Jim Cregan, guitarist and legendary songwriter chats with Kevin Cooper about his friendship with Rod Stewart, being a member of Cockney Rebel, his battle with prostate cancer and going on tour with his new band Cregan & Co.
James ‘Jim’ Cregan, is an English rock guitarist, bassist and renowned songwriter, best known for his associations with Family, Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel and Rod Stewart. He has also worked with London Quireboys, Glass Tiger, Katie Melua and formed Farm Dogs with Bernie Taupin. He also went on to work with British soul singer Linda Lewis, whom he would later marry, appearing on four of her albums.
In 1974 he was recruited as a guitarist by Steve Harley, as a member of a re-formed Cockney Rebel, when they recorded Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me) at Abbey Road Studios. He has also co-written many hits with Rod Stewart, including Passion and Tonight I’m Yours (Don’t Hurt Me). Cregan was awarded a third ASCAP Outstanding Song Writing award for his co-writing of the song Forever Young and Rod Stewart was awarded a Grammy for his performance of this song. He stayed with Stewart until 1995 after twelve years working together. Cregan has received thirteen multi-platinum awards for his work with Stewart and together they have thirty recorded songs to their joint credit.
In 2011, he decided, for the first time, to form his own band; Cregan & Co. This gave him the opportunity to play live the songs he had written, recorded and co-produced with Rod Stewart.
On a rare day off, Jim Cregan took time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.
Mr Cregan how are you?
I’m fine thanks Kevin, how are you?
I’m very well thank you, and let me just thank you for taking the time to speak to me.
It’s a pleasure Kevin and thank you for your interest.
How is life treating Jim Cregan?
At this moment in time Kevin I have to say that things are pretty good. As you will know earlier this year I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Well I can now tell you that I have finished the treatment; I didn’t have to have chemotherapy, and I am feeling great and am fully in recovery. If this thing is caught early you will survive it. It is as simple as that.
Because of your health, you cancelled a few Cregan & Co gigs. Are you now looking forward to getting back out on the road with the boys?
To be honest Kevin what happened with the gigs was down to a certain amount of panic on my part. The gigs were imminent; they were around three weeks away, and I didn’t quite know what the treatment was going to be. I’d had some tests but the tests were not finished, so I discussed the situation with my agent and my tour manager, and to be perfectly honest Kevin at that time I was pretty stressed out; I was a bit freaked out. I simply said lets pull everything until I know more, and so we cancelled the gigs. Then I was told that I wouldn’t be starting my treatment for another six weeks, and so I could have done the bloody gigs (laughter). It was a fiasco to be honest Kevin.
I do hope that the fans are understanding and sympathetic because when someone tells you that you have cancer it is a pretty scary moment; a really weird moment.
I must just say that it’s been pretty hard getting the questions together to ask you as it would be far easier to say who you haven’t worked with rather than who you have (laughter).
Well Kevin it’s funny that you say that. Being totally honest with you, I must tell you that whilst my CV is perfectly truthful, for example I did one song in America with Etta James, Peabo Bryson, Bill Medley and Joe Cocker but they were all on the same track, and so I did a huge bump-up of my CV on the strength of that one song (hysterical laughter). I almost forgot that also on that track was Mavis Staples and like everyone else who has ever heard Mavis sing she automatically became one of my favourite singers. So they all sang a verse each of the song that I was working on whilst I was a house producer at BMG in Los Angeles.
How it all came about was that BMG had taken on a couple of record labels and the A&R Department were absolutely swamped and they didn’t want to have to keep going out and auditioning different producers for different projects. I had produced a record by Janis Ian for BMG who seemed to like what I had done with it, and more to the point I had managed to get it in within budget. So they said that they were going to give me a desk there in the offices, together with a secretary and they were expecting me to do all of the fucking records that came through the door that they couldn’t be bothered to cast (laughter). I just said that it was fine just as long as they paid me properly and so I did all of these various records for them (laughter).
What was it like working with Etta James?
Etta came into the studio on a mobility scooter surrounded by about eight other people and she spent the entire time flirting with me outrageously (Laughter). She was a lot older than me and she was just the most cheeky thing; a very cheeky girl, but boy, what a voice. And it is a lovely thing for me to be able to say that I spent time in the studio with Etta James. I even rang Rod (Stewart) to tell him that I was in the studio with Etta James (laughter).
So just what did happen to the song that you wrote with a certain Mr Bernie Taupin?
