Andrew Tyler, Disc and Music Echo, 4 December 1971
DURING THE NEXT 12 months Nicky Hopkins, the world's best-known anonymous pianist, will be the fourth German on the right no more. After years of backing the biggies – The Stones, Lennon, Harrison, The Who, The Kinks – Nicky will emerge from the small print of record sleeves with an album of his own. He'll enlist the aid of his good friend George Harrison and a handful of Stones.
Hopkins, a phenomena among musicians, has somehow avoided making a mark on the record-buying public.
This is especially true in Britain where flamboyance and sleek profiles are still number one attributes. In the U.S. people are more aware of the "sixth Rolling Stone" and John Lennon's magic helper.
He tells of lying in a San Francisco hospital a few months back with jaundice, a blood clot and severe kidney trouble (one was removed). The doctors warned his wife, Lynda, that he might not pull through. There was a bizarre procession of visitors, some of whom wanted to make home movies of the famous man in serious trouble.
The illness was a recurrence of stomach troubles that flattened him for 19 months eight years ago. He still has a patchwork of scars to remind him of that unhappy period.
The latest attack came during a period of fierce creativity. He'd split from Quicksilver Messenger Service and was spending most of his day at the piano writing songs.
A nagging back-ache was passed off as muscle cramp but a visit to the hospital uncovered the full extent of the damage.
"They had to take X-Rays to look around my stomach. I had been cut up so much before," he says.
Hopkins has spent the last couple of years in San Francisco, working initially on a Steve Miller album. When that was completed Quicksilver asked him to work on their new one.
"I'd finished Miller's and I thought it was a good enough excuse to stay there another two months. But it turned out four months in the making. When it was completed I joined the band."
He's adopted the Bay Area as his home. He bought a house in sunny Mill Valley in July 1970 and is about to ship over his treasured collection of old records and antique knick knacks.
He's a fanatic about old things – trams, biscuit tins, gramophone needles, prints, and old railway maps.
Hopkin's first major splash of the year comes with the January release of "Jamming With Edward," the distillation of a 1 1/2-hour session in 1969.
"It was in the middle of a bunch of Stones sessions at Olympic," says Nicky. "Anita was sick and Keith had to go home. We thought he'd be back in an hour or two and we started playing. Ry Cooder was there and it was just jamming. They put the whole lot down on tapes. It was shelved until the Stones got their own label.
"It was simply a neat thing to do. It's not really a Stones record. Mick doesn't sing very much on it.
"The name came from some banter between Brian (Jones) and myself. He was playing bass, for some reason I can't remember, and I was at the other end of the studios playing piano. He called over "Give me an E, Nicky" – but I couldn't hear. So he shouted "Give me an E for Edward." The whole thing developed from there. I drew the front page of a comic that looks like the Beano – we use it on the album – and I had a notebook which I made into the Penguin Book Of Edwards.
"We use about half the jam on the record. We thought people might like to hear what goes down between actual recording proper. But it's not a serious album by any means, and I'd hate people to say 'is this the best Nicky Hopkins can do'."
Sometime later in the year Nicky plans a more earnest project – his first headlining album.
He's never made himself available for an undertaking of this sort in the past. Session work and the Quicksilver stint have usurped most of his time. He also tends to be one of the music world's more elusive personalities.
"I've never had anyone doing publicity for me and I've rarely done any interviews and I haven't put out a solo album to date. I just haven't got around to it. I would like to lead my own band someday. I'm sure it is going to come down to that next year.
"I don't know what it will be. I'm writing lots of material for it. I'll probably be doing it with George Harrison. I'd really like to do that because, with George, I feel a very close thing. I can relate so well to him. We just seem to understand each other on a personal level so well. He wants to do it."
The two met at a Jackie Lomax session three years ago and ran into each other again in February during an overdub for a Sticky Fingers session at Island studios.
Leon Russell was busy in the studio upstairs and Nicky visited his old friend and so doing bumped into George again.
"Later I was working on Jim Price's album at Mick's house in Newbury. George was going to come down to play but couldn't make it. Klaus Voorman and Ringo were there. But through Klaus I met up with George again. We just sort of bump into each other every so often and talk about doing the album."
Nicky was born in Ealing, suburban London, and just three years later, without any prompting or encouragement, sat himself behind a piano and started hammering the keys with podgy fingers.
Three years later he began his formal education and made his first public performance at 16 before a youth club audience.
"I think the audiences these days are so much better. They have a thousand times the appreciation of the subtleties.
"They were such a pack of morons in the early sixties. It was just a joke. They really didn't know what was going on."
His first job was with Screaming Lord Sutch's band in 1960. Sutch was a sort of early day Jimmy Savile but much zanier. He dyed his shoulder-length hair tartan and bellowed unintelligible lyrics.
"That was his first band. Everyone was a Cliff and The Shadows fan in those days. There were about a thousand bands that looked and sounded like them."
In 1963 he joined the late Cyril Davis, a great harmonica-playing blues man who did much to bring the urban American blues style to Britain.
Along with Alexis Korner, Long John Baldry (the "Long" has been lost over the years) and others, he spurned a fascinating and inventive new era in British rock music.
Davis was just starting at that time. Another band of unknowns were a shaggy collection of vulgars called The Rolling Stones.
