Nicky Hopkins

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Nicky Hopkins Pencil Portrait
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The death of Nicky Hopkins at the age of 50 on September 6, 1994, the result of complications from intestinal surgery and his lifelong battle with Crohn’s Disease, came and went with little fanfare. In a manner befitting this unassuming, virtuoso pianist, only close friends and the cognisenti knew of his passing.

When I heard the news, I was struck by the irony of a world so familiar with his keyboard playing, yet largely unaware of who he was. Nicky was rock’s greatest sideman – The Beatles knew it, The Stones also, in fact anyone who was anyone in the business knew it.

I personally, first became aware of Nicky via his uncredited work on the Beatles’ single ‘Revolution,’ Lennon’s flipside to McCartney’s ‘Hey Jude.’ Here was undoubted proof of a great musician who applied economy and taste to his playing, a personality suitably attuned to the demands of the song. Another favourite Hopkins moment of mine, was Nicky’s quasi classical contribution to the Stones’ ‘She’s a rainbow,’ alongside ’2000 light years from home,’ one of two standout moments on their flawed opus “Their Satanic Majesties Request”.

Crohn’s disease, also known as Crohn syndrome and regional enteritis, is a type of inflammatory bowel disease that may affect any part of the gastrointestinal tract from mouth to anus, causing a wide variety of symptoms. It primarily causes abdominal pain, diarrhea (which may be bloody if inflammation is at its worst), vomiting (can be continuous), or weight loss, but may also cause complications outside the gastrointestinal tract such as skin rashes, arthritis, inflammation of the eye, tiredness, and lack of concentration. Many people with Crohn’s disease have symptoms for years prior to the diagnosis. The usual onset is between 15 and 30 years of age, but can occur at any age.

Nicky was reportedly accident prone as a child, which appears at odds with his his later keyboard virtuosity, and his early stomach ailments found little sympathy with his father. Barely able to eat meat, the sickly child would be offered no alternative meal, and after suffering chronic pains on route to a six week summer musical camp, the young Hopkins had his appendix unnecessarily removed; the surgeons as much in the dark as to what was ailing the boy as his father. Hopkins would retain an ematiated look throughout his all too brief life, and in view of his health problems, was a rebellious child at school.

Arguably the most prolific session musician of the 1960s and 1970s, Hopkins played with literally every British band of significance during that era, beginning with Screaming Lord Sutch And The Savages at age 16. That led Hopkins to his involvement in the seminal blues band Cyril Davies’ R&B All Stars two years later.

He was sometimes mistaken for an American. Allan McDougal, the record producer and former Kinks publicist, says: ‘Nicky could play rock ‘n’ roll piano like the Americans. He was raised on Fats Domino and Little Richard and he could play any tune that was put in front of him. He played on lots of the Kinks’ early records and with the Hollies, but never appeared on stage with them. He was often desperately ill and pitifully thin but always had a happy smile on his face.’

In short order, Hopkins’ talents brought him to the attention of The Beatles (both collectively and as individuals), the aformentioned Kinks (their song “Session Man” was allegedly inspired by his efforts), The Who, The Easybeats, Donovan, The Move, The Pretty Things and Led Zeppelin.

In 1967 he committed to joining the Jeff Beck Group, and after the band disbanded following its first two albums, Hopkins hooked up with Jon Mark, Harvey Burns, Brian Odgers and Alun Davies in the ad-hoc outfit Sweet Thursday. That group was also short-lived, leading Hopkins to devote an increasing amount of his time to The Stones.

His first album with the band was “Between the Buttons,” but he later went on to contribute to “Beggar’s Banquet” and every album after, up to and including “Tattoo You.” His most prominent contributions included the piano parts on “She’s a Rainbow,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Loving Cup” and “Waiting on a Friend.” He also toured with the group throughout the early 1970s.

