Nicky Hopkins: Classic Rock's Go-To Piano Man

...and on piano... Nicky Hopkins: The Extraordinary Life of Rock's Greatest Session Man By Julian Dawson

Though his name is known mostly to classic-rock liner note readers, even the casual fan has heard his piano work: The wistful opening of Joe Cocker's "You Are So Beautiful," the pumping keys on the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil," the solo on the Beatles' "Revolution" and on records with the Who, the Kinks, David Bowie, Steve Miller, Jefferson Airplane, Jeff Beck, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Van Morrison, Rod Stewart and many others.

Almost literally, Nicky Hopkins had his fingers in the service of the giants of '60s and '70s rock.

In this fascinating, well-written and thorough book more than a decade in the making, musician Julian Dawson -- who worked with Hopkins in the final months of his life -- tells the story of the London-born pianist with history, anecdotes and more than 130 interviews with friends, family and musicians.


Readers will find plenty of backstage stories on the making of some of rock's best known records including Exile on Main Street, My Generation, The Village Green Preservation Society, Beggar's Banquet, Let It Bleed, Beck-Ola, Volunteers, Imagine and more.

But often just as fascinating as Hopkins's professional dealings with his famous friends and employers is his personal story, particularly a lifelong battle with Crohn's disease that kept him confined to a hospital for many months as a teen and would set the stage for lifelong physical frailty.

Also of note is Dawson's insightful and excellent depiction of England's jobbing rock bands and loose scene in the late '50s and early '60s prior to the British Invasion of American shores.

After the glory years, Hopkins struggled in the '80s and '90s as work dried up and his attempts to ignite a solo career failed. But his name alone was always good for some sessions.

And though he died in 1994 at the age of 50 due to surgical complications in Nashville, where he had settled, many years of hardcore drug and alcohol use undoubtedly contributed as well -- though Hopkins credited Scientology with helping him to stay clean for lengthy periods of time.

And while the Rolling Stones -- with whom he had his longest and most prominent association -- came through to pay for medical bills, Hopkins still felt that he had been denied proper credit for songwriting contributions to some of the band's biggest hits.

Not an uncommon gripe for anyone who played on the material, but only saw a "Jagger/Richards" credit on the records.

While classic rock's biggest stars have gotten a lot of understandable publicity in recent years for penning their autobiographies -- with more to come -- it's often the books about the music's sidemen, bit players and lesser names that are the most fascinating.

And this book on the talented and prolific Nicky Hopkins is testament to that.

Plus One Press, 372 pp., $22.95.

Follow Rocks Off on Facebook and on Twitter at @HPRocksOff.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero