'OH FOR Nicky Hopkins]' That was the cry from a desperate Pete Townshend as he struggled to play the piano while recording the Who's epic Tommy back in 1969. Hopkins, the pale-faced, long- haired pianist, wasn't available that day, but it was a rare occasion. His ability to deliver fast, accurate pounding piano lines to flesh out the sound of everything from hit singles to concept albums, meant he was in huge demand.
During the Sixties and Seventies, Hopkins was to be found hard at work in the studios, regularly backing up some of the biggest names in rock. Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones called him 'the greatest rock 'n' roll piano player in the world', and the Kinks even dedicated a song to him, called 'Session Man' on their 1966 Face to Face album. Ray Davies sang in affectionate tribute, 'He's a session man, a pop music-ian]'
Hopkins could be heard adding piano to John Lennon's Imagine album, to the Who's My Generation and the Stones' Let It Bleed and Exile On Mainstreet.
Despite his prolific output, the public rarely saw Hopkins on stage. Early in his career he succumbed to ill-health which prevented him from going on the road. His life would be spent in the studios, where his skill, reliability and cheerful personality ensured he was the sort of session player untutored rockers could relate to.
He was sometimes mistaken for an American. Allan McDougal, the record producer and former Kinks publicist, says: 'Nicky could play rock 'n' roll piano like the Americans. He was raised on Fats Domino and Little Richard and he could play any tune that was put in front of him. He played on lots of the Kinks' early records and with the Hollies, but never appeared on stage with them. He was often desperately ill and pitifully thin but always had a happy smile on his face.'
He was born and raised in London, and studied classical music as a child. But he soon discovered rock 'n' roll and particularly admired the piano-playing on Chuck Berry's records. He developed his own driving boogie technique with a strong left hand and amazed seasoned rock musicians with his ability to emulate the hottest solos on classic rock records. He served an apprenticeship playing with Screaming Lord Sutch & the Savages during 1961-62 and the Cyril Davies R&B All-Stars in 1963. Ill-health forced Hopkins to leave the All Stars and he was hospitalised from May 1963 to December 1964. When he was discharged he found that the group had broken up following Cyril Davies's death.
Hopkins began his session career working with the Who, the Kinks, Creation, and the Easybeats. He was closely involved with the American Shel Talmy, who produced the Who and the Kinks. Talmy wanted to encourage the young pianist and produced Hopkins's debut solo album, The Revolutionary Piano of Nicky Hopkins, released in 1966.
Despite several attempts at his own records, he never managed to score a hit, and was destined to live in the shadow of his mega-star compatriots.
In 1969 he played briefly with the Jeff Beck Group before moving to live in San Francisco, where he played with the Steve Miller Band and joined Quick Silver Messenger Service as a full member.
He returned to Europe to record with the Rolling Stones in the early Seventies, and also cut an album with guest musicians for CBS called Sweet Thursday. He made a second solo album, Tin Man was a Dreamer, and worked with the Who again in 1971. He contributed to their Who's Next album and 1975 he played on The Who By Numbers.
For many years the studios resounded to his attacking piano style, as Hopkins was invited to play with John Lennon, Art Garfunkel, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, Carly Simon, Donovan, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, McGuinness Flint, Bill Wyman and Peter Frampton.
He tried another solo album in 1975 called No More Changes, but his career firmly set and he was destined to remain a side man. However, as the US critic Dave Marsh stated: 'Nicky Hopkins was THE most important rock 'n' roll session musician - ever.'