Born in London, real name David Cook, he failed in his first attempt at stardom. His big break came when he was selected to play the lead in the musical Godspell in 1971. It took a couple of years for his career to take off, which it did with his appearance in the film, That'll Be The Day (1973) and a major hit, "Rock On" (which he wrote himself), in the same year. A number one hit and a follow-up film turned him into one of the UK's biggest stars.
In 1978, Essex was Che Guevara in the original production of Evita, and in the same year appeared in the film Silver Dream Racer, all the while continuing his successful singing career. However, by the time of his West End musical flop, Mutiny, based on the Mutiny on the Bounty story, in 1985, his appeal was on the wane. Essex has nevertheless continued to act and sing and enjoys a large fan base in the UK.