15 Rock Classics Improved by Nicky Hopkins
Most rock fans might only know Nicky Hopkins as a name on a record sleeve, but they are likely to be intimately familiar with his piano playing. From the ’60s through the early ’90s, the British pianist earned a reputation as an extraordinary sideman, playing on recordings by the Who, the Beatles, the Kinks and, most frequently, the Rolling Stones.
And that’s just the top tier. Hopkins played on hundreds of singles and albums by a variety of artists, from David Bowie to Jerry Garcia, Cat Stevens to Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker to Harry Nilsson, all the while working alongside the likes of Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, John Paul Jones and Billy Preston. Bands and producers wouldn’t ask for Hopkins; they’d demand him – sometimes wearing out the ever-agreeable session player with long hours spent in the studio.
Hopkins was but a teenager when he began working as a professional musician in 1960, joining Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages, a gig that would soon lead to his role in English blues harpist Cyril Davies’ R&B All-Stars. While many of the forthcoming British Invasion bands were still figuring out what they were doing, Davies and the All-Stars were performing and recording high-energy rhythm & blues like “Country Line Special” a 1963 single that featured the young Hopkins’ locomotive piano.
Unfortunately for Nicky, the sideman would be sidelined by horrific health problems. Hopkins underwent two years of surgeries, extended hospital visits and being bedridden, ultimately being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. By the time the keyboardist was back in playing shape, Davies had died from heart inflammation and Hopkins was without a group.
But his work on “County Line Special” and the friendships he had formed as an All-Star helped him earn work as a session player. In 1965, Hopkins quickly gained the respect of producer Shel Talmy, who helmed early recordings by the Who and the Kinks. Pete Townshend and Ray Davies were instantly impressed by the dexterity and soul of Nicky’s playing too, with the Kinks frontman later commenting: “I was surprised to learn that Nicky came from Wembley, just outside of London. With his style, he should have been from New Orleans, or Memphis.”
By virtue of his high-profile work on Kinks and Who hits, Hopkins became the in-demand piano man on the London scene. It helped that he was a peer of these musicians, unlike some of the other, older and stodgy, session players who would show disdain for appearing on a rock ’n’ roll recording. But Nicky couldn’t have seemed happier to play with such elite acts, eventually working his versatile magic with the Yardbirds, Stones and Beatles, then recording some material under his own name.
Hopkins, who initially wasn’t able to embark on the rigors of being in a full-time touring group, grew stronger and eventually joined a few bands, including the Jeff Beck Group and Quicksilver Messenger Service (although he rejected the opportunity to become a member of an early version of Led Zeppelin). Nicky also went on the road with the Stones for a few tours, but his condition – paired with substance abuse – prevented him from continuing work at such a pace. He still played on tons of records (and did some live performing) through the ’70s and into the ’80s and early ’90s.
Nicky Hopkins remained active as a musician until his death on Sept. 6, 1994, in Nashville. At age 50, the pianist died from complications stemming from intestinal surgery that had to do with his long struggle with Crohn’s disease. Although, by nature of his session man status, Hopkins never became a household name, his work on classic recordings has only sweetened with age. He remains a link between such widely beloved albums as Beggars Banquet, Who’s Next, Village Green Preservation Society, Exile on Main St. and Imagine.
Today we celebrate Nicky’s work as a contract player with a range of his scintillating keyboard work on some of the most famous songs in rock history.
The Who, “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” (1965)
Although Nicky Hopkins is most-associated with the Stones (given the breadth of his collaborations with the band), the pianist’s streak of all-star session work began with the Who. After spending most of 1963 and ’64 undergoing operations in the hospital, Hopkins re-emerged in 1965 on a session with Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and engineer Glyn Johns (for the Immediate All-Stars project). Impressed with the piano player, Johns recommended Hopkins to producer Shel Talmy, who had recently begun work on the Who’s first recordings. Talmy tapped Hopkins to play on the Who’s second single, “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” a decision that was welcomed by guitarist/songwriter Pete Townshend.
“I knew of Nicky from ‘Country Line Special,’ which I had once persuaded Roger [Daltrey] to learn,” Townshend recalled via Adios Lounge’s in-depth Hopkins series. “He didn’t look the part, but he played the blues. Maybe a bit too quickly, but it was blues.” Indeed, Hopkins was quick, his piano part happily scrambling around Keith Moon’s drumming in the single’s instrumental break. Talmy and the quartet were so pleased with the way Hopkins melded with the Who’s sound, the keyboardist was welcomed back later that year for the sessions that resulted in the band’s debut LP, My Generation. “A Legal Matter,” “La-La-La-Lies” and the instrumental “The Ox” each feature Nicky’s hyperactive piano holding its own against the onslaught of the Who. But it would be a few years before he’d work with Pete and the boys again (more on that later).
