Born during an air raid during the night of 24th February 1944 in the London suburb of Perivale, Nicholas Christian Hopkins grew up the youngest of four children.
After the war his parents Alfred and Freda moved to a larger house in Harrow, near the Guinness brewery where Alfred worked as an accountant. Nicky’s childhood was comfortably middle class, though, like his siblings he struggled with his father’s strict discipline. His free time was spent in the usual pursuits and as a boy he began a lifetime habit of collecting.
Nicky was dogged from an early age by ill health and was later in life diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. While not a star pupil at school, from age three he showed a talent for music and after lessons from a local piano teacher, won a scholarship to the prestigious Royal Academy of Music in London.
His classical studies were interrupted on leaving school at age sixteen when he joined the original line-up of one of the UK’s pioneering rock’n’roll acts, Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages. After two years of intermittent touring the entire backing group was picked up by harmonica player and blues purist Cyril Davies, becoming his All Stars.
With a residency at the original Marquee Club, the band quickly became one of the most popular in the growing British R & B movement and their seminal recording of ‘Country Line Special / Chicago Calling was an early influence on such fledgling groups as the Rolling Stones (who occasionally opened for the All Stars).
Nicky was forced to leave the group when he entered hospital in May 1963 for a series of operations that almost cost him his life. He was bed-ridden for an incredible nineteen months in his late teens, during which time Cyril Davies died tragically of leukaemia.
No longer strong enough to contemplate touring, Nicky entered the London session world and quite soon fulfilled his ambition to become the scene’s busiest pianist. Adopted by key producers of the time such as Shel Talmy, he worked with a long list of well-known clients, including the Who, the Kinks, the Easybeats, David Bowie, Dusty Springfield and Cat Stevens as well as hundreds of more obscure artists (see Discography).
Between 1965 and 1968 hardly a week went by without a record release featuring Nicky on keyboards.
In 1966 CBS released his all-instrumental solo album The Revolutionary Piano Of Nicky Hopkins and the same year saw him recording for the first time with the Rolling Stones, with whom he would go on to record more than a dozen of their finest albums. By the time he guested on the Beatles’ Revolution in 1968, his reputation had begun to spread internationally.
Burned out by his relentless schedule, Nicky decided to join a band again and, after turning down Led Zeppelin, opted for the Jeff Beck Group, with whom he toured North America and recorded two albums. When working with Beck became too stressful, Nicky headed for the warmer climate of California, recording key albums with the Steve Miller Band, the Jefferson Airplane (with whom he appeared at Woodstock) and Quicksilver Messenger Service, whom he subsequently joined. While in Mill Valley he married his first wife Linda, universally known as Dolly.
His tours with the Rolling Stones included the legendary 1972 visit to the USA and after being credited on Beggar’s Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile On Main Street and Jamming With Edward his growing fame led to another recording contract with Columbia. The resulting album The Tin Man Was A Dreamer is his best-known solo work, but despite an all-star cast that included George Harrison, Nicky was never comfortable in the role of front man.
A second CBS album was never released and 1974’s No More Changes was his last attempt at a solo record. After a brief return to England, he was based for many years in Los Angeles.
When the Beatles split up, Nicky went on to work with all four on solo albums including Lennon’s Imagine and Walls & Bridges, Harrison’s Living In The Material World, Ringo Star’s Ringo and McCartney’s Flowers In The Dirt, but like many others during the seventies, Nicky was drawn into increasing problems with drugs and drink and concert tours with Jerry Garcia and Joe Cocker often made headlines for bad behaviour rather than for music. His lifestyle became increasingly erratic as the eighties drew nearer and Nicky, who was ill equipped in the first place to cope with substance abuse, came back from the brink of disaster by entering a drug rehabilitation programme.
Even at his lowest ebb, his brilliance both onstage and in the studio was rarely affected and he continued to work for an impressive list of clients from Rod Stewart and Graham Parker to Meatloaf and Julio Iglesias. Many younger bands also availed themselves of the Hopkins magic.
In 1986 he divorced his first wife and met and later married Moira Buchanan with whom he lived happily the rest of his life. Homesickness prompted a trial move back to England, where he worked with Art Garfunkel, Jack Bruce, Gary Moore and Sky but the changed face of the music industry dictated a move back to Los Angeles, where he became increasingly involved in music for film and television and had great success with soundtracks in Japan.
Increasing problems with his health led to hospitalisation in 1993 and early the following year he left California in the wake of the earthquakes and moved to the greener and safer climes of Nashville, Tennessee. He continued to work with various clients and was involved in a band project with Joe Walsh and Frankie Miller right up to the end of his life. Nicky Hopkins died in Nashville on 6th September 1994 at the tragically early age of fifty, from complications related to his lifelong illnesses and frailty. There were obituaries in Time Magazine, most of the quality papers and in the music press.
He remains arguably the most important and certainly one of the busiest session men in rock history and left his mark on hundreds of recordings. With a discography that runs from Ella Fitzgerald to Frank Zappa, few others can boast such a wide range of credits and a presence on so many important records. He won numerous music polls in his lifetime and his influence has been acknowledged by colleagues such as Chuck Leavell, Benmont Tench and ‘Rabbit’ Bundrick.
As Nils Lofgren said, ‘Nicky wrote the book on rock’n’roll piano’.
A definitive biography is due to appear in 2010 and meanwhile his music is still being enjoyed, as new generations of fans discover all the classic records he played on.