(Laughter) well Kevin whilst I was in America Robin Le Mesurier, Bernie Taupin, Dennis Tufano and myself had formed a band called Farm Dogs. It was great fun; we were an Americana type of band and we had had this one song called Stars And Feet which I thought could well become an anthemic sort of thing with the project that we were all working on. I asked BMG if I could cut a single and they said go for it. It turned into the most expensive single that I have ever had anything to do with (laughter). It cost back then around thirty thousand dollars, which in today’s climate you can make two albums for that kind of money.
I called up everyone who I wanted to be on the single; everyone whom I had ever had a musical relationship with, people like Joe Cocker, and it was great. But then the record company never put the fucking thing out (hysterical laughter).
You have recently played at The Faces reunion. Was that a moment to savour?
It was absolutely incredible Kevin, what a fantastic gig that was. I got to play with Midge Ure, Steve Harley and Paul Carrack who I think has got one of the most wonderful voices in the business. I was the co-musical director together with Josh Phillips, Procol Harum’s Hammond organ player, of the thirteen piece house band which we had laughingly called The Best Of British (laughter). We basically kept an eye on things to make sure that it didn’t go off the rails (laughter). Rod (Stewart) Kenny (Jones) and Ronnie (Wood) came out onto the stage and bearing in mind that we hadn’t even done a sound check with these guys, we just went out there and played it. Talk about going out on a wing and a prayer (laughter).
It was really exciting and we all decided that we would play the old Thin Lizzy track, The Boys Are Back In Town because for a short while Midge was a member of Thin Lizzy. Well we had no idea what part Midge would play; would he play the harmonies or what, but we all just got up there and played it. Somehow it all just went wonderfully, it was great. It was a very grown-up band full of very serious blokes and really talented players.
Did I hear somewhere that Ronnie (Wood) was looking slightly different at the gig?
(Laughter) that’s right Kevin, he did. Ronnie bought in Robin Le Mesurier to play second guitar because when Ronnie looks in a mirror he sees Robin Le Mesurier (hysterical laughter). I said to Rod don’t you think that Ronnie and Robin look a bit weird and Rod said “darling they are all wearing make-up” (laughter). I said you are kidding and Rod said no its true both Ronnie and Robin Le Mesurier were wearing make-up (hysterical laughter). I used to do that in my thirties but never in my sixties (laughter).
On the subject of talented players, the guys who you have with you in Cregan & Co have some pedigree between them.
They are unbelievable Kevin. I am so lucky; I am so fortunate to have them. They have been the band since day one. For that I have to thank Robert Hart, who is no longer our singer; he now sings with Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. I was talking to Robert one day and I told him that I was trying to put a band together and he simply said I know a few blokes, let’s have a rehearsal (laughter). So after that rehearsal I have never tried anyone else out (laughter). Those guys, Harry James (drums) Pat Davey (bass) and Sam Tanner (keyboards), well within the first half a dozen bars I knew that they were great. Musicians can tell very quickly whether other players are any good or not.
And more to the point we have been friends ever since. I am such a fan of Sam’s that I petitioned Rod (Stewart) to have him play the keyboards in The Faces. Rod being Rod bought ringers in with him (laughter). He even bought in the bass player from his own band. Rod took my word for it that Sam Tanner was going to be fantastic, and he simply slipped right into Ian McLagan’s old shoes. For me that was a great moment to see that my dear friend had got a shot at playing in a legendary band. I was very happy for him.
Going back to Cregan & Co you have now got Ben Mills playing and singing with you. I always liked him as he had some individuality and was not the usual Simon Cowell fodder.
That’s right Kevin but that is not really allowed if you are going to work for Simon. It’s not a happy camp is that (laughter).
He has slotted in really well with Cregan & Co.
He is the sweetest guy and he has slotted in perfectly. Ben is a very fine musician, and out of all of the people in the band he is probably the best educated. He attended the Guilford School of Music. He plays both the piano and guitar very well; he knows what he is doing, he writes, he has got a great voice, and he is sort of the anti-frontman thing, which I quite like about him. He gets up there, doing the job, singing and playing, being effective without trying too hard. He doesn’t feel the need to say look at me mum, and I love that about him.
You have mentioned a certain Mr Rod Stewart. How was it being back on-stage with him earlier this year at Hyde Park?
It was lovely. It was the first time that I had played with Rod officially in the last twenty one years. I have been up to see him and jammed with him at his house a few times but this was our first official time together on stage in twenty-one years (laughter). The whole event was great. Rod was really nice but I have to say that it was somewhat nerve-wracking standing at the side of the stage waiting to go on. If you open with the band that’s fine, but if you are waiting to go on and play a small bit, it is much more nerve wracking Kevin. Rod was lovely as usual. He and I are very, very old friends. We have been mates for thirty-six years and he invites me to go on holidays with him on his boat; I stay at his house, so we are really good mates.
