Listening to a show on the SiriusXM Grateful Dead channel last week, I heard one of the announcers mention that Nicky Hopkins played with the Jerry Garcia Band. Hopkins was a fantastic English pianist whose session work is virtually ubiquitous on great rock recordings of the ’60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. Take a look, for example, at this Nicky Hopkins discography.
If he wasn’t quite everywhere, everyone wanted his services. His contributions to Rolling Stones recordings are notable. I have included a couple below. I loved his work with the Jeff Beck Group on their first two albums and with Quicksilver Messenger Service on a few of theirs when he was named member of those bands.
So why is he relatively unknown? He battled Crohn’s Disease his entire life and died in 1994 of complications from intestinal surgery at the age of 50. I don’t think he ever toured with the bands of which he was a named member, let alone those to which he made such valuable contributions.
It occurred to me that a trip through a few highlights of his work might make for a somewhat offbeat special lockdown edition of this series. It won’t be for everyone, but there is some good stuff here and elsewhere that you can find on your own if so inclined. YouTube offers a treasure trove of his work. I have enjoyed hunting these samples down and offer them up in the hope that one or two of them may strike your fancy or wake you up this morning. I certainly hope this tiny sliver of his vast body of work leaves you wanting more.
Hopkins was a regular contributor to the Kinks up through their classic Village Green Preservation Society album. “Sunny Afternoon” is a beautiful track. Looking around online this morning, I see Hopkins was “responsible for both the melodica solo and the chromatic piano line that undersold his acrobatic abilities on the keyboard.” According to Ray Davies, “When we recorded ‘Sunny Afternoon,’ [producer] Shel [Talmy] insisted that Nicky copy my plodding piano style. 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.”
And then we have his work with the Rolling Stones over many years. Hopkins’s work on the piano makes “She’s a Rainbow.” Listen up!
The Jeff Beck Group cover of “Jailhouse Rock” may be my favorite rock recording of all time. Everyone is great on it, including the talented Mr. Hopkins.
Back to the Stones, we can hear what Hopkins contributed on a song like “Monkey Man,” off Let It Bleed. The album was produced by the late Jimmy Miller, the older brother of former New York Times reporter Judy Miller. My friend Judy paid tribute to him in the column “Mr. Jimmy” as well as in her memoir The Story. You can hear why Mr. Jimmy appreciated Hopkins’s work.
I can’t leave his work with the Stones without noting his contribution to “Waiting On a Friend.” That’s Sonny Rollins on the tenor sax. That’s Mr. Jimmy on percussion. That’s Mr. Hopkins on the piano. What a track.
Who’s Next is the Who’s best album and “Getting in Tune” is one of its best tracks. “I’m just banging on my old piano” — that would be Pete Townsend’s tribute to you know who.
Hopkins was a named member of Quicksilver Messenger Service for a few years. Here he is with Quicksilver on the instrumental “Edward, the Mad Shirt Grinder,” one of Hopkins’s own compositions. I think he added the organ part on top of his piano. This track is a blast.
Who is this Edward fellow? I have a sneaking suspicion it was Hopkins. The name of this rare album is Jamming with Edward. “It Hurts Me Too” doesn’t hurt at all. Hopkins blends right in.
“Highland Fling” is from the same album. This is a wild track. Hopkins wails away.
Hopkins recorded two albums in his own name. “Pig’s Boogie” is from The Tin Man Was a Dreamer. I think Hopkins was the Tin Man too.
I can’t leave before we sample his work with the Jerry Garcia Band. The reference to it is what set me off on my chase this morning. Stick around for the instrumental break on this live recording of the Garcia/Dawson/Hunter composition “Friend of the Devil.”