Because my copy of Julian Dawson’s And on Piano …Nicky Hopkins: The Extraordinary Life of Rock’s Greatest Session Man arrived after I posted the first WWNHD, I wanna use this post to catch up to the story, then we’ll jam with Edward. Here’s a few notes from the early bio.
Hopkins nearly died multiple times as a kid, not just when he was 19. When he was two, he tipped a burning tea kettle onto himself and scalded his stomach so badly it required multiple operations. Later — I don’t know the exact age — Nicky got stranded on a cliff with the tide coming in and nearly drowned getting back. His sister saved his ass. There was that time he got run over by a neighbor while riding his bike. Then there was that other time he briefly went blind in one eye (not sure which). His older sister Dee admitted dropping him as a baby and his other older sister Julia thought he may or may not have had polio. I’m picturing young Nicky walking through the neighborhood like he’s in Bad Luck Blackie.
Dee said of her very young brother, “I’d hear music coming out of the room and thought it was a record that he had on, but it was him playing classical stuff. It was just brilliant.” Rock ‘n’ roll soon got its hooks in the young pianist, however it didn’t displace the classical training. Instead, it complemented it. “Rock allowed me to experiment with new styles,” said Hopkins, “but I never lost that classical element to my music. I was 12 when I first heard Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis and those records made a fantastic impression on me. I used to turn up my record player full blast and drive my old man mad.”
Later, when he was in The Savages, drummer Carlo Little said, “Our all-time favorite was ‘Flip, Flop & Bop’ by Floyd Cramer. Nicky borrowed (the single) for one night and when he came back and played it next day, we fainted, it was so good. It’s very rare to have a classically trained person like rock ‘n’ roll because they think it’s beneath them.”
Floyd Cramer – Flip Flop And Bop – 1958
Yeah, Nicky Hopkins might’ve heard this a time or three.
Dawson has a great paragraph that should be read in full. “(Hopkins) harbored little ambition for personal fame and, unlike (Screaming Lord) Sutch, would never be comfortable in the spotlight or when leadership was demanded of him. His Piscean character traits: musicality, skill in interpreting the thoughts of others, good humor, an amazing memory, the ability to adapt quickly to different circumstances, and an almost complete lack of a competitive streak or jealousy (professional or otherwise), because invaluable in his role as sideman.” Former bandmate Rick Brown testifies to Hopkins’ reticence. “Although Nick was musically so much further advanced than the rest of us, in rehearsals he’d never say anything unless somebody asked him, and he still wouldn’t say much. If you asked him to play something, he’d play it straight away. But, he never said, ‘Why don’t you do this or do that?'”
Brown also makes an interesting observation that ties back to my original curiosity about the development of rock piano. In discussing their touring days of 1961-62, he says, “Some of the pianos hadn’t been tuned for years and (Nicky) had to play a semi-tone out of tune or in a different key altogether from us. He took to bringing his own tuning equipment along to try and get them somewhere near pitch.” As I said in the first post, an organ made sense in that it was more mobile AND sonically competitive with an electric guitar and drums than piano. Whether it was technological limitations or cultural malaise, rock piano almost had no choice but to evolve in a studio setting.
Of course, if you were Jerry Lee Lewis (or Little Richard or Fats Domino) you had a piano guy or a tuned local piano was part of the contract. Jerry Lee could command that. Local rock ‘n’ roll bands didn’t have that luxury. It’s fair to say the Killer put that power to good use.
Jerry Lee Lewis – Whole Lot Of Shakin’ Going On – 1964
On May 1, 1962, Jerry Lee Lewis played Birmingham Town Hall and that’s where the lead picture comes from. You can tell Nicky is stoked. I mean, who wouldn’t be??? It’s strange to consider Jerry Lee as he was seen in mid-1962. He was only 5 years removed from his commercial peak, but it may as well have been 20. He went from playing theaters and concert halls to playing dives and clubs. Of course, if you were lucky enough to attend one of those club shows, you were likely in for a treat. I’d put Jerry Lee Lewis’ best 45 minute set against anyone ever. I think most people who’ve heard Live At The Star-Club, Hamburg — recorded only two years after this Birmingham performance — would likely agree with that assessment.
Hopkins himself later said of this experience, “Cliff Bennett could sing exactly like Lewis and I had learned all the piano bits. We went up to Birmingham to see Jerry Lee, stopped at the Blue Boar services on the way, and in walked Lewis. We went to his gig, met him afterwards, and I had my photo taken with him. Then I took the photo and got it signed in London. He still remembered me years later when I ran into him at Steve Paul’s Scene Club in ’69, with Jeff Beck.”
EVEN THE CLOCK STOPPED
I love how Dawson says this, so I’ll just quote him:
Cliff Bennett became quite emotional recalling another night during Nicky’s brief stint as a Rebel Rouser, at Burton’s Club in Uxbridge.
