Life's still got that silver lining

AT a time of life when mere mortals are dreaming of early retirement - or would be, had our pension funds not gone all wobbly on us - David Essex shows few signs of easing up.

AT a time of life when mere mortals are dreaming of early retirement - or would be, had our pension funds not gone all wobbly on us - David Essex shows few signs of easing up.

Sure, the curly black locks of the 1970s have given way to short grey hair - and, whisper it, he's a grandfather in his 60th year - but the man who exhorted us to Rock On is still having the time of his life.

This year he's written, recorded and released a new album: Beautiful Day. Then, during the summer, he was back on stage in the West End for the first time in 21 years with a three-month stint in the musical Footloose. In this tale of an under-the-thumb rural American town liberated by the power of music, David played the Rev Shaw Moore alongside former Bucks Fizz-er Cheryl Baker.

Then, with barely time to draw breath, he was into rehearsals for an autumn tour that will visit nearly 50 towns and cities before it winds up in Woking at the end of November - Ipswich, Norwich, Cambridge and Brentwood among the stopping-off points.

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In his spare minutes he's been writing a musical - provisionally called Funfair - that he hopes will take to the stage next September: either in the West End or on tour.

In the spring he's joining David Cassidy, The Osmonds and Showaddywaddy for the Once in a Lifetime Rewind Tour. The diary for 2007 is already looking pretty healthy, then.

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We catch up with David Essex before the Preston leg of his autumn jaunt, and find him in fine fettle. That familiar cheeky-chappy voice is a little croaky after the previous evening's date in Southport, but is as warm and “smiley” as it was nearly 35 years ago.

He kills the sound of the TV in his hotel room. He's been watching Brainiac, and before that Robot Wars. “That's one of the things about touring: you watch lots of daytime TV that you probably never want to see again,” he laughs.

Such minor irritations aside, he's enjoying touring.

“There's a lot of travelling, and a different city every day, and that's a little tiring, but what lifts you every night is the reaction of the audience. I didn't realise that I hadn't really toured for nearly three years, and people seem to be enjoying it.”

Some bands' tour schedules see them zig-zagging crazily up and down the country on successive nights; but David's itinerary is quite user-friendly - Folkestone-Dartford-Cambridge-Ipswich-Maidstone, for instance. He's known much worse.

“When I started out, I was with a blues band and we were looked after by a real nutter who would have us going from Sunderland to the south coast. There were nine of us in a Bedford Dormobile . . .”

This tour schedule also featured successive nights in Norfolk, which offered a chance to take stock and explore the area, rather than wake up and rush off to the next venue.

“I do think it's a special part of England,” he says of Norfolk. “It seems to have a quietness about it because it's not on a motorway. In a way, it's in its own little world.”

Sometimes, when he's been here before, he's visited the Broads on his day off and taken a boat out, though he confesses with a half-shudder that he's not at all a natural on the water!

A trademark of his career has been its variety: writing and recording material, touring, singing on stage in musicals.

“Variety is good. I really enjoy it. I think one of the things that keeps me interested is being able to work in different media.”

Making the new album, rehearsing for Footloose, appearing in the musical and then kicking off the tour has required a quick turnaround, he recognises. “But I'm working with four fantastic musicians; we know each other well and are able to pick things up, really.”

They had 10 days' rehearsal, which he reckons is time enough to get things working well but short enough to stop complacency creeping in. “It's always good to be a little wary and have a few rough edges,” he grins.

He often decides on content and running order when he's up on stage, enjoying the freedom of varying proceedings and thus making each night a bit different. “I try to keep the band on their toes!”

There'll be songs from the new album, but he's more than happy to give an airing to old favourites such as Hold Me Close and Gonna Make You a Star.

I tell him about a colleague who shelled out a small fortune to see Madonna in Cardiff and was a bit disappointed at the dearth of classic tracks in the show.

“I agree with your friend. If I go to a concert, as well as hearing new stuff I want to hear the songs I know; that's the reason you are there. I am more than happy to play Rock On. If for any reason I'm tired of it, I just get the audience to sing it!”

So why does he like doing what he does?

“Well, I've always been interested in communicating through music; it's quite a spiritual process. And it's always rewarding to go out on tour and see people who really care about what you have been doing.

“Sometimes, now, I can look down and see three generations in the audience. People will be listening thoughtfully to the new stuff and then go bonkers when I sing some of the older songs!”

Speaking of excitable behaviour, in the '70s David was on the end of some Beatle-esque hysteria and adoration - and he wasn't always happy about it.

“I look back on it with affection, but at the time I wasn't particularly comfortable. I was a writer of my own tunes, which was unusual then, and on that first tour I was really bemused and bewildered by it all. I should have enjoyed it more, I suppose.”

