From grammar school boy to Cockney Rebel
Nick Churchill looks at the extraordinary career of the Poole-born rock guitarist, Jim Cregan
Published in December ’13
If it hadn’t been for a battered old ukulele with a single string, the annals of popular music might never have recorded the name Jim Cregan – and a Dorset native might have been spared the need to return in later life. Instead, rock royalty Rod Stewart recently credited his old friend and former musical director with rekindling his passion for song writing – their latest collaboration, ‘Brighton Beach’, is on Stewart’s first new album of original material, Time, for fifteen years. Jim modestly accepts the acknowledgement, along with Stewart’s endorsement of Cregan & Co, the band Jim has gathered ‘to allow me to still get on a stage at 66 years of age’ and play the songs he wrote and performed with Stewart. ‘They’re just as good and half the price,’ is Rod’s measured assessment.
Playing music has been Jim Cregan’s life since the age of nine, when a friend of his father’s gave him the uke. Fascinated, he began to pick out melodies on that one string and by the time he acquired Bill Haley’s landmark ‘Rock Around the Clock’ a few months later, he was totally immersed in music. ‘My father would lock the guitar in the cupboard and not let me have it until he had checked to make sure I had done my homework properly,’ he remembers.
His soul in hock to rock ’n’ roll, Jim formed his first group, the Falcons, at Poole Grammar School and set about becoming the area’s fourteen-year-old answer to Hank Marvin.
‘School held no interest for me, so when my dad got a job in London and moved the family up there, I was more concerned about leaving my band. I spent the next two years pretending to get an education, but what I really learned was that for all the hard work you put into learning your instrument, you also need a lot of outrageously good luck to make it.’
And so it was that Jim accompanied a drummer friend to audition for the legendary Joe Meek, the writer-producer behind hits such as ‘Telstar’, ‘Johnny Remember Me’ and ‘Just Like Eddie’. With no musicians on hand for the drummer to accompany, Jim was volunteered and (unlike the drummer) so impressed Meek that he signed the 19-year-old guitarist up for the latest incarnation of the Tornados.
‘It was terrible,’ says Jim. ‘They were on their last legs, playing these really down-market gigs, but it gave me a taste of life as a professional musician.’
Over the next ten years or so, he carved himself a niche as one of British music’s most-admired guitarists, playing with the Ingoes, Blossom Toes, Julie Driscoll, Stud, Family and his future wife, Linda Lewis. He rubbed shoulders with pop stars, artists and actors, mixed with aristocrats and homeless hippies.
‘I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had this life, although I was never really moved by the fame side of things – that always seemed a bit shabby to me. There have been times when I wish I had more of that drive, but for me it was more about earning the respect of other musicians. Perhaps that’s the difference between lead singers and lead guitarists.’
Typically, it was a combination of skill and luck that saw Jim hired as guitarist for Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel (he was a friend of the bass player, George Ford) in 1975. If he’d done no more than create the guitar solo for the band’s best known hit, ‘Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)’, then his place in music history would have been assured. ‘Like all of my best work, that solo is what you get when I’m free to come up with something. There’s a famous story about it being made up at a sound check, but it wasn’t. It was about one in the morning in Studio Three at Abbey Road, where the Beatles used to record. I’d had a couple of brandies and it just came out. We did three takes and the version on the record is a composite of two different takes. I knew we had something that was good, but these things only take on the magic with time. As with any record, you make it the best you can, then you hand it over to the record company, whose job it is to sell it. At least, that’s the old way of doing things.’
Starved of writing opportunities, Jim happily signed up for the original Rod Stewart Group in 1976. He stayed until an amicable split in 1995, co-writing and producing hits including ‘Blondes (Have More Fun)’, ‘Tonight I’m Yours’ and ‘Forever Young’ and winning a host of awards. They remain friends – they’re godfathers to each other’s children and Jim was best man at Rod’s wedding to Penny Lancaster in 2007. ‘I’ve always worked best as part of a team rather than a hired hand, which I was in Cockney Rebel. Rod wanted a team around him again and we had some incredible times – his next-door neighbour in Los Angeles was Gregory Peck who had a hole cut in his fence so we could go round to play tennis on his full-sized court whenever we liked. I remember one show in LA, I saw Peck and Fred Astaire in the Green Room so I joined them for a drink and Fred Astaire asked me who did our choreography. Hilarious! We made it up as we went along.
‘I still get up and play the very occasional encore with Rod, but things move on and he rightly prefers to surround himself with people whose hair colour is different to mine.’
By his own admission Jim is not a prolific songwriter, but he has enjoyed some of the best foils in the business including regular Elton John ally Bernie Taupin, movie theme song expert Don Black, Carole King’s partner/husband Gerry Goffin and Mike Batt, the man who made The Wombles and, more recently, discovered Katie Melua, with whom Jim made two albums – Call off the Search and Piece By Piece, including the international hit ‘Nine
Energised by working with Melua, Jim returned to the UK about ten years ago. ‘I have two beautiful children in LA who I see as often as I can and they come here whenever they can. I had a luxury home, Ferrari, amazing social life, great weather, but I missed this country. I was tired of the shallowness of LA and then I met a girl and we decided to start a family and that had to be here.
‘My brother lived in Dubai and I was in LA so we were separated by twelve time zones. My sister was always the anchor with her house in Wick.
They have a beach hut at Mudeford Spit, which is where my American children want to spend their time when they’re here – sleeping in the hut overnight and waking up to those beautiful views across the bay.
‘What does Dorset mean to me? I was in the 1st Lilliput Sea Scouts at the age of 11 and I was taught to sail in a fixed keel boat by one of the seniors.
‘He got me out on Whitecliff Bay, tied off the jib, then settled himself in the bottom of the boat and said: “Right, I’m going to have a sleep. Don’t wake me unless we hit something – and don’t bloody hit anything!” And that was it. No health and safety, I had to learn to sail. That’s perfect Dorset.’