5 Classic Songs Featuring Late Piano Hero Nicky Hopkins—With The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, & More

If you don’t know who Nicky Hopkins was, you’ll definitely know many of the classic songs on which the prolific British session keyboardist played. Hopkins, who died in 1994 at age 50, would have celebrated his 80th birthday this Saturday, February 24.

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During his career, which began in the mid-1960s, Hopkins played on hundreds of recordings by well-known British and American artists. They included many of the biggest names in rock history, including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, Jefferson Airplane, and many, many more.

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To fully examine the vast catalog of tunes to which Hopkins lent his talents would require a book or a movie (you may want to check out the 2011 biography And on Piano… Nicky Hopkins or the 2023 documentary The Session Man). Short of that, here’s a look at five famous songs that feature the accomplished pianist and organist.

The Kinks, “Sunny Afternoon” (1966)

Hopkins played on many Kinks recordings during the 1960s, started with most of the group’s 1965 album The Kink Kontroversy. “Sunny Afternoon” appeared on the band’s 1966 album, Face to Face, a became a No. 1 hit in the U.K. The song, which also reached No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100, featured a memorable descending piano line by Hopkins, who also played melodica on the track.

The Beatles, “Revolution” (1968)

The Fab Four first recorded “Revolution” as a slow-tempo blues tune during the sessions for the band’s self-titled 1968 double album, a.k.a. “The White Album.” When John Lennon pushed to have the song released as The Beatles’ next single, Paul McCartney protested that he thought it was too slow. The band then agreed to record a faster, more-rocking version to put out as a single.

Hopkins was brought in to add some piano magic to the track. His energetic solo can be heard about two-thirds of the way through the tune. “Revolution” was released on a Beatles single, but as the B-side to the band’s landmark chart-topper “Hey Jude.”

The Rolling Stones “Sympathy for the Devil” (1968)

Hopkins enjoyed a long association with The Rolling Stones that began with the group’s 1967 album Between the Buttons. He contributed to multiple tracks on nearly every subsequent studio album the band released through 1981 Tattoo You.

Among the many classic Stones songs featuring Hopkins is “Sympathy for the Devil.” The lead track from the band’s lauded 1968 album Beggar’s Banquet, Hopkins rhythmic piano playing is a driving element throughout the track, and is particularly prominent as the song comes to its “woo-hoo” climax.

The Who, “Song Is Over” (1971)

Hopkins’ history with The Who dated back to 1965, when he played on the band’s early single “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” and most of its 1965 debut album, My Generation. Hopkins later contributed piano to two tracks on the group’s hit 1971 album, Who’s Next.

The musician’s beautifully fluid piano is a highlight of “Song Is Over,” the track that closes Side One of the LP version of the record. Hopkins also played on “Getting In Tune,” as well as The Who’s 1971 non-album single “Let’s See Action.” In addition, he made prominent contributions to the group’s 1975 album, The Who by Numbers.

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” (1971)

After playing on The Beatles’ “Revolution,” Hopkins went on to work with all four members of the group during their solo careers. He contributed to eight of the 10 songs on John Lennon’s 1971 album Imagine, although not the famous title track. Later that year, Hopkins took part in the sessions for Lennon’s memorable holiday song “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).”

The song is credited to Lennon and his Plastic Ono Band, and it also features the inspirational voices the Harlem Community Choir. While his piano is set deep in the mix, Hopkins also played chimes and glockenspiel on the track. The song reached No. 2 on the U.K. charts, and broke into the Top 30 of the Hot 100. More importantly, it’s become an enduring peace anthem and a staple of yuletide playlists.

Hopkins also played on Lennon’s 1974 album, Walls and Bridges.

More About Nicky Hopkins

It’s difficult to boil down Hopkins’ prolific musical contributions to a list of highlights, but here are a few more standout tidbits about his career.

–Also recorded with George Harrison, Ringo Starr, and Paul McCartney.
–Was a member of the Jeff Beck Group alongside Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood.
–Was a member of the San Francisco psychedelic band Quicksilver Messenger Service.
–Briefly was a member of the Jerry Garcia Band.
–Played with Jefferson Airplane at Woodstock, and was featured on the band’s 1969 album Volunteers.
–Released three solo albums.
–Also recorded with Dusty Springfield, David Bowie, Steve Miller Band, Cat Stevens, Donovan, Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Nilsson, Carly Simon, Joe Cocker, Peter Frampton, Art Garfunkel, Meat Loaf, Julio Iglesias, and Spinal Tap.

Hopkins died in September 1994 from complications of Crohn’s disease.

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