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The name may not be that well known. But if you have a fair-to-middling interest in classic rock and pop from the late 1960s to the 1980s, you will almost certainly have heard Nicky Hopkins' playing on occasion. During his career, he must have appeared on literally hundreds of singles and albums, as well as played and toured with several bands. He was the one who was often asked by Mick Jagger to add something special to their records - 'Come on Nicky, give us some diamond tiaras!'
It's no exaggeration to say that the man was truly a legend in his own lifetime. To quote bassist Klaus Voorman, he was 'a classical player with rock'n'roll fingers,' while according to singer and guitarist Nils Lofgren he 'wrote the book on rock'n'roll piano.' It's good that somebody has now actually written the book about him.
Born in Perivale in 1944, Nicky was very accident-prone as a child and also suffered from chronic digestive complaints which eventually led to a diagnosis of Crohn's disease, in simple terms a deficiency of the immune system. Pictures of him throughout his life show a painfully-looking stick-thin person who was never likely to make old bones, even before he started leading the rock'n'roll lifestyle with all the alcohol and substance abuse that was part of the package. Nevertheless he was astonishingly talented, and like Mozart he was little more than a toddler before the family were amazed to find him sitting at the piano working out tunes for himself.
A promising career as a musician with live bands, starting with the legendary Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages at the start of the beat boom, was curtailed by hospitalisation after an internal rupture following a fall at home at the age of 19, as a result of which he was bedridden for 19 months. By the time he was discharged, things had moved on, thanks to a promising young group from Liverpool called The Beatles who had conquered the world and made sure that the music scene would never be the same again.
Frail and prone to illness he might have been, but Nicky was young, adaptable and amazingly gifted, able to read music, pick up tunes instantly by ear and just play - whether it was rock'n'roll, complex classical pieces, or novelty tunes like 'Teddy Bears Picnic'. By the end of the 1960s he had become almost an unofficial member of The Kinks, The Who and above all The Rolling Stones, in addition to playing on The Beatles' 'Revolution', the B-side to 'Hey Jude', as well as on sessions for - take a deep breath - The Hollies, Engelbert Humperdinck, Herman's Hermits, David Bowie, Cat Stevens, The Scaffold, The Move, Roy Orbison, and Jefferson Airplane. He had also been a full member of the Jeff Beck Group, with vocalist Rod Stewart, a very successful but shortlived act which soon broke up as Mr Beck proved a notoriously difficult taskmaster.
Health problems would however have made it difficult if not impossible to sustain a career as a full member of any band for long. He was an integral part of The Rolling Stones, in the studio at least, for several singles and albums from 1967 onwards. While on the subject, Dawson makes his disdain for the psychedelic 'Their Satanic Majesties Request' album clear, as well as his enthusiasm for 'Beggars Banquet', to which Nicky's piano is almost as integral as Keith Richard's guitar work (Keith at this point being more or less the sole guitarist, with the erratic Brian Jones being little more than a group member by name). The Stones would have taken him on tour, had it not been for the fear that he would become ill and have to drop out part of the way through.
When not playing sessions for the great and the good, including at various times all four ex-Beatles as soloists, attempts were made to promote Nicky as a solo artist. A solo album was released in 1973 but doomed by his diffidence and reluctance to promote it - although record company politics (in short, a financial scandal involving CBS label boss Clive Davis, whose dismissal had a severe knock-on effect on shops' readiness to stock and therefore sales) doomed it to no more than fleeting success. Nicky had nothing but disapproval for the more showy aspects of the business, especially Elton John with his star-spangled hot pants and outsize sunglasses. (As Dawson adds, Elton did however shift several million albums on both sides of the Atlantic, so the exhibitionism proved worth it). At least one of his colleagues suggested he might be slightly autistic, living in a childlike world of his own, deferring to everyone else in all matters, never taking control or thinking of himself and his needs first.
The story has several very funny moments (I'll leave you to find out what he threatened to do, and actually did, to the next person who asked him the hoary old question as to what Mick Jagger was really like), but there is sadness too. Substance abuse nearly caught up with him, as it once threatened to do with Joe Cocker, on whose US hit 'You Are So Beautiful' Nicky added his inimitable piano work, and a toxic relationship with his first wife did him no favours. Narconon, a Sociology-affiliated drug addiction recovery programme, and a happier second marriage following his divorce, came to the rescue just as doctors were giving him two weeks to live. For his remaining fifteen years he was more or less drugs-free.
Though the really prestigious days of a seat at the top table in rock, metaphorically speaking, may have been over, Nicky was still much in demand, playing on sessions for Dusty Springfield, Meat Loaf, Graham Parker and Julio Iglesias, and on brief tours with Sky, Art Garfunkel's band, and many others. He also had aspirations for further projects, which could have taken him in any direction he wanted - classical, jazz, movie soundtracks. Sadly it was cut short in 1994 when, at the age of fifty, he died suddenly after complications resulting from intestinal surgery.
This is a magnificent biography. Dawson, a musician himself, builds up a very lifelike picture of a good-humoured yet gentle, almost childlike soul who lived for his music and seemed like an unlikely character in a way of life noted for its excesses and the outsize egos of many who write the book of rules. There are regular quotes from interviews with him, members of his family, and those who knew or worked with him. The list of sources used and the bibliography indicate the depth of his research, and the list of relevant bands and live appearances, plus the singles and albums discographies, are ample testimony to the labour of love this book clearly was. As a music devotee I found this book a compulsive page-turner, and well nigh faultless.
Let's leave the last word to music journalist Dave Marsh. 'Nicky Hopkins was the most important rock'n'roll session musician - ever.'
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]