The Kinks, “Sunny Afternoon” (1966)
Impressed not only with Hopkins’ playing, but also his amicable nature and ability to learn parts with a minimum of explanation, Talmy continued to work with the pianist. Hopkins would be featured on all four of the Talmy-produced Kinks albums recorded from late ’65 through ’68. Like Townshend before him, Kinks leader Ray Davies was happy to enlist the piano player from “Country Line Special.”
“He had the ability to turn an ordinary track into a gem,” Davies told The New York Times in 1995, “slotting in the right chord at the right time or dropping a set of triplets around the backbeat, just enough to make you want to dance.” Ray considers the high-water mark of the Kinks/Hopkins collaboration to be the 1966 LP Face to Face, which featured the music hall-esque “Sunny Afternoon.” Hopkins was responsible for both the melodica solo and the chromatic piano line that undersold his acrobatic abilities on the keyboard. “When we recorded ‘Sunny Afternoon,’ Shel insisted that Nicky copy my plodding piano style,” Davies remembered. “Other musicians would have been insulted but Nicky seemed to get inside my style, and he played exactly as I would have. No ego. Perhaps that was his secret.”
Rolling Stones, “She’s a Rainbow” (1967)
As a session man, Hopkins was usually found in a supporting role, either pounding or tickling the ivories to suit the best needs of the track at hand. But on the Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow,” Nicky was out front. Hopkins had already done a bit of work with the group by this point (appearing on a couple of songs on 1966’s Between the Buttons), but he’s all-but the lead player here, with his nimble piano serving as the through line for all of the baroque coloring on “Rainbow.” Hopkins’ playing helps provide the song a clarity, with all of the other distinct parts swirling around it – something that is often missing in the psychedelic mess of Their Satanic Majesties Request. Although Nicky played on every track (as well as the concurrent single/b-side “We Love You”/“Dandelion”), the problems with the LP were hardly down to him. In fact, when Mick Jagger or Keith Richards subsequently dismissed their 1967 album in the press, they always set aside “She’s a Rainbow,” starring Hopkins’ playful piano.
The Kinks, “Days” (1968)
Although Ray Davies praised Hopkins' lack of ego in the studio, it’s unlikely that the piano player would have said the same thing about the Kinks frontman. While Davies could appreciate Hopkins’ contributions with the benefit of hindsight, when the band was recording The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, the Kinks leader apparently got jealous of Hopkins and credited the entirety of Nicky’s keyboard work on the album to himself instead. As a result, Hopkins vowed to never work with the Kinks again. But before all of that ugliness happened, Hopkins elevated the elegiac feel of “Days” (a single that, like Hopkins’ credit, was left off the final version of Village Green Preservation Society). Nicky plays piano and Mellotron, adding sweep and detail to the recording. Eventually, his work was not only acknowledged, but celebrated by Davies. “On a ballad, he could sense which notes to wrap around the song without being obtrusive,” Davies recalled in 1995. “He managed to give ‘Days,’ for instance, a mysterious religious quality without being sentimental or pious.”
The Beatles, “Revolution” (1968)
It wasn’t often that the Fab Four let an outsider take the spotlight on a Beatles recording (Eric Clapton and Billy Preston are among the few exceptions on instruments they could play themselves). But when recording John Lennon’s aggressive “Revolution” re-do (the slower version on the White Album came first), the band tapped Nicky Hopkins to play electric piano. Between his work with the Who, Kinks and Stones (among others) Hopkins already had quite the reputation. Plus, he’d just played with three-fourths of the Beatles onJackie Lomax’s “Sour Milk Sea,” a song written by George Harrison and featuring Harrison, Clapton, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr on the track. The single flopped because Apple Records released it at the same time as “Hey Jude,” which carried the B-side “Revolution.”