He says he finds his concerts much more fulfilling nowadays, “because there is more light and shade in the audience's reaction. It's more of a journey. Which there ought to be, as I've been making up tunes for 33 years or something!” Gosh, doesn't time fly. “Yes. I even made myself think then!”

How does he think he's changed since the days of Lamplight and Stardust?

“I don't have that insatiable urge to get to tomorrow today - which was good to a certain extent, but when you're in your 50s you say 'Let's have a little think about this.' I'm now much better about living in the moment.

“In the past I might get a hit record in the United States with Rock On, or get the OBE. I'd say 'That's nice. Now, what's next?' So I think I have slightly mellowed.”

It's something of a surprise to learn David, an East Ender by birth and a West Ham fan to boot, lives in the United States, though work means he spends a lot of time this side of the Atlantic. “I'm a commuter,” he laughs, explaining that he had a place in New York in the late 1970s, so living stateside is not something new.

Home is on the east coast - at Rhode Island, between New York and Boston. He enjoys the way the seasons have definite characters: very hot in the summer, and then 20 feet of snow in winter.

“One of the lovely things about travelling around England at this time of the year is that the leaves are starting to turn and there's that chill in the air. It's my favourite time of year.”

He couldn't live in Los Angeles. Why? “The East Coast has a bit more texture.” Diplomatic answer . . . “Well, I think most people there are still looking for something.”

Perhaps it's no surprise that he copes well with a peripatetic existence. David's the grandson of an Irish traveller, and for some time was patron of The Gypsy Council. In the summer he told the BBC's Rokker Radio show, which broadcasts across eastern England, he was proud of his roots but felt he had to stand down because of the time he spent in the U.S.

David thinks a radio programme putting travelling issues in the public arena is a positive development. “The more dialogue there is, the more people talk to each other. There is good and bad in all societies, but they all should have a voice. My mum always said that a land without gypsies is a land without freedom, and to an extent there is a point in that.

“In any case, it's practically impossible to travel” - in a gypsy sense - “in this country now, so the way of life is itself difficult, and that creates its own problems.”

It's time for him to head off to Preston. One last question - one I've been ordered to ask by my wife, who wants to know if the twinkling blue of his eyes is a natural phenomenon.

“Of course!? What does she think - that I take them out at night?”

Well, she thought you might have used dye to give them their brilliant hue - or perhaps even coloured contact lenses, if they were available in the 1970s.

“I don't even wear glasses.” Lucky man; I'm younger but my eyesight owes much to the skill of my optician. “Well,” he laughs, “I don't read very much; I just look at the pictures!”

Essex man

Real name: David Cook

Born: Plaistow, London, July 1947

Four children: 18-year-old twins, son of 29 who is a record producer, and a daughter in her 30s who has presented him with a grandson “who thinks I'm mad!”

Spent holidays as a teenager working at funfair, fascinated by the juxtapositioning of amusements and undercurrent of violence found on fairgrounds

When 14, saw a drum kit in a music shop window in the East End

Persuaded his docker father to buy it

Mid-1960s: Worked in a factory while playing drums in a semi-pro blues band

Later left the group to become a singer, taking name David Essex

Recorded for Decca Records and other labels, but 10 singles made little impact

Opted to become an actor, driving lorries and working as a window-cleaner to make ends meet while appearing in minor productions. Was married, with a child on the way

Turning point was when theatre writer Derek Bowman became his manager

Essex worked on his singing and acting skills, as well as dance

1971: Won the part of Jesus in the musical Godspell

Won the Variety Club of Great Britain's award for Most Promising Newcomer

First film released - That'll Be the Day. Story set mainly in a 1960s holiday camp and co-starring Ringo Starr and Keith Moon

Wrote Rock On, which was used in the film

Rock On gets to number three in UK charts in 1973 and breaks into the top five in America

It makes him an overnight star in Britain

Hits that followed in the 1970s include Lamplight, Gonna Make You a Star (number one in 1974) and Hold Me Close (top of the charts in 1975)

The following decade, A Winter's Tale reached number two in 1982

David was Che in original production of Evita in the late 1970s. Oh What A Circus got to number three

Starred in the film Silver Dream Racer in 1980 - also wrote the score, including Silver Dream Machine, which got to number four

Wrote musical Mutiny, starring as Fletcher Christian. Single Tahiti was his 10th top-10 hit

Has supported the charity Voluntary Service Overseas and has done charitable work in Africa

1999: Awarded the OBE

Now developing new musical, provisionally called Funfair. He's happy it has a strong story. “It is quite dark. It's got things in common with one of my albums, All the Fun of the Fair (which came out in the summer of 1975). Several of the characters come from there, you could say.”

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