“At the end of the evening we were packing up and they had a lovely black Bechstein piano on stage, because there was ballroom dancing at the place as well. Nicky came out when he’d put away all his stuff, sat down at the piano and played Chopin’s ‘Nocturne in E Flat,’ and was so into it, he was unaware that people stopped sweeping (mimics gasping disbelief). That’s my favorite piece of music anyway, but talk about fill up! When he finished, the whole place cheered and he went all embarrassed. ‘I didn’t know anyone was listening.’ Listening? It was so brilliant even the clock stopped. I’ll never forget that.”
–Cliff Bennett, And on Piano …Nicky Hopkins: The Extraordinary Life of Rock’s Greatest Session Man, p. 31
Sergei Rachmaninoff – Nocturne In E-Flat, Op. 9, No. 2 [Chopin] – 1927
When Hopkins joined the Cyril Davies R&B All Stars late in 1962, they were a little ahead of time in one respect. There was a strict line between folk music and R&B (or rock ‘n’ roll) and that was the use of electricity. Folk music used all acoustic instruments, but Davies played original recipe Chicago blues and that included a shit ton of lead electric guitar. Bernie Watson was a helluva player, a forgotten giant of the British Invasion’s first wave. His guitar playing deeply influenced young players like Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, and Dave Davies. Watson had a nasty, biting guitar tone and you have to remind yourself it’s 1962-63. As for the electricity, the band was a sensation almost 4 years before Dylan got called Judas up the road in Manchester. It’s interesting to think of Cyril Davis as a blues/R&B purist, willing to quit a successful band based upon that premise, who is simultaneously a revolutionary because he’s using electric guitars and tube amplification.
Watson and Hopkins weren’t the only influential members of the All-Stars. Says Bill Wyman, “The first time I ever saw Nicky was in the Marquee and they did a Chuck Berry thing, ‘Deep Feeling,’ which was fantastic. I used to try and emulate Ricky Fenson, the bass player, because he really swung. He was the first player I heard who really beat it out.” Paul Samwell-Smith of The Yardbirds agreed. “The reason I played bass was Ricky Fenson. The way he went up the fretboard, playing high octaves on the bass and then bouncing down again, made my hair stand on end!”
COME ON … DIAMOND TIARAS
According to Dawson, it was in this period, late 1962/early 1963, that Nicky acquired the nickname “Diamond Tiaras.” It was later adopted by the Stones, but according to Keith Richards, it began in The All-Stars. “That goes back to Cyril Davies. he would yell into the microphone when he wanted a piano solo, ‘Come on … diamond tiaras,’ and it stuck. Nicky played that brilliant Otis Spann stuff, you know, the really high trills. ‘Diamond tiaras, Nicky. Diamond tiaras.'”
One of Hopkins’ favorite musicians was Big Maceo, the obscure blues pianist who blew minds in the 1940s. According to Carlo Little, Nicky transcribed Big Maceo’s 1946 masterpiece, “Chicago Breakdown,” so the band could cover it and later admitted, “I was more knocked out by Big Maceo than any other pianist, except perhaps Albert Ammons. That is a record that Cyril turned me onto. I stayed up many a night actually transcribing the entire thing.”
Big Maceo – Chicago Breakdown – 1945
Getting back to the problem of out of tune pianos, it was during this period that Hopkins purchased a Cembalet, an electric keyboard produced by Hohner. He got it because Ray Charles played an electric piano on 1959’s “What’d I Say” and it was a security blanket in case the group ran into a broken piano on the road. It’s this Cembalet that Nicky plays on “Country Line Special.” Ray Davies — who I quoted last time — was floored by this song. “It’s the unsung British R&B classic. To me it said this can be done in Britain. We don’t need to go to America to get players.”
Of his time at King Edward’s Hospital from May 1963 to Christmas 1964, there’s not much to add. Bowel disorders were complicated, required exploratory surgery, and that resulted in long periods of convalescence. He was eventually diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, but Nicky’s mother, for one, was unconvinced about that diagnosis. In fact, both Nicky’s sister, Julia, and her daughter (his niece), Alix, were diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a connective tissue disorder whose symptoms mirror those of Crohn’s. Who knows. Given his physical ailments, obvious discomfort, and alienation from family and friends, let alone regular society, perhaps it’s not surprising that during this period Hopkins converted to the Baptist faith, getting formally baptized on July 11, 1965 — though sister Dee remembered an earlier ceremony as well.
The musical world that Nicky Hopkins re-entered as 1964 turned into 1965 was radically different from the world he’d left behind. Beatlemania was in full swing. The Stones and Kinks were massive. Bands like The Animals, Dave Clark Five, and The Zombies were having hits. And the craziest part is that all of that wasn’t just happening at home in England, but across the pond in the United States. The British Invasion indirectly subsidized the homegrown music industry because the demand for all things British meant that London’s session musicians were needed to fill out pop sessions, but also to complement recordings by this new generation of rock ‘n’ roll bands. If he couldn’t tour with them to America, Hopkins would find another way to be part of the invading force. All it took was one phone call.
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