When Nicky came in to Abbey Road Studios to overdub his electric piano part on “Revolution,” he was allowed to play however he wanted. So he took a Johnnie Johnson-like solo, likely to match Lennon’s sludgy Chuck Berry-esque riffing. “There weren’t really any instructions, except where they wanted the piano to start and I basically just played some blues stuff and we did it in one take,” Hopkins recalled, via Julian Dawson’s And on Piano… Nicky Hopkins. “I remember I was surprised at the amount of distortion. It was John’s rough side coming out and it sounded wonderful.” It would be the only time Hopkins would record with the Beatles (plural), but far from his final contribution to a record by a Beatle.
Rolling Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil" (1968)
Hopkins is all over the Stones’ Beggars Banquet – both literally (he plays on eight out of 10 tracks) and sonically (his Nashville-style piano is laced through “No Expectations” and those “diamond tiaras” spill out of “Street Fighting Man”). But “Sympathy for the Devil” is simply unimaginable without Nicky Hopkins. Nicky’s piano, along with Keef’s throbbing bass, grounds the song. His driving, rhythmic assault allows, and even prods, Mick Jagger to dance with the devil on top of Hopkins’ grand piano while Charlie Watts sambas about the room. Future Stones piano player Chuck Leavell was in awe of Nicky’s playing the first time he heard “Sympathy for the Devil.”
“When you go back to me playing in bands in Alabama, [“Sympathy”] was a big wake-up call,” he said in And on Piano… Nicky Hopkins. “‘You mean a piano can play rhythmically in a song like this and have that big a role on a record?’ He used the sevenths brilliantly. I’ve often talked about his melodic contributions, but Nicky could get funky!”
Jefferson Airplane, “Volunteers” (1969)
Between sessions with the Kinks, Beatles and Stones, 1968 was a busy year for Nicky Hopkins – perhaps too busy. Hopkins, in his mid-20s, was growing weary of being London’s go-to piano player and entertained the idea of joining a band. He rejected Jimmy Page’s invitation to become a member of the New Yardbirds (who would soon re-christen themselves Led Zeppelin) but did agree to join the Jeff Beck Group. In 1969, Hopkins left his home country for San Francisco, becoming a member of Quicksilver Messenger Service while recording with a number of other Bay Area bands. One of them was Jefferson Airplane, who were making their fifth studio album, Volunteers, at the time. Nicky appears on five of the LP’s cuts and brings his boogie-woogie to the barnstorming title track. Later that year, Hopkins also joined the Airplane for their slot at Woodstock, garnering onstage praise from singer Grace Slick for his assistance.
Rolling Stones, “Monkey Man” (1969)
Hopkins recorded his piano and organ parts for Let it Bleed before leaving for the West Coast (although the album came out after some of his Bay Area work had been released). Nicky wasn’t quite as big a presence on this Stones record as he was on Beggars Banquet, but he still showed up on four tracks, including “Gimme Shelter” which displays his strong, sturdy playing. Meanwhile, Hopkins’ piano might be the defining instrument of “Monkey Man,” his opening flourishes glistening alongside Bill Wyman’s vibraphone, like switchblades in the moonlight. But he – and the entire recording – truly comes to life during the instrumental bridge. Hopkins’ piano doesn’t just descend; it cascades as (uncredited) Ry Cooder slides right through the mist. Jagger’s lyrics about cold Italian pizzas and sacks of broken eggs might be silly, but Nicky ensures that the sound of this song is not.
The Who, “Getting in Tune” (1971)
After teaming up on the Who’s 1965 debut album, Nicky Hopkins and the band were estranged for a few years. It wasn’t because of any ill will between the boys, but due to the Who’s soured relationship with producer Shel Talmy (who was responsible for much of Hopkins’ session gigs in the mid-’60s). “Oh for Nicky Hopkins!” Pete Townshend famously cried as he failed to lay down the piano part he wanted for 1969’s Tommy. But for the Who’s subsequent studio album, Who’s Next, Pete got his wish. Hopkins came to the forefront on two of the LP’s epic ballads, “The Song Is Over” and “Getting in Tune.” Hopkins’ piano work is pristine on both, but the latter is more spirited and nods to Pete’s preference for Nicky in the lyrics: “I’m just bangin’ on my old piano.” And since Townshend couldn’t enlist Hopkins for Tommy, he got him to contribute piano and arrangements for the 1975 movie soundtrack version.
John Lennon, “Jealous Guy” (1971)
John Lennon played piano, which might have made the former Beatle even more appreciative of what Nicky Hopkins could do on the instrument. That’s probably why Lennon turned over piano duties on “Jealous Guy” to the session wizard, who delivered one of his most delicate and memorable performances. Hopkins’ work was a perfect match for John’s emotionally honest ballad, and everyone came away impressed. Nicky’s fellow session legend Jim Keltner played drums on the recording, and came away shaking his head: “Nobody in the world ever played piano like Nicky Hopkins.”
