Wednesday, May 11, 2022

And on Piano . . . Nicky Hopkins: The Extraordinary Life of Rock’s Greatest Session Man by Julian Dawson

In-depth biography of rock’s preeminent keyboardist 
If you are an informed fan of ‘60s and ‘70s rock and roll music, then you have likely heard of Nicky Hopkins. If you are a human being on this Earth who has turned on a radio in the last half century, then you have certainly heard his work. One of the greatest piano players in rock music, Hopkins played on some of the best albums of the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, the Beatles (mostly their solo records), and a host of other artists from the stellar to the insignificant. Hopkins was an official member of a few bands, most notably Quicksilver Messenger Service, but for most of his life he was a much sought-after session man who worked as a hired gun on hundreds if not thousands of recordings. In the 2011 biography And on Piano . . . Nicky Hopkins, Julian Dawson chronicles the life and work of this talented and important musical artist.

Dawson, a British singer-songwriter, is a rock musician himself, though I had never heard of him before. The fact that Dawson is a working musician with firsthand knowledge of the industry—how music is written, published, recorded, promoted, and performed—enhances the backstage feeling of this behind-the-scenes look into Hopkins’s musical career. Dawson also met and worked with Hopkins, and his admiration and friendship for his subject is evident in the conscientious thoroughness with which he has crafted this biography.

Dawson is not a great writer by literary or journalistic standards, but he has produced a better book than most in the rock and roll genre. He could have used a good editor, though. To research this biography, Dawson interviewed over 150 people, most of them famous musicians, and collected many anecdotes and much praise of Hopkins. The downside of that thoroughness is that the book often reads as if Dawson felt obligated to include every one of those anecdotes, even the most tenuous and mundane. At its best, however, this book is a treasure trove of trivia for rock and roll fans. Heaping icing on the cake, Dawson provides comprehensive (if not impossibly complete) discographies of albums and singles on which Hopkins played.

Hopkins was not your typical rock star. He was a humble man, even insecure, and never seemed comfortable in the spotlight. Plagued with health problems since childhood, he had a frail and sickly constitution that prevented him from living life to excess. During his glory days touring with the Rolling Stones, Hopkins was a relative straight arrow compared to the rest of the substance-abusing group, but he later had his own addiction problems after moving to America, resulting in a lost decade of erratic behavior, career decline, and a dysfunctional marriage. His road to recovery, surprisingly, came through Scientology, which brings its own brand of dependency and cause for concern. Though Dawson has great affection for his subject, he doesn’t shy away from some of the less attractive aspects of Hopkins’s personality.

The career of this super session man was a roller coaster, and the reader experiences both the ups and the downs. Though always working, Hopkins wasn’t always financially secure or solvent. At the turn of the ‘80s he went from playing with a major league of rock superstars to a minor league of considerably more obscure musicians. Throughout his life, however, despite difficult circumstances, Hopkins managed to perform with professionalism and impeccable artistry. Dawson has given Hopkins the in-depth biography he deserves; now let’s get Nicky into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
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