Indispensable Feature Story: Nicky Hopkins
Nicky Hopkins was a classically trained pianist whose singular talent graced the songs of some of the most popular and influential rock bands of the ‘60s and ‘70s. His career spanned four decades. He worked with the Beatles (both band and solo efforts), the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, the Jeff Beck Group, and many more. The quintessential “session man,” many of the best-known and best-loved songs of a generation would have been significantly less compelling without his contributions. He had “classical proficiency and the soul of a bluesman…Nicky, unlike lesser musicians, didn't try to show off; he would only play when necessary. But he had the ability to turn an ordinary track into a gem…” (Ray Davies ) Yet most people have never heard his name.
Nicky Hopkins was born in London on February 24, 1944, in the midst of a German air raid called the “Little Blitz.” He seemed to attract illness and was accident-prone, and the intestinal ailments that began in childhood lasted throughout his life. His natural musical gifts gave him the outlet to overcome these difficulties as best he could. His family had a piano, abandoned by his sister when she gave up her classical lessons. Nicky was drawn to the instrument when he could barely reach the keyboard. He began taking formal lessons when he was six years old and received his first press mention when he was only 11. A local paper described the reaction to his composition at a school performance: “the audience so applauded that Nicholas played the march again.” (2) Unsurprisingly, he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music while in his teens.
Once he and his chums discovered rock and roll, however, his attention was drawn away from classical toward the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and Litte Richard. In 1960, Nicky and three friends from the neighborhood formed the Savages, ultimately fronted by the flamboyant “Screaming” Lord Sutch. They toured throughout the country, playing for enthusiastic crowds hungry for the new “fad,” rock and roll. They caught the attention of Cyril Davies who managed to lure the boys away from Sutch and into his own blues combo.
The Cyril Davies R&B All-Stars was one of the earliest “proper” English outfits to play authentic American blues. Davies carved out a residency at the Marquee Club which drew nascent musicians like Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, and Ray Davies, all of whom Hopkins was to record with in a few years’ time. Future session cohorts like Jimmy Page were there too. Nicky made a strong impression on all of them. He was a rising star in the early British rock scene, and all signs pointed to success. Then came the day he was rushed to the hospital in May 1963.
A fall down the stairs led to an internal injury. Doctors removed much of his intestines and diagnosed him with Crohn’s disease. He languished in the hospital for 19 months. Being side-lined for such a long period (while the music scene he had helped to launch was exploding throughout the UK) could have permanently derailed his career. But everyone who had heard him play remembered Nicky Hopkins.
His constitution weakened from his long ordeal, extensive touring was no longer a viable option. Instead, he found work as a studio session player. His ability to read music was certainly a point in his favor (common among the old-guard who had trouble adapting to the rigors of rock and roll, yet uncommon among the self-taught up and comers like John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page). He was also able to create a perfect piano part on the fly.
He rejoined the fray during a time when old norms were being challenged. Record companies had ruled the day, and the studio, for years. Producers, engineers, and A&R men controlled the recording process, all of whom were on the label’s payroll. Impresarios like Andrew Loog Oldman, best known for his work with the Stones, began to break that mold. Producers like George Martin eventually left the labels to go freelance, taking a cut of the substantial royalties from his work with the Beatles rather than a meager wage from companies like EMI.
Technology was also seeing advances and brought in young, talented engineers like Alan Parsons and Gus Dudgeon. The old system began breaking down, and Nicky was there at the onset of this revolution.
John Paul Jones remembers working with Nicky in the studio as session players. “Being of the same generation, we got on well together; everybody else was so much older…in the really early days there was only the three of us. It was nice to be in a young rhythm section…” (3)
"Sympathy for the Devil (Isolated Piano)"
In addition to his deft touch on the ivories, he is remembered as quiet with a deadpan sense of humor which could defuse tensions in the studio, and, as Ray Davies later remembered, he had “No ego. Perhaps that was his secret.” (4)
From 1965 onward, the music speaks for itself. He worked with The Kinks (The Kink Kontroversy, Face to Face), Something Else by The Kinks and The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society), The Beatles (“Revolution”) as well as some of the members’ subsequent solo endeavors, The Who (“Getting in Tune” and “This Song is Over” from Who’s Next), The Jeff Beck Group, Steve Miller, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and the list goes on and on.
His most enduring, and perhaps the most artistically successful, collaboration was with the Rolling Stones. He lent his talents to every Stones album from 1967 to 1981 (except Some Girls) and was prominently featured on songs like “Monkey Man,” “She’s a Rainbow,” “We Love You,” “Sway,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” and countless others. He appeared on 43 Billboard Top 40 albums. His full discography is included in And on Piano…Nicky Hopkins, and it’s over 20 pages long. The true value of his contribution to music is immeasurable.
Sadly, health problems continued to plague him. Nicky Hopkins left this world on September 6, 1994, after complications from yet another surgery. Although most music fans still don’t know his name, it’s hard to imagine what rock and roll would have been like without him.
A documentary about Nicky titled The Session Man is in the works, with an as-yet-unannounced release date.
Check out our Nicky Hopkins’ song of the day playlist on YouTube.
1- The New York Times, January 1, 1995)
2 - And on Piano…Nicky Hopkins by Julian Dawson, pg. 9
3 - And on Piano…Nicky Hopkins by Julian Dawson, pg. 55
4 - The New York Times, January 1, 1995)