The Rolling Stones had a number of essential piano players over their 60-plus year career. First and foremost was founding member Ian Stewart, whose love of boogie-woogie and blues came to the fore on classic tunes like ‘Brown Sugar’ and ‘Dead Flowers’.
Stewart’s eccentricities as the band’s road manager, including booking hotels near golf courses and his refusal to play minor chords, which he dubbed “Chinese chords”, are equally ensconced in legend. When Stewart didn’t want to play, the band deputised Jack Nitzsche, the Faces’ Ian McLagan and solo star Billy Preston to man the keys, and the position is currently held by former Allman Brothers pianist Chuck Leavell. But if one player was the most essential to The Stones’ iconic piano sound, it would be Nicky Hopkins.
A famous session pianist before his association with the Stones, Hopkins had performed on a number of albums by leaders of the London rock scene like The Kinks and The Who, as well as having served in the most notable lineup of The Jeff Beck Group. One of the only musicians to have worked with all four Beatles solo, as well as being a hired gun for the likes of Jerry Garcia, Harry Nilsson, and the Jefferson Airplane, Hopkins is one of the biggest unsung heroes of rock and roll.
Hopkins’ collaborations with producer Shel Talmy, as well as his prominence within the London session world, led to an invitation to work on The Rolling Stones for the session for ‘We Love You’. From there, he contributed classic piano work to tracks like ‘She’s a Rainbow’, ‘Monkey Man’, ‘Loving Cup’, ‘All Down the Line’, ‘Angie’, and ‘Waiting on a Friend’. His versatility and technical ability were unmatched, managing to gel perfectly with both the band’s rock and roll edge and exploratory genre-hopping.
There’s no better example of Hopkins’ adaptability than his performance on ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. As the song progressed from a folk ballad to a samba during the session, Hopkins was there to deftly readjust his own playing. From the sparse opening chords to his busy pounding as the intensity ramps up, Hopkins had a fantastic ear for choosing just the right voicing and rhythms to keep songs moving without cluttering the arrangement.
He wasn’t done either: he iss part of the falsetto “woo-woo” chorus that colours the track as well. It’s not just an all-time great performance from Hopkins, but from everyone involved. Hopkins’ contributions helped lead to the magic that comes through the speakers every time the song is played. He would lend his talents to the band for another full decade.
Check out Hopkins’ isolated piano, along with Mick Jagger’s vocal and Keith Richards’ guitar solo, down below.