If Jon English had concentrated on just one aspect of his many talents, his place in the upper echelons of Australia’s cultural fabric would be assured. That he hurled himself, from his teens, into every creative environment that came his way established him as an almost cyclonic force and one of the country’s totemic performers.
He came at us in a rush, with a cracking humour to match his energy and enthusiasm, as a roaring pub rocker and bandleader; a prolific recording artist; a stage actor in everything from rock operas and Gilbert & Sullivan operettas to mainstream musicals and David Williamson dramas; a television star and host; a writer of a ballet and an ambitious historical conceptual work; a record producer.
Jonathan James English, born 26 March, 1949, was raised in Hampstead, England, and arrived in Australia in 1961. He taught himself piano and the basics of guitar, bass and drums, and at Cabramatta High School formed a series of bands, becoming the lead singer of the Sebastian Hardie Blues Band. A year below him was Carmen Sora, whom he married in 1969 at age 20; she was 19.
When impressario Harry M. Miller brought the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar to Australia, he and director Jim Sharman handed the role of Judas Iscariot to the migrant kid from Cabramatta. Lyricist Sir Tim Rice has said “I will always be grateful to him for his original and powerful interpretation of the role.”
Jon would play Judas for more than 700 performances, returning to the musical in 2012 for a stint as Pontius Pilate. In the years that followed he would star in Ned Kelly, Bacchoi, Rasputin, Big River, Noises Off, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Are You Being Served?, Dad’s Army, Hairspray, Spamalot and his Gilbert & Sullivan triumvirate The Mikado, H.M.S. Pinafore and - most memorably, as the rapacious Pirate King - The Pirates of Penzance, which he delivered on stage more than a thousand times.
He was cast as the hapless, dazed’n’confused rocker Bobby Rivers in the TV comedy series, All Together Now, which screened for more than a hundred episodes.
From his 1973 solo album, Wine Dark Sea, and its sequel, It’s All A Game, English proved to be a formidable chart star, with a string of brooding, intense hits – Handbags and Gladrags, Turn The Page, Hollywood Seven, Behind Blue Eyes, Words Are Not Enough, Get Your Love Right and Hot Town - that would find their way onto the double Best Of album hit, English History. His most successful song was the lilting Six Ribbons, from the mini-series Against the Wind, in which Jon also played the lead role.
English’s run of well-received albums continued into the 1980s: with Calm Before the Storm, Inroads, Beating The Boards, Jokers & Queens (with Marcia Hines), Some People, Dark Horses and The Busker commanding rock respect.
By 1990 Jon had worked with record producer David McKay on his own rock opera Paris (Prince of Troy). The soundtrack album, recorded in England with the London Symphony Orchestra and London Philharmonic, with such guests as Barry Humphries, Demis Roussos, John Waters, Philip Quast and Doc Neeson, won English and McKay an ARIA Award in 1991.
For all his theatrical flair, English could not be separated from the rock and soul of his formative years or from his love of performing in pubs with the Jon English Band, the Foster Brothers, Duck, Pulsar, Baxter Funt and Sebastian Hardie. Over the past decade, Jon recreated the pub rock of his early years, fronting versions of The Rock Show with a string of promising young performers.
A mainstay of Australian entertainment for more than fifty years, Jon was in the midst of a busy performance schedule when complications from surgery following a fall proved fatal near midnight on March 9 2016. He died, two weeks short of his 67th birthday, surrounded by his family.
GLENN A. BAKER