Nicholas Christian Hopkins (24 February 1944 – 6 September 1994) was an English pianist and organist. Hopkins recorded and performed on many notable British and American pop and rock music releases from the 1960s through the 1990s including many songs by the Rolling Stones and The Who.
Nicholas Christian Hopkins was born in Perivale, Middlesex, England, on 24 February 1944. He began playing piano at age three. He attended Wembley County Grammar School, which now forms part of Alperton Community School, and was initially tutored by a local piano teacher; in his teens he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London. He suffered from Crohn's disease from his youth.
Hopkins' studies were interrupted in 1960 when he left school at 16 to become the pianist with Screaming Lord Sutch's Savages until, two years later, he and fellow Savages Bernie Watson, Rick Brown (aka Ricky Fenson) and Carlo Little, joined the renowned blues harmonica player Cyril Davies, who had just left Blues Incorporated, and became the Cyril Davies (R&B) All-Stars. Hopkins played piano on their first single, Davies' much-admired theme tune "Country Line Special". However he was forced to leave the All Stars in May 1963 for a series of operations that almost cost him his life and was bed-ridden for nineteen months in his late teenage years. During his convalescence Davies died of leukaemia and the All Stars disbanded.
Hopkins' frail health led him to concentrate on working as a session musician instead of joining bands, although he left his mark performing with a wide variety of famous bands. He quickly became one of London's most in-demand session pianists and performed on many hit recordings from this period. He worked extensively for leading UK independent producers Shel Talmy and Andrew Loog Oldham and performed on albums and singles by the Easybeats, the Kinks, the Pretty Things, the Move, the Rolling Stones and the Who.
In 1967, he joined The Jeff Beck Group. Intended as a vehicle for former Yardbirds guitarist Jeff Beck, the band also included vocalist Rod Stewart, bassist Ronnie Wood and drummer Micky Waller. He remained with the ensemble through its dissolution in August 1969, performing on Truth (1968) and Beck-Ola (1969).
The following year, Hopkins recorded Beggars Banquet with the Rolling Stones, having previously worked for them on their 1967 single "We Love You" and the album Their Satanic Majesties Request. He also began to record for several San Franciscan groups, playing on albums by Jefferson Airplane (with whom he also performed in a one-off appearance at their Woodstock Festival concert in August 1969 following the unanticipated breakup of The Jeff Beck Group), the New Riders of the Purple Sage and the Steve Miller Band.
From 1969 to 1970, Hopkins was a full member of Quicksilver Messenger Service, appearing on Shady Grove (1969), Just for Love (1970) and What About Me (1970). In 1975, he contributed to the Solid Silver reunion album as a session musician.
By this point Hopkins was one of Britain's best-known session players, particularly through his work with the Rolling Stones and after playing electric piano on the Beatles' "Revolution" – a rare occasion when an outside rock musician appeared on a Beatles recording. Further raising his profile, he contributed to several Harry Nilsson albums in the early 1970s, including Nilsson Schmilsson and Son of Schmilsson, and recordings by Donovan.
Hopkins played with the Rolling Stones on their studio albums from Between the Buttons in 1967 through Tattoo You in 1981. Among his contributions, he supplied the prominent piano parts on "We Love You" and "She's a Rainbow" (both 1967), "Sympathy for the Devil" (1968), "Monkey Man" (1969), "Sway" (1971), "Loving Cup" and "Ventilator Blues" (1972), "Angie" (1973), "Time Waits for No One" (1974) and "Waiting on a Friend" (1981). When working with the band during their critical and commercial zenith in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Hopkins tended to be employed on a wide range of slower ballads, uptempo rockers and acoustic material; conversely, longtime de facto Stones keyboardist Ian Stewart only played on traditional major key blues rock numbers of his choice, while Billy Preston often featured on soul- and funk-influenced tunes. Hopkins' work with the Rolling Stones is perhaps most prominent on their 1972 studio album, Exile on Main St., where he contributed in a variety of musical styles.
Along with Ry Cooder, Mick Jagger, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, Hopkins released the 1972 album Jamming with Edward! It was recorded in 1969, during the Stones' Let It Bleed sessions, when guitarist Keith Richards was not present in the studio. The eponymous "Edward" was an alias of Nicky Hopkins derived from studio banter with Brian Jones. It was incorporated into the title of an outstanding Hopkins instrumental performance ("Edward, the Mad Shirt Grinder") released on Shady Grove in December 1969. Hopkins also contributed to the Jamming With Edward! cover art.
Hopkins was added to the Rolling Stones touring line-up for the 1971 Good-Bye Britain Tour, as well as the notorious 1972 North American tour and the 1973 Pacific tour. He contemplated forming his own band with multi-instrumentalist Pete Sears and drummer Prairie Prince around this time but decided against it after the Stones tour. Hopkins failed to make the Rolling Stones' 1973 European tour due to ill health and, aside from a guest appearance in 1978, did not play again with the Stones live on stage.
Hopkins was invited in 1965 by producer Shel Talmy to record with the Kinks. He recorded 4 studio albums: The Kink Kontroversy (1965), Face to Face (1966), Something Else by The Kinks (1967) and The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society (1968).
