David Essex's first notable acting role was the lead in the stage musical, Godspell in 1971. Two years later, he starred in the film That'll Be The Day (1973) and recorded a major hit single, "Rock On" (which he wrote himself), in the same year. A second single, "Lamplight", also reached the British Top 10. In the 1970s, Essex emerged as one of the UK's top performers. His biggest hits during this decade included a pair of Number One singles : "Gonna Make You A Star" (1974), a satirical look at his success; and "Hold Me Close" (1975), a cheerful singalong.
He also appeared in Stardust, a 1974 sequel to That'll Be The Day; the title song was another Top 10 hit. In 1976, Essex covered the Beatles song, ?Yesterday?, for the musical documentary All This and World War II.
Essex's pop idol looks gave him a strong female fan base and his British tours created scenes of hysteria reminiscent of Beatlemania. According to the Guinness Book of British Hit Singles - 16th Edition - ISBN 0-85112-190-X 'he was voted the number one British male vocalist in 1974, and was a teen idol for more than a decade'.
In 1978, he appeared on Jeff Wayne's concept album, a musical version of The War of the Worlds, as the Artilleryman. The two album set remains a bestseller.
In the same year, Essex played the character Che, loosely based on Che Guevara, in the original production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Evita, and his recording of the show's "Oh What a Circus" reached Number 3. Two years later, he starred in the film Silver Dream Racer; and the soundtrack song "Silver Dream Machine" was yet another Top 10 hit in the UK singles chart. In 1985, he wrote and starred as Fletcher Christian in the West End musical Mutiny!, based on the novel Mutiny on the Bounty by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. The score produced two more hit singles, including "Tahiti," his tenth Top 10 success.
Essex has continued to perform in all areas of show business, to varying degrees of success. A 1989 sitcom, "The River", achieved good ratings. In 1991, a compilation entitled His Greatest Hits reached Number 13; a 1993 album, Cover Shot, peaked at Number 3. His autobiography, A Charmed Life, was published in 2002, and became a bestseller.
In 1999, Essex was named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. He still tours the UK on a yearly basis and releases albums through his website. Surprisingly, despite his long and thriving British career, he remains largely unknown in the United States. "Rock On" reached Number 5 in 1974, and was his only Billboard Top 40 hit single.
The grandson of an Irish Traveller, Essex told Jake Bowers of the BBC's Rokker Radio, a programme for Gypsies and Travellers, on 30th July 2006, that he has always been openly proud of his Traveller roots, but that having moved to the US, Essex has said he feels it inappropriate for him to continue as Patron of Britain's National Gypsy Council, which works for equal rights, education, and services for Romany and Irish Travellers.
In 2005, he appeared as a guest vocalist on Saint Etienne's album Tales from Turnpike House. Also that year, he appeared in the Channel 4 documentary Bring Back...The Christmas Number One.
Essex was due to join the cast of soap opera EastEnders, in early 2006, as new character Jack Edwards. However, the role was expanded beyond the three weeks planned, and Essex was unable to commit the time. The role instead went to Nicky Henson.
A model and recording of Essex is featured in the museum of West Ham United Football Club. In the recording, he explains his reasons for supporting West Ham and his love of the team. He remains a popular, hard working and respected star, who has nevertheless not achieved a more global presence.