Book Review: and on the piano..Nicky Hopkins-The Life of Rock’s Greatest Session Man
by Terry Roland
Author: Julian Dawson
Published by: Backstage Press
They are sometimes called, ‘sidemen,’ or ‘back-up musicians.’ They are always there throughout the history of recorded music setting ego aside in favor of the song. They’ve rarely been paid their worth in light of the hits they helped make. So the glamour side of rock history often omits names like Scotty Moore, James Burton, Clarence White, Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, Hal Blaine. But none have been as neglected as the extraordinary English session piano man, Nicky Hopkins. You may or may not recognize his name. It could be said that most music fans probably didn’t know he was there during his 40 year career in the studio and on the road backing, creating, inspiring and innovating behind some of the most notable acts of the rock era; but if he wasn’t there, the music would have been lesser for it. Finally, after over a decade of research, interviewing, digging through archives and writing, British musician, Julian Dawson, has released his epic biography of Nicky Hopkins. This book, like the notoriety for this musical genius, is long over-due. Dawson manages to pull off the near impossible task of a detailed historical documentation that balances an in-depth look at the musician from the perspective of those who knew him best including family, childhood friends, and most important, other musicians, with historical objectivity. In this, the quest differs from most typical musical biographies, which tend to move through time sequentially and report crisis and conflict while revealing little about the central character. However, Dawson brilliantly potrays the history and through interviews reveals something of the nature of Nicky Hopkins’ character and spirit.
Nicky Hopkins, who described himself in his own typically understated way as “just a piano player” did more to form, define and inspire some of the finest moments of rock and roll during his time than any session musician and sideman before or after. Julian Dawson has given a detailed and engaging document of one phenomenally talented artist’s impact on the popular music of his day. Like many session musicians, he preferred the anonymity and the egoless ride of working in the background, even though he managed to frequently shape many of the songs he contributed to, raising them to a higher level than originally envisioned. His list of collaborators included The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks, The Yardbirds, Jefferson Airplane, Steve Miller Band, Jerry Garcia, Cat Stevens, Joe Cocker and Art Garfunkel. He was also a member of The Jeff Beck Group with lead singer Rod Stewart and Quicksilver Messenger Service. Though The Beatles discovered him later than the rest, it was not too late for him to appear on their hit single, “Revolution,” followed by important contributions on solo projects including Lennon’s Imagine and George Harrison’s Living in the Material World, Ringo’s 1973 self-titled album and Paul McCartney’s later solo work.
At times Nicky seems like a kind of rock and roll chameleon, but as the book moves deeper into it’s subject, a portrait that emerges is one of an artist deeply committed to creating visionary music for the artists who called him into the studio. Based on Dawson’s book, history shows The Rolling Stones gave Nicky the widest berth of creative opportunity. His participation in the studio on classic albums, Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street, alone demonstrate the importance of his contributions to rock music. It becomes clear that while Nicky sought and even craved anonymity, he also deeply longed for appreciation and recognition but not so much from a fan-base, as is shown by his inability to define himself as a solo artist. Dawson reveals that Nicky knew well the importance of his contributions to the long list of artists he worked with in the studio and strove to give them his best work on every take.
Even though the focus of the book is on the legacy forged and left by Hopkins, Dawson skillfully weaves two other threads through Nicky’s story; the personal issues that had an impact on his artistry and his personality. Working within this context excludes any implication of exploitation and serves to strengthen the portrait drawn of Nicky in this book. He had a life-long struggle coping with Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory ailment of the intestines, and his ten year downward spiral into drug and alcohol abuse during the 70’s. But Nicky a musician trapped in addiction and by disability, he found recovery and redemption during the last decade and a half of his life. Narconon, the recovery program heavily influenced by Scientology, was instrumental in getting him back on his path as a musician. Indeed, the religion founded by L.Ron Hubbard, became key to his survival and health.
