Grateful Dead

Blair’s Golden Road Blog - Persuasions Redux; a Nicky Hopkins Bio

By Blair Jackson

This week I’m catching up on some odds and ends.

First up is Persuasions of the Dead, a two-CD set of the great a capella vocal group The Persuasions singing Grateful Dead songs, occasionally joined by various other singers and a handful of musicians. Now, if this sounds familiar, it may be because 11 years ago a CD called Might As Well: The Persuasions Sing Grateful Dead came out. That fine disc, conceived by Rip Rense and co-produced by Grateful Dead Hour host/musician David Gans and Persuasions leader Jerry Lawson, has been out of print since 2002, coincidentally the year that Lawson left the group. The new version, produced by Rense, contains all 15 songs that appeared on Might As Well—“re-mixed, re-thought, shortened, lengthened, augmented with new parts, new solos, tweaked and even rearranged,” Rense writes in the liner notes—plus five other new tracks, two of them “rescued and spruced up” from the original sessions, two new ones and an oddity we’ll talk about in a moment.

I think Might As Well was pretty damn good the way it was—a splendid collection of tunes that showed off Jerry Lawson’s soulful lead vocals and the full group’s other-worldly harmonies to wonderful effect. If you know the gospel/doo-wop stylings style of the legendary singers, you can imagine what they could do with songs such as “Ripple,” “It Must’ve Been the Roses,” “Black Muddy River” and “He’s Gone.” But the unexpected gems were “Ship of Fools” (featuring basso profondo Jimmy Hayes), “Liberty,” “Might As Well” and “Loose Lucy” (with “Sweet Joe” Russell on lead). Judicious and always tasteful accompaniment was added by the likes of Vince Welnick on piano, Pete Grant on dobro, Eric Thompson on mandolin, and the four-woman vocal group Mary Schmary (including eerily cool “voice trumpet” by Alyn Kelley on a couple of tunes).

The newly remixed versions of those songs retain all those guest parts, but there are some changes I’m not so thrilled with—such as having Country Joe McDonald sing a verse on “Liberty” (and play harmonica on “Sugaree”); adding a needless Mark Karan electric guitar part to “One More Saturday Night” (I love Mark and his playing is great, but to me it feels out of place on this disc); and putting so-so harmonies from Jackie LaBranch and Gloria Jones from the JGB on too many numbers. That said, I dig the squonking and screeching bari sax of James King added to "Might As Well.”

And the new tunes, with one exception, are excellent! “Greatest Story Ever Told” has the drive of the original, but it taps into a gospel vibe that the Dead only hinted at in their versions. “Don’t Ease Me In,” with each of the Persuasions (except the departed Lawson) taking a verse and dipping into their doo-wop bag for the choruses, is also a delight. “New Speedway Boogie” is powerfully rendered by Lawson and company—it sounds as if it were designed to be sung this way. Best of all, the version of “Stella Blue” that closes the second disc (and which reunited Lawson with the remaining current members of the Persuasions for this one-shot) is sublime. Lawson nails it, and Rense made an inspired decision to feature a haunting solo by a musician playing a bowed Chinese stringed instrument called an erhu. Beautiful!

However, I must quarrel with Rense’s inclusion of a new five-and-a-half minute track called “Here Comes Sunshine 2/Drums/Space.” This piece is obviously supposed to mirror some of the weirdness that used to go on in Grateful Dead second sets, but it does not belong on this project. The “song” features layers of odd, occasionally random-seeming vocal fragments, a rather uninteresting mouth percussion excursion, and then a really hard-to-listen-to collage of assorted vocal craziness—dozens of chopped-up and seriously altered parts and fragments—that seem intended as a modern version of the infamous GD nitrous oxide experiment “The Barbed Wire Whipping Party.” It’s not a good idea, it’s not well-executed, and it’s a drag on the otherwise excellent Disc Two. But hey, maybe it sounds really great if you’re tripping.

All in all, though, the glory of the Persuasions shines through song after song, and Persuasions of the Dead is definitely worth checking out! You can learn more about it and order it there here.

Turning to books, I want to give a shout-out to a marvelous biography that came out a few months ago (but which I just got around to reading) called And on Piano… Nicky Hopkins: The Extraordinary Life of Rock’s Greatest Session Man by British writer and musician Julian Dawson. The brilliant English pianist is relevant to this blog because from mid-September through New Year’s Eve in 1975, Hopkins played piano in the first incarnation of the Jerry Garcia Band.

By the time Hopkins teamed up with Garcia, I was already well aware of his talents, having admired his work with the Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver (with whom he played at my first concert at the Fillmore East in February 1970) and many others. I was, frankly, a little burned out on the sax-heavy jazz and Latin vibe of the Legion of Mary by the time that Garcia-Saunders group called it quits (I like it more in retrospect). So when Garcia turned to a more song-oriented format in the new band with Hopkins, I was delighted. I spent a number of great nights digging that band at the Keystone Berkeley, the Concord Pavilion and Winterland. I know Nicky’s florid and occasionally domineering style was not everyone’s cup of tea, but I always loved that he seemed to push Garcia with his imaginative flights. That Nicky was clearly soused at every show I saw him play with Jerry didn’t bother me at all—he was always a genial and funny emcee, and his playing amazed me.