As soon as I stood up there beside him it felt just like it used to all those years ago. Because I did so much of it I am so used to standing next to him on stage that it was just like a pair of old slippers. Of course there was a lot of piss taking; Rod kept fucking about with my hair (laughter). At the end of the song we both went down on one knee and a couple of days later when I was round at Rod’s for dinner he told me that he had to leap up before I did because he knew that if he had given me the chance to leap up before him I would have made a point of helping him up (laughter). As soon as I realised that it was too late, and Rod was up. I went along with the whole thing pretending that as I was such an old man could Rod help me up (laughter). Rod has such a fabulous sense of humour.
In 2011 when you formed Cregan & Co what did you hope to achieve?
Essentially I wanted to get out there and play Kevin. When my daughter was born which is ten years ago now, I quit playing with Katie Melua, who I had been playing with for about four years or so and with whom I had toured the world a couple of times and had also made a couple of number one albums with her. I loved working with Katie who is one of the world’s sweetest and most lovely people. But I have had two children with my American wife who I have been divorced from for a while now, and I had not been around when those kids were growing up. I took the decision that I was not going to do that this time and so I stopped. I stayed home and I wrote, produced, and I did all of that for a while.
And then once my daughter had started to go to school, I was really aching to play. I had been out of the loop for a while and I wasn’t really chasing to go and work for somebody else. I thought that after all of this time in the business why I didn’t start my own band. And that is how it all started. I had no more expectations other than getting out there and playing a few gigs. It is in my DNA Kevin to get out there and perform. I am as happy as you can get when I am up on stage playing with those guys. It is a co-operative band and we share equally in everything that is to be made. It may appear to be the Jim Cregan show because I am so mouthy on stage (laughter) but everybody in that band is there because they are partners with me in running it.
I think that is one of the reasons that we never have any rows and we all get along like a house on fire. That part of it is really straight forward and I would recommend that to anyone who is putting a band together. Simply don’t be greedy because people will run off eventually when they get a better offer.
You have worked with a lot of huge names within the music business. Is there anyone out there who you haven’t previously worked with who you would like to work with?
That’s easy Kevin, it would have to be Bruce Springsteen. I would really like to get together and do something with Bruce Springsteen. When I was breaking up with Linda Lewis I put my house in Los Angeles on the market and Bruce Springsteen bought it. I had several occasions to hang-out with him and what surprised me was just how shy he is off the stage, but very warm and kind. I totally love his music and I think that to work with him would be fantastic although I don’t think that there is much of a chance of me getting that gig. But Bruce, if you read this pal, Google me and email me and I’ll be there (laughter).
Putting you on the spot now, which song that you have either written for or co-written with Rod has given you the most pleasure?
I think that would have to be Never Give Up On A Dream from the album Tonight I’m Yours back in 1981. It was written for Terry Fox, the cancer victim who ran across Canada and he only had one leg. Of all of the stories to be inspiring that was one of them, and we donated all of the royalties to his foundation. That song has a whole other side to it. Then I think probably Forever Young is the most rewarding song that I ever written with Rod. Of course it wasn’t just me, Kevin Savigar was involved too. I like that song a lot and I love the lyrics.
Didn’t a certain Bob Dylan have something to say about the song?
(Laughter) that’s right Kevin. Rod had forgotten that he had heard the couplet ‘may you never love in vain, in my heart you will remain’; that particular couplet which he either absent mindedly or deliberately used from Bob Dylan and by doing so had to give the entire lyric to Bob Dylan. Which was a shame because his lyrics pretty much stand up on their own. If he had used another couplet then we would have been alright. That was a real shame. So looking on the bright side Kevin, I am now credited as co-writing with Bob Dylan (laughter).
Do you prefer small, intimate gigs or vast arena tours?
What I will say Kevin is that whenever you play a large arena tour, you very quickly pick up the energy from the audience that a big crowd provides. Once you get used to being able to see beyond the horizon, you see that the people just seem to go on forever and you can’t see where it finishes. At that point it doesn’t really matter if it goes on for another ten miles or so. On stage you are only seriously aware of about the first fifty rows so you find yourself essentially playing to the first fifty rows of the audience.
