LIVES WELL LIVED: NICKY HOPKINS:
By Ray Davies
The New York Times
January 1, 1995, Section 6; Page 34
1944-1994 Nicky Hopkins played piano with a classical proficiency and the
soul of a bluesman. He fit in well with his fellow Englishmen who were seized
by American roots music -- the Who, the Kinks and the Rolling Stones, for whom
he played murky and muscular piano parts on "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Sympathy
for the Devil." But despite entreaties to join the Stones and Led Zeppelin,
Hopkins remained a freelancer. He was a quintessential session player, as the
Kinks' leader writes.
By Ray Davies
NICKY HOPKINS looked so thin and pale, it was as if he had just been whisked
out of intensive care and dragged in on a stretcher so he could play piano on
our track. You would have thought that Smike, the tragic urchin from "Nicholas
Nickleby," had wandered into studio No. 2 at Pye Records.
The Kinks had always used a piano to help build the wall of sound associated
with our early hits "You Really Got Me" and "All Day and All of the Night." Now
we were making our third album and our producer, Shel Talmy, thought we should
hire someone who could contribute more than just background chords.
Nicky, unlike lesser musicians, didn't try to show off; he would only play
when necessary. But he had the ability to turn an ordinary track into a gem --
slotting in the right chord at the right time or dropping a set of triplets
around the back beat, just enough to make you want to dance. On a ballad, he
could sense which notes to wrap around the song without being obtrusive. He
managed to give "Days," for instance, a mysterious religious quality without
being sentimental or pious.
Nicky and I were hardly bosom buddies. We socialized only on coffee breaks
and in between takes. In many ways, I was still in awe of the man who in 1963
had played with the Cyril Davies All Stars on the classic British R & B record,
"County Line Special." I was surprised to learn that Nicky came from Wembley,
just outside of London. With his style, he should have been from New Orleans,
He had always been ill, even as a child. It was this illness that virtually
put an end to his touring in 1963. His best work in his short spell with the
Kinks was on the album "Face to Face." I had written a song called "Session
Man," inspired partly by Nicky. Shel Talmy asked Nicky to throw in "something
classy" at the beginning of the track. Nicky responded by playing a
classical-style harpischord part. When we recorded "Sunny Afternoon," Shel
insisted that Nicky copy my plodding piano style. Other musicians would have
been insulted but Nicky seemed to get inside my style, and he played exactly as
I would have. No ego. Perhaps that was his secret.
He recorded with the Rolling Stones and the Who, made a few solo records
(which never seemed to properly capture his spirit) and moved to the United
States, where he played with many West Coast bands. Inevitably, his poor health
and the musician's life style began to catch up with him. The last time I spoke
to Nicky was in 1988, when I called about the possibility of working together
again. "Just let me know the time," he said, "and I'll turn up." But his voice
was distant and it lacked commitment somehow.
Session players are, for the most part, anonymous shadows behind the stars.
They do their job for a fee and then leave, rarely seeing their names on the
records. Their playing never stands out, but if you take them out of the mix,
the track doesn't sound the same. You only miss them when they are not there.