Nicky Hopkins: Piano Player of the Gods

Chances are, if you listened to songs by the Rolling Stones, The Who, the Jeff Beck Group, The Kinks, Jefferson Airplane, Steve Miller Band, Donovan, Harry Nilsson, or other seminal groups of that era, the tinkling of piano notes on their music was supplied by Nicky Hopkins.  If there was an English version of the Wrecking Crew, Hopkins would have been a core member.Nicky 4

He was offered membership in The Who, Led Zeppelin and John Lennon’s band, and declined all three.  He was a member of Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Jeff Beck Group and Night, but his greatest success was as a hired gun.

You might recall Joe Cocker’s extraordinary “You Are So Beautiful” recording, it was Hopkins on the piano.  If you wanted to find the heart of a piece of music, this is guy you called.

His closest association was with the Rolling Stones, who he played with from 1967 to 1981, usually alternating with Ian Stewart and Billy Preston supplying the keyboards on Stones’ recordings.  He accompanied the Stones on numerous tours, but his health and his need to earn steady money as a studio musician gradually led to the end of his relationship with the Stones.  But from the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s he was their predominant keyboard player. For example, “She’s a Rainbow”, “Angie”, “Sympathy for the Devil”, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, “Waiting On a Friend” are songs where Hopkins is featured.  “Time Waits For No One” is perhaps the Stones’ best long-form song with the swirling  arpeggios that is among his best work.

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Keith Richards (l) and Nicky Hopkins (r) during Exile on Main Street sessions

Hopkins was not only a player but he was counted on to help structure songs that were in progress and contribute to the ultimate arrangement.  Unfortunately, he did not share in royalties or get the credit for his contributions to many classic songs.

“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 – slotting in the right chord at the right time or dropping a set of triplets around the back beat, just enough to make you want to dance. On a ballad, he could sense which notes to wrap around the song without being obtrusive.” – Ray Davies of the Kinks

Hopkins played on four Kinks albums from 1965 to 1968.  He also worked with The Who from 1965 to 1975 on selected tracks.  The reason Hopkins’ work with the Kinks and The Who reduced was that Ray Davies and Pete Townshend started playing keyboards. Hopkins returned occasionally, like on Who’s Next, one of the iconic albums of the 1970s.

During the early 1970s he worked with John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison on their various solo albums.  He played the electric piano on the Beatles’ “Revolution” single, a rare time that someone outside the group played in a track.  He was paid six pounds, ten shillings for the session. He said his instructions were where in the song to being, to play and he made it up as he played.  It was a one-take performance.

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During the recording of Imagine with John Lennon.

His membership in The Jeff Beck Group was temporary, as nearly all of Beck’s lineups were quick to implode.   Hopkins hooks up with several San Francisco groups, playing with the Jefferson Airplane at Woodstock, and several years with Quicksilver Messenger Service.

Nicky Hopkins died at age 50, much too young.  His health, a constant concern during this life, sickly as a boy in England, he had many surgeries and extended hospital stays.  He was thought to suffer from Crohn’s disease and suffered mightily late in life with more bowel operations.  Struggles with alcohol and drugs not only wiped out his earnings but contributed to his inability to be a regular touring musician.  By his own estimation, he spent over one million pounds on drugs during lifetime.

As an upper echelon musician, he earned double scale, but he his life was almost a nomad existence as he moved from London to Los Angeles, back to London, then back to Los Angeles, then to San Francisco to Los Angeles, then back to London, then to Los Angeles, then to Nashville, and so forth.  He went where the work was, and as the decades rolled by, the music industry and tastes changed, he adapted.

During his peak periods, Hopkins earned and traveled well, but he never accumulated wealth, particularly as his lifestyle spent what he earned.  During the 1980s he spend four years as musical director for Art Garfunkel, touring the world in first class fashion, as his health allowed.

In the biography, And on Piano…Nicky Hopkins, his musical career wound down playing with groups that didn’t measure up to his talent.  One of the reasons he stopped getting the best gigs was that he primarily played the piano, at a time where rock groups were heavily into synthesizers and manufactured sounds.  Hopkins was a purist, he played mainly piano and sometimes organ, which supplemented the guitar-based rock groups that blazed across the sky.  His limited usage of synthesizer prevented his being hired by Bob Dylan for a tour, and joining Paul McCartney’s band in the late 80s.

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Hopkins released three solo albums, the most notable of which was The Tin Man Was a Dreamer (1973).  Although not a prestigious songwriter, he did compose the music for those albums and three soundtrack albums.

Why is Nicky Hopkins work remembering?  He was just a supporting player.

The answer is he was not only the top piano player of his time but his work is on many of the most successful musical recordings of the era.  He gave life to songs written for other instruments, elevating those recordings by adding musical ideas and skilled performing.

“You could give him a song and, with a couple of passes, he’d almost immediately develop it into something,” said Keith Richard.

Hopkins is an interesting footnote to that era because of how much better he made songs that we already thought were great.  He was like a skilled surgeon who comes in to perform very complicated surgical procedures and then vanishes before the patient wakes up.  There was a reason he worked with the top performers over and over again. No, he wasn’t Rick Wakeman or Keith Emerson, on stacks of Moog synthesizers delivering a bombastic rock opera.  He didn’t dress in outlandish costumes or have a pop star  attitude.  That wasn’t his trip.  But if you wanted a craftsman to infuse a ballad with sweetness or underscore an up-tempo instrumental passage, Hopkins was the man.

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