Decades later, Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono remained in awe: “Nicky Hopkins’ playing on ‘Jealous Guy’ is so melodic and beautiful that it still makes everyone cry, even now.” It wasn’t Nicky’s only turn on the Imagine album. Although Lennon handled piano on the title cut, Hopkins played the jaunty part on “Oh Yoko!” and contributed electric piano to “How Do You Sleep?”, while appearing on other tracks and future Lennon recordings. Actually, Hopkins has the distinction of playing on solo records made by all four Beatles, including Ringo Starr’s “You’re Sixteen,” George Harrison’s “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)” and Paul McCartney’s “That Day is Done.”
The Who “Let’s See Action” (1971)
Hopkins gets to have some rollicking barroom fun on this 1971 Who single, from Townshend’s aborted Lifehouse concept. The words are smart and the performances are strong all around (’70-71 was peak Daltrey), but it’s the rolling, barrelhouse piano that makes the song swing. Hopkins claimed that Townshend was so impressed with the sound that the piano player brought to this single (as well as the Who’s Next ballads) that he asked him to join the Who. Although Pete doesn’t remember tendering the offer, he welcomed Hopkins to future Who sessions, including those for 1975’s The Who by Numbers. That’s Nicky’s alternately charging and sprightly playing on “Slip Kid.”
Rolling Stones, “Loving Cup” (1972)
Nicky Hopkins is an elemental contributor to many Stones records (as discussed above), but there are many that consider 1972’s Exile on Main St. to be the best example of the musical marriage between Hopkins and the Stones. Just one listen to “Loving Cup” makes it hard to argue. Nicky leads the track with his soulful playing, which lands somewhere between backwoods gospel church and ramshackle juke joint. That sort of Americana grit is Hopkins’ great gift to Exile, where he appears on 12 tracks, enhancing the album’s tarnished R&B and country-blues decadence. It makes sense that he was so interwoven into this period of the Stones; he toured with the band in ’71, ’72 and ’73, practically becoming a member until health issues prevented the arrangement from continuing.
Rolling Stones, “Angie” (1973)
In the ’70s, the Stones created de facto roles for their session keyboardists. One-time Stone and road manager Ian Stewart would play on major-key, up-tempo tracks, R&B star Billy Preston would feature on the soul or funk-derived tunes and Nicky Hopkins would turn up on the ballads. It wasn’t a hard-and-fast rule, yet there’s Nicky on “Angie,” a softer, slower song that Jagger claimed was a reaction against the rougher music on Exile. Hopkins, who was as versatile as he was tasteful, shows off both of those characteristics on the Goats Head Soup single. He brings Music City elegance to the ballad without overplaying his rolls into something schmaltzy (the overdubbed string section does that on its own).
Joe Cocker, “You Are So Beautiful” (1974)
Speaking of piano and strings, Joe Cocker had one of his biggest hits with this pop ballad, featuring Hopkins’ stately but graceful playing. Although Joe’s voice and Nicky’s piano are the stars of this famous tune, neither had a role in writing “You Are So Beautiful.” It was the handiwork of Hopkins’ fellow Beatles and Stones collaborator Billy Preston, who penned the song (with Bruce Fisher) about his mother, then recorded and released it in May of 1974. Later that year, Cocker slowed it down, leaned hard on the capabilities of Nicky Hopkins and scored a Top 10 hit. A few years after, Hopkins would tour with Cocker as part of his backing band.
Rolling Stones, “Waiting on a Friend” (1981)
Although released in 1981 as a single and part of Tattoo You, “Waiting on a Friend” (like many of the album’s tracks) began life during the Stones’ sessions in the ’70s. The low-key ballad was actually one of the oldest things on Tattoo You, having been partially recorded in 1972-73 for Goats Head Soup. So as the Stones made the rounds on MTV with “Waiting on a Friend,” the song’s intricate piano part by Nicky Hopkins came from nearly a decade before. And it’s an important part of the song. While the gauzy guitars sleepwalk beneath Jagger’s echoing backing vocals and Sonny Rollins emits smoke rings from his saxophone, Hopkins’ shining piano holds down the center. Nicky is, perhaps, the only one not slipping away into dreamland.