Going back to the recent Hyde Park thing that I did with Rod, a couple of nights later I was playing in a club and I said that it was an amusing week for me, I had gone from playing to over fifty-five thousand to playing to just the over fifty-fives (hysterical laughter). I love playing in front of big crowds Kevin because of the energy that you feel; it doesn’t faze me. We played a gig at Madison Square Garden over in New York and it was being televised all around the world and so there were about eighteen million people watching. You can’t even think about the eighteen million people Kevin, you just have to think about the other guys who are on the stage with you and what you are doing. You play to the first fifty rows and you play to each other. You are playing to each other as much as anything else.
And surely that’s what music is all about, enjoyment for the fans and enjoyment for the band.
You would like to think so Kevin however I saw Sting a few months ago now and I have to say that I like Sting a lot. I think that he is a very talented writer and a very good musician but his band never made eye contact with one another; nobody communicated with a nod, a wink or a smile. Nobody ever moved towards anyone on the stage. I found that side of it really odd. I don’t understand how you can be up there and be almost inside your own bubble. How can you concentrate so much on what you are doing that everyone else can go and take a hike; I just can’t comprehend that. I find that part of live performing really not good, I don’t like it at all. From that point of view I was very disappointed.
I haven’t seen Sting since so I don’t know if that is what they are like all of the time. Maybe they’d had a horrible row in the dressing room just before going out onto the stage (laughter). However if that is what they are like normally it is not interesting enough to go and see. Sting simply stood all night behind a music stand and never moved. It was all so very dull. Let’s just say Kevin that he’s not Prince (hysterical laughter). Live performance is another art form. Making records is one art form and live performance is another art form.
This is one of my particular beefs, you don’t have to replicate the recording that you made twenty years ago. For example, The Eagles are replicating stuff that they did way back.
Whenever I go and see someone play live, I want to be entertained. I want to go home thinking that I would go out and pay to see that performance again.
A record is exactly what it is, it is a frozen moment of what was going on in your life at that moment in time. It is a record of it but that record does not have to apply to what you are doing today. It is going to be interesting when I go back out on the road with Steve Harley in November. We are doing a 40th anniversary tour of Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me) together with the whole The Best Years Of Our Lives album. It is going to be interesting in rehearsals to see exactly how much Steve wants us to play pretty much what was played on the record. He has got the original band back together again and so it won’t be very hard for us to be at least similar to what we did originally.
I improvise all of the time in the studio and some of my guitar work I simply made it up as I went along (laughter). I don’t want to go back and try to learn my improvisations. I am not really interested in doing that. That is all part of the fun playing. All of the musicians who I admire and work with are all looking for the zone. That is the place to aim for. The real fun comes when I don’t even know what key I’m in; I have got my eyes closed, or I am just making it up as I go along, and boy those moments are so wonderful and that is why we do what we do.
You mentioned Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me) and I have to say that I think that your guitar work is sublime.
That’s very kind of you to say Kevin. It is certainly the most recognisable piece of work that I have ever done. It is definitely memorable. There was no fuss over it, and it only took me three takes (laughter). I had already recorded the front part of the song in two goes, and what you have to remember is that back then we were working on a twenty-four track machine which meant that you were lucky if you could get two tracks. You were constantly editing and throwing takes away. I did the whole thing in two bits over three takes.
It was around one o’clock in the morning; I’d had a couple of brandies so I was feeling pretty cool, and I was in a good mood. Somebody asked me if I fancied having a crack at the solo section so I had a go and that is what happens when you try to be creative. Just don’t over think it. I have played a large number of solos over the years and I don’t ever think about who is going to listen to it or what impact is it going to have on other guitar players. All that I am trying to do is create emotion on the instrument that will move a listener.
Who has inspired you along the way?
Right at the beginning that would have to be Hank Marvin, Django Reinhardt, Frank Zappa, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Duane Eddy. I would also have to say The Ventures, the instrumental guitar band. When Cockney Rebel were being successful, we were at the BBC Television Centre and I bumped into Hank Marvin. We got talking and he let me play his gold plated Fender Stratocaster. At the time I was around thirty and I immediately reverted back to being a fourteen year old boy who had idolised Hank thinking oh fuck this is the greatest day ever (laughter). Hank was so nice; he is such a lovely chap, and he is a really lovely guy.
You mention Jeff Beck, didn’t he tour with you and Rod over in the States?
That’s right Kevin. I was lucky to tour with Jeff Beck when he joined us on one of Rod’s American tours. He didn’t last very long; he lasted about ten shows and then he got fed up and went home (laughter). But while he was there we had lots of rehearsals, almost six weeks, which at that time was unheard of. But typical of us in the six weeks of rehearsals we never ran the show from top to bottom (laughter). We would do a few songs; look at each other and say that’s enough and fuck off down to the pub (laughter). But Jeff would show me stuff that was extraordinary and to this day I still can’t play it and believe me I have tried.
