Ray Davies on Nicky Hopkins, from The New York Times, January 1, 1995SESSION MAN
Nicky Hopkins (1944-1994) 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, "Country Line Special." I was surprised to learn that Nicky came from Wembly, just outside of London. With his style, he should have been from New Orleans, or Memphis.
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 harpsichord 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.