Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Review: 'And on Piano... Nicky Hopkins: The Extraordinary Life ofRock's Greatest Session Man'

Pop on your favorite album. Is it Exile on Main Street? Who’s Next? Imagine? Mine’s The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society. And what is the common thread weaving through all these classics? Each features the instantly recognizable yet endlessly varied work of Rock’s finest piano man for hire. Whether cascading like a speed freak through “The Ox”, tastefully drizzling sparse melodic droplets over “No Expectations”, or pounding out harpsichord arpeggios on “Session Man”, Nicky Hopkins always knew exactly what to contribute to a song and almost always nailed it in one take. He played on hundreds of sessions, starting with supporting work for proto horror-rocker Screaming Lord Sutch then moving on to The Who, The Kinks, The Stones, The Beatles (collectively and solo), The Jeff Beck Group, Donovan, Jefferson Airplane, Harry Nilsson, and way, way too many more to mention here. For a guy with such an astounding résumé, Nicky Hopkins received little respect during his time, was often deprived of proper credit on the albums he helped make (he held a particularly nasty grudge against Ray Davies for this reason), and barely earned cab fare for playing the roiling solo on The Beatles’ “Revolution”. That Hopkins was an unassuming chap who favored quiet seething over demanding the respect and pay he deserved didn’t improve his lot much. Neither did his chronic health problems, self-destructive lifestyle, and tendency to allow himself to be manipulated, either by his opportunistic wife, the “use up everyone in sight” Rolling Stones, or the Scientologists who replaced his drug addiction with a dependency on their cult.

It’s reflective of Hopkins’s anonymity that the first writer planning to tell the pianist’s story in biography, Ray Coleman, died before his book could be finished. Fortunately, Julian Dawson, a musician and personal friend of the late Hopkins, is now giving him his due. As definitive a biography of this subject as there will ever be, And on Piano… Nicky Hopkins is the result of ten years of extensive research. Dawson interviewed Hopkins’s friends, family, and business associates, who invariably seem to have loved the guy, even if that love wasn’t always mutual. Because he was so quiet, so understanding of the fact that he was a hired hand and not the star, the old cliché about being an extra in ones own story often applies to this book. Nicky tends to fade into the corners while big personalities like Mick Jagger, Joe Cocker, Sutch, and Nicky’s wife, Dolly, elbow their ways to the narrative’s fore. The main character makes his presence most felt in the chapters discussing his sickly boyhood and his problems with addiction. In chapters titled “Session Man: The Who and The Kinks” and “Satanic Majesties Request: The Rolling Stones- Part I” there’s no confusing who the star is. But this gives us a more accurate portrait of Hopkins, a man generally content to perch on his piano bench in the shadows, only to drift into the spotlight on occasion to make one glorious flourish.

Get And on Piano... Nicky Hopkins: The Extraordinary Life of Rock's Greatest Session Man at Amazon.com here.
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