doing so much [in Britain] that I’ve not put enough energy into putting records out in America,” Essex says. “It was always a sort of secondary issue. I should have put the emphasis on America a little earlier — toured there or done something. But I never did.”
The problems Essex has had establishing himself stateside date back to “Rock On.” His record company, CBS, wanted to push him as a teen-pinup star, and he resisted. “I had a furious row with a certain man in charge about the way they wanted to market me in America,” he says. “They wanted to go very heavily on the teen-idol aspect. I was bemused by that kind of bedroom-poster image, but it was the last thing I wanted to promote.
“It was all down to having a great big picture of me with blue eyes blazing and so on,” he continues. “They said, “That’s part of the thing that sells you.’ I said, ‘Absolutely no. I’ve got all that in England, and I’m not comfortable with it.’ I don’t think they’re used to artists reacting that way. The company went cold after that, and I’ve had trouble placing an album in America over the last ten years.”
A featured role in Godspell made him well known in the U.K. in the early Seventies. In 1973, he starred in That’ll Be the Day and Stardust, which chronicled the rise and fall of a fictional pop singer. Since “Rock On,” Essex has cut nine albums while continuing to pursue acting. In 1978, he was in the West End production of Evita, as Che Guevara, and he wrote and starred in the stage play Mutiny. He just completed a black comedy called Holy Ghost. “It’s about a vicar who gets possessed by an old pirate,” he says.
Essex, who lives in London, is separated and has two children. For sport and charity, he plays cricket for four teams, including Eric Clapton’s Eleven. “I’m a bit more serious than they are,” he says, chuckling. “They tend to field with cigarettes in their mouths.”