"The Stones were also just starting," says Nicky, "and we sort of caught on first. We had the Marquee every Thursday and they were the interval band. Rod Stewart was with Cyril at this time. He had a drummer called Carlo Little, Bernie Watson on guitar and Rick Brown on bass.
"I played with him until 1963 and then got sick and landed in hospital for 19 months. It was general stomach trouble. I had about 14 operations. It was a complete mess inside – something they had never come across before. But they managed to put me back together again.
"During the time I was there Cyril died. I heard it was leukaemia, pleurisy or drinking too much. Or it could have been a combination of all three.
"He was only 32. I was so surprised to hear that because he looked so much older.
"When I came out I got into sessions. Gyn Johns got me a lot of work in those days. I worked for people like the Kinks and The Who. There was no travelling around. It was all in London.
"That was perfect because for a year or two travel was completely out of the question."
He began slowly and, as his strength built up, accelerated his schedule to a dangerous level.
He confides: "At one point I wanted to see how much I could do without cracking up. It sounds stupid but there it was. I do very few sessions now."
This year he has worked with the Stones – on a tour and for four months on the new album – with Lennon, The Who, McGuinness Flint, Jim Price, Bobby Keyes and Pam Polland, a singer/songwriter/pianist from California.
She, in fact, played very adequate piano but wanted the famous Nicky Hopkins to add that extra flourish to several tracks.
Backing tracks for the Stones new album were cut in the group's mobile studio, parked outside Keith Richard's South of France home. About 20 tracks were laid down. The album, which will likely be completed in Los Angeles early next year, could include two songs from a session of a year ago.
Nicky played on all the songs and raves about the outcome. He admits a preference for London or Los Angeles as a recording venue.
"I didn't like France at all," he says. "I much prefer doing it here or in the States where I can relate to the people. I really don't like the French people at all.
"We were recording in the basement of Keith's house with the mobile truck outside. It is very much a professional studio. They have eight and 16 track and television monitors so they can see what is going on downstairs. The music is actually made in the basement and all the knob-sliding is done outside."
Nicky already has a crowded schedule for the first part of next year. The Stones will be undertaking a six-week coast-to-coast U.S. tour during the first four months – probably after the album's completion – and Nicky will be accompanying them.
In the meantime Lennon, who also rates Nicky as his favourite keyboards man, will be putting a band together and will tour the States in February or March. Plans for this project are still loose. Rehearsal dates have yet to be set.
"I get along very well with Lennon," says Nicky. "John is egotistical to some extent but he tells you that. He's a very honest cat. I told him that if dates started to clash next year, I would have to drop all the other things and work with George and he understood that perfectly.
"His album was such a gas to do. It was all put together in about a week at the studio in his house.
"For years John has been part of a band where each member contributed a great deal. Now when he forms a band it will be to perform his own material. It will be a cooperative album but very much John's.
"That is understandable because he is such a prolific songwriter. He just wants so sing his songs.
"George was in New York when we went there to do Lennon's new single. He played some new songs for us for about two or three hours. They were really incredible. So he has plenty of material for an album."
Work on the new Harrison album will probably begin late January or early February at his new home studio.
"It's an amazing house built by an eccentric called Sir Frank Crisp. George has put so much time in personally and so much money to restore it to its original condition. It was built at the turn of the century.
"Some nuns had it for a while and they painted everything white and covered up things and took things down. They filled in a beautiful sunken Japanese garden because it was dangerous or cost too much to run."
Nicky has a house on Epsom Downs which will serve as a watering hole for his visits to England. But California is his new permanent base.
"San Francisco knocks me out. I don't think I'll ever leave. I keep coming back to London because the music scene is here. I think the London musicians are the best in the world.
"In San Francisco, it's almost as if the music becomes secondary with some of them. You're supposed to start work in a studio at seven and nothing happens for four hours. Everybody gets loaded out of their minds and nothing gets done.
"But there is so much space there and the weather really suits me. It doesn't seem to drop much below 50 degrees – even in the winter."
He has "alien registration" and with the added bonus of being married to a New Yorker, can come and go as he pleases. He's become disenchanted with England and the British.
"I don't like England as it is now, but things from a few years back really knock me out. I don't like the weather or the people and I always have that feeling of being trapped here."
The State of British radio also disenchants him.
"You switch on the radio and it is still as big a joke as it ever was. Every week you read a story about the state of British radio, so it's all been said before, but it certainly is disgusting.
"I don't think people are really bothered about this country.
"I think most people have been concentrating on the States for years. If through being popular in the States a group starts getting known here then so much the better but the American market is by far the most important in the world."
He blamed the Musicians Union and the BBC for its "strangle-hold" on the music scene.
"The union are so against more needle time. There really should be a 24-hour FM radio station here. But it will never come to pass because the MU keep on insisting that bands go to the BBC studio and cut live tracks – which just don't make it.
"You're not going to get the Stones or the Who down in a studio or any of the American bands. I'm often surprised that the American union haven't done something similar because look how powerful they are. Over there you hear records 24 hours a day and they are really hard buggers."
All that aside, 1972 will be the year of the Hopkins. It will also be the year for the rock world's largest characters to return a favour or two.
"Klaus might play bass or maybe Bill – I've known him for years. I wouldn't do the album all in one go. I'd work track by track and use whoever's best or most available. I've got to have Charlie on drums and Ringo if possible and possibly Jim Keltner.
"There are so many good musicians I'm not going to be able to tell until I get down to it."
© Andrew Tyler, 1971