Making the best of a bad situation. That’s what the artist we look at today did… and Nicky Hopkin‘s best was pretty darn good! If it wasn’t he probably wouldn’t have played on 11 Rolling Stones albums. And records by each one of the Beatles. And seemingly more big British acts of the ’60s and ’70s than he didn’t. Hopkins was never a household name…unless you’re household was one of a rock star. Then, as Ultimate Classic Rock point out, it would be since “bands and producers wouldn’t ask for Hopkins. They’d demand him!” Hopkins was born on this day in 1944.
Hopkins learned to play piano by the age of three. He grew up in Middlesex, England and won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. A good situation for a young musician in swingin’ London early in the ’60s. The bad situation was Nicky’s health. He suffered from severe Crohn’s Disease all his life – a painful stomach problem – and that limited his ability to tour or plan ahead much. He did join one band as a teen, the fairly well-reviewed Screaming Lord Sutch’s Savages, but the premature death of the band leader Cyril Davies while Hopkins was bed-ridden after intestinal surgery pulled the plug on that quickly. So, Hopkins made the sensible decision to become strictly a session player. Studios had washrooms, and presumably it wouldn’t be too much an inconvenience if his illness kept him in bed and he had to miss a day or two.
His timing couldn’t have been better. The so-called British Invasion was about to kick in, and most British bands seemed to have talented guitarists, bassists, drummers…but not keyboard wizzes. Hopkins quickly got called to work with bands like the Kinks. He played on songs like “Sunny Afternoon” of theirs, but said that Ray Davies tried to take the credit. Davies, years later would admit “Nick and I were hardly bosom buddies,” but did compliment at length, saying “with his style, he should have been from New Orleans” (something the Who’s Pete Townshend would echo, saying “he didn’t look the part, but he played the blues!”) and “unlike lesser musicians, (Nicky) didn’t show off. He would play only when needed.” He played on several Who albums, and with the Jeff Beck Band, which also had Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood as members, and on the Beatles “Revolution.” And as viewers of Get Back found out, his name came up when they were throwing around ideas for a guest keyboardist for the rooftop concert; Billy Preston was picked instead, which was also a very good choice. But his biggest claim to fame was working with the Rolling Stones.
From 1967 through 1981, he played on 11 Stones studio albums, appearing on songs like “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Waiting on A Friend” and perhaps most notably, “She’s A Rainbow”, on which Ultimate Classic Rock point out, “he’s all but the lead player.” He apparently fit in well with Jagger and Co., not only was he a regular call-up for the studio, he did manage to accompany them and play on three tours before ill health forced him out of a 1973 tour and he once again decided to stick close to home. There he worked with artists like the Jefferson Starship, Nilsson and Peter Frampton in the early-’70s. And later with George Harrison, Ringo Starr, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Hopkins is one of the very few artists to have appeared on albums by each of the Beatles, including Harrison’s great Living in the Material World, Ringo’s hit singles “You’re Sixteen” and “Photograph” and Lennon’s “Jealous Guy.” “Nicky Hopkin’s playing on ‘Jealous Guy’ is so melodic, so beautiful, that it still makes people cry even now,” Yoko Ono commented not long ago.
Hopkins moved to the States at some point in the ’80s while doing film score work, which oddly enough, was taken to heart mainly by Japanese film-makers. But his Crohn’s Disease (worsened by years of drinking and other substance issues) caught up to him and he died from complications of surgery for it in Nashville when he was just 50. A show of the respect for him, a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in his name was set up shortly after his death…funded largely by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, Yoko Ono and Roger Daltrey.