It was 1984, and we had just released our second record, a 6 song EP on Ripete Records. The band had by that time developed a huge Charlotte following, and we started performing Mother’s Day concerts each spring, free outdoor events at Freedom Park, a central location that gave us permission. By 1984, they required security, which meant sponsorship, so we partnered with local radio station WBCY, with host DJ’s Becky Kent and Jeff Wicker.
Nicky Hopkins happened to be in the area, promoting the L. Ron Hubbard movie “Battlefield Earth,” whose soundtrack he appeared on. His manager heard that we were playing, and I’m not sure what Nicky expected to see when he got to the concert, but he seemed delighted at the turnout of thousands of our fans.
His first chore was dealing with the piano the Spongetones had at the time. It was a tiny upright with perhaps 60 keys and real piano strings, with an electronic pickup to send the signal to the PA; good sounding, but a bit cramped.
When he sat down to play, he became that guy I saw with the Stones in 1972: the quintessential sideman, playing amazing bar room, rock ‘n’ roll, boogie-woogie piano, not flashy stuff (unless asked to). That’s why he got the big gigs, I guess—he made everyone sound better without drawing too much attention to himself. A musician’s musician. Watch him playing the two blues numbers we threw at him: “Steppin’ Out,” and “The Stumble.” He had that gift—the one where he’s moving his fingers around, looking as though he’s not really doing much, but all this wonderful music is coming out.
A few favorite memories: we did a false ending on “Get Back.” He takes his hands off the piano, then the drums come back in, and you can see this little smile he gives us.
Also, I knew he likely hadn’t played some of these songs in years (if ever). I asked him right before “Lady Madonna” if he were OK with the intro; I was ready to add bass notes if required. He laid into it perfectly, no help from me.
He worked hard, and for a free gig whose only reward was a brief plug for the movie. I really admired that.
And I count myself fortunate to have played “Revolution” with the man who was on the original record. With the Beatles. And of course so many other legends who knew a great piano man when they heard one.
- Steve Stoeckel
Video courtesy Wes Johnson
Nicky Hopking autograph photo courtesy Jon Baker.
Photos courtesy Bonny Frain.