The structure of this book reads in episodes according to the era and the session work. It begins with the early 60’s and his rise on the British blues-rock scene thanks to the novel but untalented Screaming Lord Sutch. He eventually ended up with the likes of Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. From there, early chapters cover his contributions to The Kinks, The Who, The Yardbirds and most successfully with The Rolling Stones. His travels and collaborations became the stuff of legend when he moved to Mill Valley, California, worked with Jefferson Airplane, ended up playing with them at Woodstock and joined Quicksilver Messenger Service. As The Stones hit their artistic peak in ’72, like some musical Zelig, Nicky was there at the Exile sessions and on the road during their groundbreaking ’72 tour of the U.S.
The detailed documentation through what must’ve been a noteworthy range of interviews also yield moments of levity like the revelation that most of his life, Nicky never drove a car because he didn’t have a driver’s license. Even so, during a tour with Quicksilver Messenger Service, he insisted on having a car rented for him since the rest of the band had one each. When he tried to drive it, running it into a ditch, he was found by the band yelling and cursing the car for not performing well. Probably the best known story, confirmed by ex-Byrd, John York, is while on tour with Gene Clark, he swore if one more person asked him what Mick Jagger was like, he would light them on fire. Unfortunately for a Canadian journalist and avid Stones fan, he made good on this pledge. The book is filled with similar antedotes.
Where Dawson’s book succeeds the strongest is the desire it creates in the reader to go back and reconsider many of the familiar classic songs of an era over the last 40 years and to hear them in a new way with Nicky’s piano at the center. Songs like The Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil,” and “Let’s Spend The Night Together,” are given new dimensions when Nicky’s work is highlighted. When rock fans can close their eyes and clearly hear Nicky’s piano on, for example, Joe Cocker’s interpretation of Billy Preston’s “You Are So Beautiful,” the impact of audio art to travel through, transcend feelings and transport us to a higher place is realized even in our subconscious impressions. He was gifted with the unique ability bring us to a place of peace and well-being through his music. Probably more than any other session musician of his era, Nicky Hopkins succeeded in doing this. Dawson’s book illustrates that even while he had to deal with the daily struggle of chronic illness and a decade of substance abuse, his music healed and inspired. The Stones psychedelic experiment, Their Majesties Satanic Request, is often passed over as a kind of an unfocused mess, until considered in the light of Nicky’s keyboard work on the album. Although he released an uneven series of solo albums, his work on this Stones classic shines in a way that, with apologies to The Rolling Stones, could be considered a great solo work.
As the book concludes, Nicky is found on the verge of a new creative and personal morning of his life in Nashville, Tennessee. With a multititude of studio and touring opportunties beginning to come his way, including a national tour with Stevie Nicks and a blissful and successful married life with his wife Moira, it seemed there were only better days ahead for Nicky Hopkins. However, complications from an earlier surgery due to the Crohn’s disease that haunted him his entire life suddenly and finally took him away during the early morning hours of September 6, 1994. Considering the way his life was unfolding, his death was beyond tragic. When it seemed his health was at risk during 1993 in Los Angeles, ironically enough, it was The Stones who paid his hospital bills. At his death, while the band sent out a single letter of condolence, each member individually wrote his own letter to his family.
The book includes a well-detailed appendix listing albums, singles and live performances in chronolical order. If there’s any doubt remaining as to the breadth of Nicky Hopkins musical impact and influence on four decades of music, this book should help win over even the most skeptical reader. This writer was even challenged by someone who read the title of the book and informed me that Leon Russell is actually ‘rock’s greatest session man.’ While Leon Russell’s accomplishments are indeed remarkable, he did much of his work with the famous Wrecking Crew. However, Nicky Hopkins was a ‘crew’ of one. With all due respect to Mr. Russell, I think the title of Julian Dawson’s book holds.
As much as anything, this book is about legacy. Dawson has maintained a balance of objectivity, respect and intimacy with his subject leading to a full portrait of the humanity, character and spirit of Nicky Hopkins. This is not a book of adoration or the work of an obsessive synchophant; nor is it a cold and objective biography. It is a book written to establish and extend the legacy of one artist who lived his life to bring all of the music he enountered to a higher, more timeless place than anyone dare imagine.