John Dudley Leyton was born in Frinton-on-Sea, Essex, England. His parents already had connections with show business, his father owning cinemas and theatres and his mother acting on the London stage under the name of ‘Babs Walters’. John’s father met his mother at the stage door of Daly’s Theatre in London, where she was appearing in a show called ‘Flora Dora’. The theatre in Leicester Square has since been converted to the Warner Cinema.
The family lived in Frinton until John was six. It was at this stage in his life that his parents divorced and John was sent off to live with relations. At the age of seven he was packed off to boarding prep school in North Wales and later to Buckinghamshire. Eventually, John returned to live with his father and step mother in North London and from the age of thirteen was educated at Highgate School.
After Highgate John studied drama at The Actors Workshop. To help pay his way through drama school, John took on work as an ‘extra’ and as a ‘walk-on’. In this capacity he appeared in various films and on TV. These included ‘The Square Peg’ (Norman Wisdom), ‘Doctor At Sea’ and ‘The Invisible Man’. Whilst still at drama school, John was spotted and offered a recording test with EMI. He reluctantly attended the audition as it had always been his intention to be an actor not a singer. He was accompanied on the piano by the late Russ Conway and in John’s own words “…the whole experience was dreadful. I was extremely nervous, I chose the wrong song (A Man On Fire), I sang it badly and I couldn’t wait to get out of there…”
After completing drama school he made his professional debut as an actor in weekly repertory at the prestigious Theatre Royal, York. After nearly a year at York, John returned to London to find an agent. It has never been easy finding an agent and he spent several months walking the streets of London armed only with his credits from Drama School and York, knocking unsuccessfully on agent’s doors. Eventually he was taken on by a newly formed agency called Robert Stigwood Associates based in Monmouth Street, Covent Garden.
His first break came when Robert Stigwood put him up for a TV series that was being made by Granada in Manchester. After an interview with the producer in London, John was sent up to Manchester with other actors to test for one of the three leading running roles in their forthcoming series ‘BIGGLES’. A few days later Robert Stigwood received a call from Granada offering John one of the roles.
His regular appearance in the series triggered a landslide of letters and enquiries from teenage girl fans, asking if he had a fan club and saying he looked like a pop star. He received so many letters, over a hundred a day, that a fan club was formed. The series ran for about nine months and during this time Robert Stigwood asked John if he could sing. A not over enthusiastic reply ‘yes….sort of !’ lead to Robert Stigwood arranging an audition with Pye Records. This was not successful and so it came to the next audition to seal the young actor’s future. Robert Stigwood arranged an audition for John with independent record producer Joe Meek. Although John had no singing experience, Joe was impressed by him. He had just what Joe was looking for: youth, charm, good looks, a sense of style and he could sing. On top of all this he was an actor. Joe would boast that he had found a young ‘James Dean’ who could sing and insisted that John’s potential was enormous.
However John’s initial fray into the recording world was not a smooth ride. His first single with Joe was ‘TELL LAURA I LOVE HER’. It was released on the Top Rank record label but at the time of its release, EMI took over Top Rank. They had their own version of the song by another artiste and therefore withdrew John’s single from the market and the EMI version went to number one. Joe Meek and Robert Stigwood were not put off and their belief in John did not diminish.
Joe teamed up with song writer Geoff Goddard and music arranger Charles Blackwell. Joe Meek asked Geoff Goddard to write a song for the young actor. Two days later Geoff came back to Joe, sat down at the piano and played ‘JOHNNY REMEMBER ME’ and with Joe’s sound engineering skills and Charles Blackwell’s arranging skills, the now classic single was created.
John had now finished the ‘BIGGLES’ series at Granada and it just happened that he was offered a guest role in a successful soap type series called ‘HARPER’S W1’ in which he portrayed pop star ‘Johnny St.Cyr’. It was quite coincidental that the title of the song and the name of the character that John was playing both began with ‘Johnny’. The producers of ‘HARPER’S W1’ were persuaded by Robert Stigwood to let John sing the song on the show as the character Johnny St.Cyr. The fans loved it and within two weeks it was number one in the charts. Ironically it was released by EMI, who had turned down John at his first audition. John instantly became a teenage idol and in The National Annual Awards he was voted ‘NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR’, while his single won ‘BEST SONG OF THE YEAR’.
His enormous popularity ensured that advance orders for his follow up single ‘WILD WIND’ exceeded 250,000 copies, resulting in it rocketing to the top of the charts prior to its release date. Subsequent singles and albums continued to achieve top ten status in the UK and other countries around the world.
Although having experienced phenomenal success as a pop star, John felt far more at home as an actor than a singer. He returned to acting and his motion picture debut came when cast alongside Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough as ‘WILLIE THE TUNNEL KING’ in the classic true war movie ‘THE GREAT ESCAPE’. His performance prompted 20th Century Fox to put him under contract and next came a starring role in ‘GUNS AT BATASI’ with Richard Attenborough and Mia Farrow. For this performance he was nominated by American Cinema Editors Inc. for ‘BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR’. This was followed by ‘VON RYAN’S EXPRESS’ with Frank Sinatra and Trevor Howard.
‘VON RYAN’S EXPRESS’ took John to Hollywood where he lived and worked for some time. He starred in his own TV series ‘JERICHO’ for MGM/CBS and in feature films, which included ‘THE IDOL’ for Paramount and ‘KRAKATOA EAST OF JAVA’ for Cinerama.
His eventual return to England was encouraged firstly by offers in the theatre and secondly by an offer to involve himself in Film and TV production. This involvement lead to raising venture capital and film finance and becoming Chairman and Managing Director of a company that owned the Meridiana, a well known London restaurant. This company reached a successful conclusion with the Meridiana site being sold for redevelopment. John also owned The Market Bar in fashionable Notting Hill.
Despite his temporary change of direction, a constant demand for guest and personal appearances continued and in November 1993 he was invited to be one of the special guests on the ‘CAPITAL GOLD ANNIVERSARY CONCERT’ at the Royal Albert Hall. Such was the reaction to John’s performance that night that he agreed to undertake a 51 date UK concert tour, ‘THE SOLID GOLD ROCK N ROLL SHOW’. The show became an event and played to sell out houses every night including the Royal Albert Hall.
Due to the huge success of the first SOLID GOLD ROCK ‘N’ ROLL SHOW further tours took place in 1996, 1997, 1999, 2001 and 2004. The show has acquired cult status attracting audiences back again the next time around. The extraordinary career of John Leyton has successfully survived and after taking time out to pursue other activities John is now back in the entertainment industry. In 2005 John completed a cameo role in the feature film ‘COLOUR ME KUBRICK’ which included a scene with John Malkovich and he completed another cameo role playing Sir Edward Lewis in the feature film ‘TELSTAR – THE MOVIE’ based on the life of Joe Meek.
Working closely with his new manager in 2006 John returned to the recording studio to record his first CD in many years. The CD titled ‘Look For A Star’ has been released by the Lone Rider Record Company, a company of which John is a director. John is currently in the process of commencing many new and exciting projects.
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