Sunday, August 23, 2009

"He's a Session Man"

Time to pay tribute to the man whom many deem the greatest session man in the history of rock'n'roll--pianist Nicky Hopkins (1944-1994). Virtually unknown to the many U.S. fans of British bands at the time, Hopkins brilliantly accented the works of the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Dusty Springfield, the Move, Tom Jones, even the Beatles--and almost every major British act of the era. The Stones and the Who so valued his talent and input that both bands sought to add him to their ranks. Ray Davies of the Kinks composed the song "Session Man," on which Nicky also plays, in his honor.

Hopkins became interested in playing the piano at the age of six. His parents noticed his talent and asked him if he would like to take lessons, to which he agreed. When he was 12, Hopkins was accepted into the Royal Academy of Music and studied there until age sixteen. Although he was classically trained, Nicky was drawn more to the world of pop and rock'n'roll. He began his rock career performing with Screaming Lord Sutch, soon moving on to work with Cliff Bennett, and finally joining the Cyril Davis band. During this time, Hopkins had to be hospitalized for a year and half, subjected to 14 different stomach-related surgeries to treat Chron's disease. (Unfortunately, it would be complications from a similar surgery that would claim his life later at the age of 50.) Hopkins' health issues made it imperative for him to cease touring and focus on becoming a session performer.

Almost immediately, Hopkins' reputation garnered him an offer to participate in a fateful session where he met famed producer Glyn Johns. Johns introduced him to Shel Talmy, who in turn booked him to play for Kinks and Who sessions, including the My Generation album and "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" single. About 4 years later, he worked with the Who again on their classic Who's Next album, adding his emotive touches to the gorgeous "Song is Over" and also "Gettin' in Tune." Nicky's piano enhanced several of the Kinks' greatest works, including the Kink Kontroversy, Face to Face, and Village Green Preservation Society albums. It's also Nicky one hears on some of the Stones' most revered LPs: Between the Buttons, Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main St., Goats Head Soup, etc. In fact, the entire Their Satanic Majesty's Request album seems to center on Nicky's playing (and contrary to popular opinion, I find it to be one of their absolute best albums). Hopkins also toured with the Stones in 1971, the same year he also guested on John Lennon's Imagine album, adding electric piano to the "Imagine" title track and playing piano on "Jealous Guy" and many other tracks. Hopkins' Beatles association began when he played piano on "Revolution," the B-side to "Hey Jude" in 1968.

Hopkins joined the Jeff Beck Group with Beck, Rod Stewart, Ron Wood, and Tom Newman for a short time, and also later joined Quicksilver Messenger Service when he moved to California for health reasons.

It is almost impossible to list all the contributions that Nicky Hopkins made to popular music. Some of my favorite of his works are those that are not as popular, such as tracks he made with the Easybeats, the Tages, and the Bill Wyman-produced band the End, who managed to craft one of the era's psychedelic masterpieces with the Introspection album. If you are interested in discovering more of Nicky's work, please follow this link:

A trip to Alison's Wonderland would be incomplete without a nod to those often behind the scenes who made the magic happen. Thank you, Nicky--you are missed.

Special thank you to my friend Jeff for the wealth of information supplied!

(References: "Nicky Hopkins - 'Session Man'" by Paul Nelson. Rolling Stone, May 17, 1969; "Have Piano, Will Travel" by Michael Watts, "Sixth Stone" by Chris Charlesworth, Dec. 1971; Various clips and articles.)

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