Hopkins’ ties to The Stones were further affirmed by the role he played on the album “Jamming with Edward!,” the album’s title taken from a nickname given by Brian Jones. That handle later loaned itself to the instrumental “Edward the Mad Shirt Grinder,” which Hopkins composed for Quicksilver Messenger Service’s “Shady Grove” album during his brief tenure with that band. Hopkins later reprised the tune for his second solo album, “The Tin Man Was a Dreamer,” an all-star effort recorded during the sessions for George Harrison’s “Living in the Material World” and featuring many of the same players. Hopkins had recorded an earlier solo album, “The Revolutionary Piano of Nicky Hopkins” and would later release a third and final album, “No More Changes,” as well as a trio of soundtracks. A fourth effort, “Long Journey Home,” was never released.

Throughout the second half of his life, Hopkins was a committed scientologist, although never one to press his religious views on others. Unsurprisingly, he found happiness with wife Moira, a similar Dianetic convert.

Recommended listening

The Tin Man was a dreamer (1973)

Nicky Hopkins’ finest solo album – bags of variety, some edgy pop-rock but little pomp from music’s Mr. Invisible. Predictably, Hopkins’ piano and organ playing dominates the majority of the material yet there’s room enough for heavyweight contributions from George Harrison and Mick taylor on guitars, Klaus Voormann on bass, Bobby Keys on sax, as well as future Tubes alumnus Prairie Prince on drums.

Highlights include the hauntingly beautiful ballad “Dolly”, the closest thing to a potential hit on this album, featuring a moving vocal performance by Hopkins (who wasn’t known as a singer), with a beautifully understated lead guitar contribution by Taylor; the instrumental “Edward”, featuring Hopkins’ piano and organ rippling across a wide range of musical textures; the pounding, pumping rocker “Speed On”, which offers Hopkins and his songwriting partner Jerry Williams on vocals; the wittily scatalogoical “Banana Anna”; “Lawyer’s Lament”, with its exquisite harmonies and Taylor’s sensitive lead playing; and the rollicking “Pig’s Boogie”, which crosses paths with the work of Merrill Moore and Jerry Lee Lewis. This isn’t a perfect album, lacking the pronounced pop hooks of, say, Elton John’s work of the same period, to put it across to the public, or the personality flash to go with the virtuosity to make Hopkins into a star, but it is a very worthwhile foray into centre-stage by one of rock’s most renowned side- and session men.

Reissued on CD by Sony Music in Japan in the 1990’s, it’s well worth seeking out.

Diamonds and Tiaras – The Nicky Hopkins story (BBC Radio 2) 2006

Bob Harris recalls the life and extraordinary career of session pianist Nicky Hopkins, who played on more than 300 albums, including 13 by The Rolling Stones. With contributions from Joe Cocker, Bill Wyman, Ian McLagan and Hopkins’ widow, Moira, the one hour programme celebrates his musical virtuosity whilst addressing his health and financial misfortune. The programme received a welcome re-broadcast on BBC 6 Music in 2011.

Recommended reading

And on piano …Nicky Hopkins (Julian Dawson) 2011

The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker, Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Yardbirds, Harry Nilsson. At the heart of their music, and of hundreds of others, was one man and a piano: Nicky Hopkins.

For three generations, rock’n’roll has been the heartbeat of our world, and Nicky Hopkins defines rock’n’roll. For thirty years, before his tragically early death in 1994, ‘Mr unassuming’ put his mark on some of the most unforgettable popular music ever made. This is the definitive work on rock music’s greatest session player, and one of its unsung heroes.

As Nils Lofgren (E Street Band) put it, “Nicky wrote the book on rock ‘n’ roll piano.” This is the book about how he did it.

The book could have been a literary disaster yet I doubt that would have mattered much; I was simply pleased to see at least some recognition for a musician I had listened to for years. In any event, Dawson manages to pull off the near impossible task of a detailed historical documentation that balances an in-depth look at the musician from the perspective of those who knew him best including family, childhood friends, and most important, other musicians, with historical objectivity. In this, the quest differs from most typical musical biographies, which tend to move through time sequentially and report crisis and conflict while revealing little about the central character. However, Dawson brilliantly portrays the history and through interviews reveals something of the nature of Nicky Hopkins’ character and spirit.


In memory of Nicky Hopkins\

Nicky Hopkins