In the age of ProTools and digital recording, the art behind making and recording records has changed considerably. For example, today when a producer needs a certain embellishment or accoutrements that the band itself may not be able to provide, he can simply open a pre-made sound file or use a computer to create the sound effect. Yesterday, however, those flourishes (and often times, the entire song or album) were provided by session musicians, hired to perform either a small bit part or to help complete the entire project. These musicians were rarely considered part of the band and, until the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, only got paid for services rendered.
Most session musicians never became famous or held the limelight, though there have been a few who went on to bigger, more famous careers: Phil Collins began as a session drummer; Duane Allman, Glen Campbell and Jimi Hendrix were all session guitarists; Billy Preston on keys; and of course, some of the well known groups such as Booker T. & the MGs (Stax Records house band), the Wrecking Crew (an LA group associated with Phil Spector), the Funk Brothers (Motowns session group), and the previously mentioned Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (one of Jerry Wexlers personal favorite groups and the first session group to earn points on every record they worked on). The Kinks Ray Davies said, 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 doesnt sound the same. You only miss them when they are not there. The personification of that quote might best be found in session pianist Nicky Hopkins.
Over the course of a 30 year career in the music industry, Nicky Hopkins’ piano can be heard on countless albums by legends of rock, jazz and folk. Within five years of becoming a session musician he had already played on albums by British Invasion acts like the Who, the Kinks, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Never showing ego and always able to deliver what was asked of him, Hopkins became one of the most prolific artists in contemporary music. According to Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones, Hopkins was both the most sought after keyboard session man in rock and the greatest rock and roll piano player in the world.
Hopkins was born in the winter of 1944 during the London Air Raids. From an early age he showed musical talent; however, as a student, he proved a bit less gifted. With the help of a tutor, Hopkins managed to receive a scholarship to the prestigious Royal Academy of Music in London. Though classically trained at the Academy, it was his discovery of rock and roll, Chuck Berry in particular, that led him to develop his own sense and style of boogie technique. Bandmate and childhood friend Carlo Little said, When I played him Chuck Berry records, Nicky just duplicated the piano playing. It was astonishing!
In February 1960, Hopkins dropped out of the Royal Academy to form The Savages with Little and a couple of other guys from the neighborhood. Playing R&B and rock and roll, the Savages made a local name for themselves. Little even drummed for the Rolling Stones pre-Charlie Watts and unknowingly became the first of many links that Hopkins would have with the Stones. The Savages eventually merged with another big UK rock act Dave Screaming Lord Sutch to become Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages, which also featured Deep Purple co-founder Ritchie Blackmore (Hopkins would play with Blackmore again in 1966 in two short lived bands The Lancasters and the Outlaws.) Hopkins apprenticeship with Sutch lasted from 1961 thru 1962.
Hopkins left the Savages in early 1962, following the bands guitarist Bernie Watson to Hamburg, Germany. Watson had been invited to play guitar for Cliff Bennett and his Rebel Rousers and Hopkins went along for the ride. Within a few weeks, Bennett fired Watson for being difficult to work with. Hopkins quit out of loyalty to Watson and the two returned to London in June 1962. While serving under Bennett, this group became the first band signed by the Beatles manager Brian Epstein. Hopkins would eventually record with the Beatles on a single version of Revolution.
In November 1962, Hopkins and Watson hooked up with legendary bluesman Cyril Davies. Davies had just formed a new band after leaving Alexis Korners Blues Incorporated. Taking the majority of the band members from Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages, Davies formed Cyril Davies & the Allstars (aka Cyril Davies & his Rhythm and Blues Allstars). With a residency at the famed Marquee Club, the band would have sellout performances, packing the house once, sometimes twice, a week and even had a young Rolling Stones open for them on many occasions. The band was together for 13 months and in that time released their seminal recording Country Line Special/Chicago Calling and a follow up single Preachin the Blues b/w Sweet Mary. In May 1963, Hopkins had to quit the band due to medical issues. Eventually, the band disbanded in July 1963 when Cyril Davies own health began to fade. Davies eventually lost his battle to leukemia in January 1964.
Hopkins career was put on hold in May 1963 when he entered the hospital for a series of operations. During the 18 months he was hospitalized, Hopkins lost a gall bladder and his left kidney as well as suffering a collapsed lung. To add further insult to injury, he also suffered from emotional problems and severe exhaustion. Hopkins had been plagued by illness (later diagnosed as Crohns disease) ever since childhood. His medical condition and ongoing hospitalizations effectively prevented him from being a touring musician full time. Undeterred, Hopkins focused his abilities as a studio musician.
When Hopkins re-emerged in 1965, he quietly entered the London session world. He began his career as a session player for UK independent producers Shel Talmy (The Who and the Kinks) and Mickie Most (Animals and the Jeff Beck Group). One of Hopkins first sessions was for the Whos second single Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere. He would also add piano on their debut album My Generation and later Who albums Whos Next (1971) and The Who By Numbers (1975). While recording Tommy in 1969, Hopkins was unavailable for studio work with the band at the time. Pete Townsend was left to fill the role and in a moment of frustration while struggling at the piano Townsend was heard crying out Oh, for Nicky Hopkins.
The Kinks too had used piano to help build their sound especially on early hits like You Really Got Me and All Day and All of the Night. By the time the band was set to record their third album The Kinks Kontroversy, producer Talmy suggested using a piano player who could do more than just fill in with background chords and actually contribute to the process. After work on The Kinks Kontroversy and playing a few BBC gigs with the band, Hopkins also did work on the Kinks superior follow up album,Face to Face (1966). He plays on at least a third of the album, including Session Man, a song partly inspired by Hopkins himself. During the recording of this track, producer Talmy suggested that Hopkins throw in something classy at the beginning, to which Hopkins responded with a classical style harpsichord. On their 1967 album Something Else By the Kinks, Hopkins contributes funky blues rock via a Hammond B-3 organ as well as fiery barrelhouse piano riffs to give the Kinks a genuine soulfulness to their music, especially on songs like Something Vacant.
In between Kinks sessions, Shel Talmy convinced Hopkins to record a solo album. His 1966 solo debut The Revolutionary Piano of Nicky Hopkins was a collection of instrumental and easy listening arrangements of standards. An album full of MOR arrangements, wordless backup vocals and lite orchestration, this album certainly did very little to pull Hopkins out of the studio into a successful solo career. In fact, critic Rich Unterberger suggested the album would have been better served with the title The Counter-Revolutionary Piano of Nicky Hopkins.
In September 1966, a bit of rock history was made when Hopkins attended a studio session at the invitation of Yardbird Jimmy Page. Sitting in on the recording for the soundtrack to the film Mord and Totschlag (A Degree of Murder), it was here that Hopkins first met Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones. Jones had written all the music for the soundtrack and after meeting and hearing Hopkins was so impressed with the virtuoso pianist that Jones suggested him to Andrew Oldham (the Stones manager) and bandmates Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. The group immediately asked Hopkins to come and record with them. That December Hopkins did his first work with the Rolling Stones, recording the song Something Happened To Me Yesterday and adding piano overdubs on the album Between the Buttons. Hopkins work here served to further impress Oldham, who was also acting as producer, and Glyn Johns, the Stones sound engineer.