If you were a rock musician in the 1960s and ’70s, there was one man who was always the first call if you needed piano overdubs: Nicholas Christian Hopkins. A sickly Middlesex kid with a virtuosic ability to perform classical compositions, Nicky Hopkins also had a penchant for the blues and was a devotee of rhythm and blues that put him at odds with his more traditional training.
Hopkins found that the strict discipline of classical music didn’t have to have to contradict his love of rollicking rock and roll. Instead, he could fuse them together to create a new style of piano playing that let technical brilliance and deep knowledge of music theory shine through while also digging into the grooves of the music. Hopkins was never too good to play a three-chord song, but he always added a new layer of refinement to even the grittiest of recordings.
Hopkins quickly gained prominence in the British studio scene of the ’60s, along with fellow session stalwarts like Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones. Able to interpret any kind of music that was put in front of him, Hopkins quickly became an invaluable asset to producers and musicians who needed some additional keyboard work. Hopkins’ playing could turn from refined and dignified to wild and unhinged in a matter of seconds, while the man himself remained reliable and professional in all circumstances.
To celebrate the legendary keyboard player’s birthday, we’ve assembled a seven-song sampler to illustrate Hopkins’ diverse range of talents and unique set of skills. Hopkins wasn’t just a piano player: he was adept at the classical tones of the harpsichord, the futuristic sounds of the Mellotron, and the constantly-evolving sonics of the synthesiser. All of his diverse playing styles are highlighted in a list that proves why all the most important bands in early rock and roll history made the call to Hopkins.
The seven greatest Nicky Hopkins performances:
‘Monkey Man’ – The Rolling Stones
Somehow, an artist as refined and technically brilliant as Hopkins managed to gel most cohesively with the world’s most dangerous rock band. Especially during the Let It Bleed, The Rolling Stones were unafraid to get filthy, revelling in the muck that made them so dangerous in the first place. But strangely, on one of the band’s grosser songs, Hopkins puts forth one of his loveliest piano lines.
The intro runs from Hopkins on ‘Monkey Man’ are refined and stately, and when the rest of the band gets deep into the funk, Hopkins remains above the noise. The contrast winds up working perfectly, especially on the bridge where Hopkins gets to lay out. Hopkins uses all 88 keys of the piano to their maximum effect, and as the rest of the band go completely mad, Hopkins is the glue that keeps it all together.
‘Loving Cup’ – The Rolling Stones
Attempting to keep a list like this short means omitting some of Hopkins’ greatest works. Originally, each artist was only going to get one song to shine a light on Hopkins’ diverse output, but the truth is that his work with the Stones was so legendary that it necessitates the inclusion of a second song. This spot could have easily gone to ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, ‘Gimme Shelter’, ‘Angie’, and especially ‘She’s A Rainbow’, but he was arguably never better than he was on Exile on Main St.‘s ‘Loving Cup’.
Hopkins rarely stepped into the spotlight. He was a session man through and through, with little in the way of ego. But he’s the star of ‘Loving Cup’, combining country, gospel, soul, and classical piano into one monster performance that remains the song’s most prominent instrument. If you want the clearest distillation of Nicky Hopkins’ genius, just listen to the remarkable four minutes of ‘Loving Cup’.
‘Jealous Guy’ – John Lennon
Turning on a dime was one of Hopkins’ major draws as a session player. Equally adept at both pounding rock and intricate jazz, Hopkins was a man for all seasons. His ability to create lush arrangements for ballads allowed him to indulge the more technical side of his playing, and no piano part in Hopkins’ career is more affecting than the one he played on John Lennon’s ‘Jealous Guy’.
The twinkling lines that Hopkins pours all over ‘Jealous Guy’ remain the song’s most memorable musical component. The perfect accompaniment to Lennon’s confessional vocal delivery, Hopkins never overpowers or devolves into overwrought histrionics. He just plays every note like it was always meant to be there, which was Hopkins’ most essential trait as a musician.
‘The Song Is Over’ – The Who
A great hired gun knows to fit perfectly into a song’s arrangement and structure, providing perfect accompaniment without sticking out too much. Hopkins had the innate ability to craft brilliant piano lines that stuck out in any arrangement but never sounded like it came from a session musician. Even though he had a signature style, Hopkins always just sounded like a member of the Stones or The Kinks.
Perhaps because Townshend later took major influence from Hopkins while crafting the keyboard parts to Quadrophenia, Hopkins’ work on Who’s Next‘s ‘The Song Is Over’ sounds like a classic Who part. Gorgeous and titanic in scope, Hopkins jumps from stately balladry to old-west style runs like its nothing, keeping the six-minute ‘The Song Is Over’ barrelling towards its conclusion.
‘Revolution’ – The Beatles
Billy Preston rightly gets most of the attention for contributing electric piano to The Beatles’ late-period work, but he wasn’t the only session musician that the band brought in. When it was decided that the slow-burning acoustic ‘Revolution’ needed to be amped up for a single release, the group brought in Hopkins to add a bit of bite to the new version.
Hopkins doesn’t show up for long: after the second chorus, he sticks around long enough to get one short solo in. But that solo is precise, raucous, and perfectly placed in the song’s arrangement. With a little bit of flair added to the end of the song, Hopkins epitomised his ability to do the most with the least on ‘Revolution’.
‘Volunteers’ – Jefferson Airplane
Hopkins’ association with San Francisco psychedelic rockers the Jefferson Airplane was a truly cosmic connection. Although he only contributed to their work for a short time, his impact was monumental. That’s him holding down the wild jams as the band play “morning maniac music” during the Woodstock Festival, which came about thanks to Hopkins’ appearances on the Volunteers album.
Hopkins shines all over the album, particularly on the lush ‘Wooden Ships’ and the eerie ‘Eskimo Blue Day’, but the pianist really lets loose on the album’s title track. Featuring glissandos, pounding barrelhouse runs, and distinctive trills, Hopkins helps soundtrack the revolution and propels into a future that never really came together. Still, it’s hard not to get radicalised by Hopkins’ wild piano lines.
‘Session Man’ – The Kinks
Hopkins’ association with The Kinks became, second to his collaboration with the Stones, the most seismic and memorable of his career. Playing on four studio albums throughout a three-year run, Hopkins brought albums like Face to Face and The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society to life. With an uncanny ability to illuminate Ray Davies’ increasingly baroque writings, Hopkins was a perfect fit for The Kinks.
Although Hopkins and Davies later fell out over who played most of the keyboards on Village Green (just by style and technique, it appears to be Hopkins), he was the partial inspiration for ‘Session Man’, during which he laid down some of the most mind-bending complex keyboard work of his entire recorded career. Davies himself later called it Hopkins’ greatest moment with The Kinks, and it’s hard to argue with him.