The relationship between Hopkins and the Kinks deteriorated after the release of The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, however. Hopkins maintained that "about seventy percent" of the keyboard work on the album was his, and was incensed when Ray Davies apparently credited himself for the majority of the keyboard playing.
Despite Hopkins' ensuing grudge against him, Davies spoke positively of his contributions in a New York Times interview in 1995:
Nicky, unlike lesser musicians, didn't try to show off; he would only play when necessary. But he had the ability to turn an ordinary track into a gem – slotting in the right chord at the right time or dropping a set of triplets around the back beat, just enough to make you want to dance. On a ballad, he could sense which notes to wrap around the song without being obtrusive. He managed to give "Days," for instance, a mysterious religious quality without being sentimental or pious.
Nicky and I were hardly bosom buddies. We socialized only on coffee breaks and in between takes. In many ways, I was still in awe of the man who in 1963 had played with the Cyril Davies All Stars on the classic British R & B record, "Country Line Special." 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.… His best work in his short spell with the Kinks was on the album Face to Face. I had written a song called "Session Man," inspired partly by Nicky. Shel Talmy asked Nicky to throw in "something classy" at the beginning of the track. Nicky responded by playing a classical- style harpsichord part. When we recorded "Sunny Afternoon," Shel 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.
In 1969, Hopkins was a member of the short-lived Sweet Thursday, a quintet comprising Hopkins, Alun Davies (Cat Stevens), Jon Mark, Harvey Burns and Brian Odgers. The band completed their eponymous debut album; however, the project was doomed from the start. Their American record label, Tetragrammaton Records, abruptly declared bankruptcy (by legend, the same day the album was released) with promotion and a possible tour never happening.
He released his second solo album (The Tin Man Was a Dreamer) in 1973 under the aegis of producer David Briggs, best known for his work with Neil Young and Spirit. Other musicians appearing on the album include George Harrison (credited as "George O'Hara"), Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones and Prairie Prince. Re-released by Columbia in 2004, the album features rare Hopkins vocal performances.
In August 1975, he joined the Jerry Garcia Band, then envisaged as a major creative vehicle for the guitarist during the mid-seventies hiatus of the Grateful Dead. His increasing use of alcohol precipitated several erratic live performances, resulting in him leaving the group by mutual agreement after a December 31 appearance.
His third solo album, entitled No More Changes, was also released in 1975. Appearing on the album are Hopkins (lead vocals and all keyboards), David Tedstone (guitars), Michael Kennedy (guitars), Rick Wills (bass), and Eric Dillon (drums and percussion), with back-up vocals from Kathi McDonald, Lea Santo-Robertie, Doug Duffey and Dolly. A fourth album, Long Journey Home, has remained unreleased. He also released three soundtrack albums in Japan between 1992 and 1993, The Fugitive, Patio and Namiki Family.
Hopkins, given his long association with The Who, was a key instrumentalist on the soundtrack for the 1975 Ken Russell film, Tommy. Hopkins played piano on most of the tracks, and is acknowledged in the album's liner notes for his work on the arrangements for most of the songs.
In addition to recording with the Beatles in 1968, Hopkins worked with each of the four when they went solo. Between 1970 and 1975, he appeared on many projects by John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, making key contributions to the critically acclaimed solo albums Imagine, Living in the Material World and Ringo. He worked only once with Paul McCartney, on the latter's 1989 album Flowers in the Dirt.
Hopkins lived in Mill Valley, California, for several years. During this time he worked with several local bands and continued to record in San Francisco. One of his complaints throughout his career was that he did not receive royalties from any of his recording sessions, because of his status at the time as merely a "hired hand", as opposed to pop stars with agents. He received songwriting credit for his work with the Jeff Beck Group, including an instrumental, "Girl From Mill Valley", on the 1969 album Beck-Ola. Only Quicksilver Messenger Service, through its manager Ron Polte and its members, gave Hopkins an ownership stake. Towards the end of his life he worked as a composer and orchestrator of film scores, with considerable success in Japan.
In the early 1980s, Hopkins credited the controversial Church of Scientology-affiliated Narconon rehabilitation program with vanquishing his drug and alcohol addictions; he ultimately remained a Scientologist for the rest of his life. As a result of his religious affiliation, he contributed to several of L. Ron Hubbard's musical recordings.
Hopkins died on 6 September 1994, at the age of 50, in Nashville, Tennessee, from complications resulting from intestinal surgery related to his lifelong battle with Crohn's disease. At the time of his death, he was working on his autobiography with Ray Coleman. He is survived by his wife, Moira. Songwriter and musician Julian Dawson collaborated with Hopkins on one recording, the pianist's last, in spring 1994, a few months before his death. After Ray Coleman's death, the connection led to Dawson working on a definitive biography of Nicky Hopkins, first published by Random House in German in 2010, followed in 2011 by the English-language version with the title And on Piano … Nicky Hopkins (a hardback in the UK via Desert Hearts, and a paperback in North America via Backstage Books/Plus One Press).