He does something with the sixteenth note with his thumb up and back over the bass strings whilst playing other stuff with his fingers. That is so difficult, and I have tried and tried and whilst I might get it for five seconds, I will shout “I’m doing it, I’m doing it” but then I crash (laughter). God bless him. I have got to know Jeff a little bit over the years and he is a good guy, I like him very much. I was shocked when I asked Jeff if he still practised and he replied every day. I thought that if Jeff Beck practises every day then so would I, so I have started practising again. As a songwriter Jeff doesn’t write anything as much as I do but as a writer I am not necessarily practising, I am just writing songs. It is a whole different mind-set. Now that I have started practicing and getting my chops back into it, I am really enjoying it which is good. I hadn’t really done it seriously for quite a long time.
Who do you listen to now?
That’s a difficult question for me Kevin. The people who are successful at the moment who I really like, well I am very fond of Ed Sheeran. I have got a lot of time for him and I really do like his work. He is a really good writer. He has done a hell of a lot for singer-songwriters. There is also the singer-songwriter who wears the hat, oh bloody hell who is it……
Yes Kevin, James Bay! Thank you for that, my mind is getting so shabby (laughter). I like him too, he has got a good voice and his songs are interesting. Quite honestly Kevin, I don’t have the time to listen to a huge selection of stuff because I am far too busy doing it. I have got my studio here at home, and there is always something that I need to be doing; something needs to be mixed, there is a song that I haven’t finished, there will be phone calls that I need to make, and so I am actually doing it rather than listening to it. By the time that I have finished all of that I am more than likely to want to kick back and watch Netflix or have dinner with friends (laughter). It’s a shame because I think that if you do listen to a lot of stuff it can be quite inspiring.
Having said all of that there is a lot of dross out there at the moment.
There has always been dross out there Kevin. Don’t forget that when I was young we had The Archies singing Sugar, Sugar (laughter). There has been rubbish around forever. I am not a huge fan of this writing by committee. For me it is very deliberate; it is a manufacturing process. They have been very successful doing it but it is very hard for me to react emotionally to it. Does it move me, no it doesn’t. The need for people to get emotion from music will never go away. I feel that there will be a backlash against twerking; I have nothing against seeing naked females on television but if you have to do that in order to sell a record then well, maybe the song isn’t as good as it should be. You shouldn’t have to do that.
Don’t get me wrong Kevin, I don’t want to sound like an old fart but music is very important to me in an emotional way. If I am with my American children and they are playing something in the car that really doesn’t work for me, I have to ask them not to play it because music affects me a lot. It can make me feel relaxed; it can make me feel happy, it can make me want to dance, it can make me want to cry and it can make me admire things. It has a really strong affect upon me. So I am kind of choosy as to what I have on and I really don’t do background music. So generally speaking I don’t want to listen to it.
At what point in your career did you feel most musically satisfied?
Oh wow Kevin what a great question. I think that would have to be now. I love being in this band; I have got outlets for my creativity, I am writing for other artists, I have got a song on the new Rod Stewart album, I have got things coming out at the end of this month, and Steve Harley has suddenly reappeared into my life. Now is great; now is a great time for me. If we are talking about making loads of money then back in the day when I was touring with Rod and having number one albums that I had written several tracks on, that was great; that was fantastic. But there is something about being in a co-operative band, with a bunch of guys who you really love. That gives you a great sense of satisfaction and happiness on stage. I don’t have to answer to anyone Kevin and that is a great feeling.
However just so that doesn’t sound unkind to Rod, when we first put the Rod Stewart Band together, it was a real band. We all had a share of the concert takings and there was a 60/ 40 split. Rod would take 60% and the band took 40% and split it amongst ourselves. When you are talking about major tours believe me Kevin, that was a hell of a lot of money. Also Rod treated us really, really well. We would all travel in the same jet; stayed in the same hotels, we shared the same dressing room, we would all go out for dinner after the gig, go on holiday together, there was a fantastic camaraderie amongst us all in that band. And once that camaraderie stopped, then it was the right time to move on. So the very early Rod Stewart years and now I think are my most creative days.
Mr Cregan on that note let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me.
It’s been lovely Kevin. Thank you and I hope to see you soon.
|Thu 8th||Half Moon Putney London|
|Fri 9th||The Flowerpot Derby|
|Sat 10th||The Shire Hall Howden|
|Sun 11th||The Greystones Sheffield|
|Sat 28th||Tivoli Theatre Wimbourne|
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