In the grand scheme of Hopkins’ career, the brief time he spent playing with Garcia is a mere blip—and author Dawson treats it as such, devoting a scant two-and-a-half pages (out of more than 300) to their work together and offering little insight into the partnership beyond stating the obvious fact that Nicky was an alcoholic, coked-up mess at the time. Considering the amount of scholarship and detail evident in almost every other episode in the book, it’s disappointing that Dawson didn’t try harder to come up with more about the Nicky-Jerry liaison (though only drummer Ron Tutt survives from that quartet).

But these are the niggling complaints of a Dead Head. Overall the book is a lively and fascinating account of a quite extraordinary life. I love reading about the British music scene in the ’60s (it was my favorite part of the autobiographies of Keith Richards, Ron Wood and Eric Clapton), and this gives us the flavor of what it was like from a top session player’s perspective. There are copious anecdotes about the Stones, The Who, The Kinks and many other bands from that era, and when the action shifts to America in 1969, a whole new cast of characters emerges, from Steve Miller to John Cipollina. There is a chapter devoted to Hopkins’ work with all four Beatles, and the Stones are in and out of his life regularly—it is his most enduring and most frustrating professional relationship.

Hopkins’ personal story is compelling and often tragic. He was dogged by crippling internal health issues for most of his life—indeed, his frailty is one reason he mostly worked as a session pianist rather than joining or touring with bands. He was seriously impaired by alcohol and drugs for much of the 1970s, making him a nightmare to deal with when he did tour with Joe Cocker and others. It wasn’t until he became a Scientologist and straightened out through that group’s Narconon program at the end of the ’70s that he regained his bearings. Unfortunately, synthesizers were more in vogue than piano in the ’80s, so Hopkins went through some lean periods, even as he continued to turn up on hit records. Further complicating his life was a pushy and abrasive wife with whom he battled for years and who alienated many friends and workmates. (To be fair, she was also the hopelessly unassertive musician’s biggest supporter through good times and bad; but it was a caustic mix.)

The combination of Scientology, a new wife and a move to Nashville at what turned out to be the end of his life seemed to finally bring Hopkins a calm and happiness that had long eluded him. Alas, his myriad health issues — diagnosed too late as Crohn’s disease — finally caught up with him and he died painfully in a Nashville hospital in 1994 at the age of 50.

It’s quite a tale, and Dawson tells it very well. Dozens of musicians who worked with Hopkins opened up to Dawson, so the book is rich in detail about sessions and tours and both fond and harrowing recollections of the gifted pianist. The author has also assembled the most complete and authoritative Hopkins discography ever. Here is a link to Amazon’s page on the book.

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simonrob's picture
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Joined: Jun 7 2007
The Kinks...

Like the Dead, the Kinks were also on the bill at the Bickershaw Festival in '72. Unlike the Dead, they were awful. Sometimes they were great, sometimes Ray Davies was horribly drunk - and Bickershaw was possibly his most drunken performance ever. Maybe Ray bears some responsibility for Nicky's alcohol problems and possibly it wasn't so far removed from the American barroom scene.

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Joined: Jun 4 2007
Mr. Pleasant

His work with the Kinks is historic stuff. He was basically the "Fifth Kink" during one of the most fruitful periods (my favorite) of their career. (How far removed American barrooms with the Garcia Band in '75 must've been from THAT scene....)

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Joined: Jun 6 2007
Good one, Badger!

I always thought Alvin, Theodore and Simon could do a nice job with "Bertha"... Someday!

cosmicbadger's picture
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Joined: Jun 13 2007
thanks

for the heads up on the Hopkins biog..I will chase that down for sure.

I am not sure about GD tribute albums..sure many of the songs are good enough to be open to interpretation in all sorts of styles by other artists, but packaging them under the Grateful Dead brand seems a bit like cashing in. That said, I LOVED the Jesse McReynolds album.

Anyway, the good news is that I hear that Alvin and the Chipmunks are joining the GD tribute trade, starting with a cover of a cover. Whoopeee.

Meeko's picture
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Joined: Jun 5 2007
Nicky Hopkins

Great article Blair, Nicky Hopkins was such a great player. I saw him with Jerry at The Orpheum Theatre in Boston in the fall of 1975 (late show) During a pause between songs, Nicky asked the audience " is or is not the guitar drowning out the piano?" of course he was greeted with a chorus of boos, but played one of his songs and won the crowd over. It was my first time seeing Jerry. i had a bad experience with Scientology at that time in Boston, I took a "free" personality test, after two hours, I got bad vibes about the whole experience, man those people hounded me for the next ten months! If they helped Nicky with his issues, than good for them though...

Peace,

Michael

The Nakano Pancake (not verified)
blair...

good answer! had me worried for a moment. thought you were pulling a Tom C. on us (both of 'em).

glad it helped Nicky, as he certainly needed somethin'. however, i will most certainly continue mocking it as a whole.

skwimite's picture
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Joined: Feb 17 2008
Nickey all over the place

I remember buying Volunteers and seeing Nickey Hopkins name. Then Shady Grove (QMS), then Rolling Stones and I thought WHO IS this guy? He seemed to be everywhere all at once. Always loved his playing and I too saw him with The Jerry Garcia Band in '75 at Concord. Great musician and I'm looking forward to reading the book. Thanks for the heads-up.
The Persuasions for me is like opera. I appreciate the talent but it's just not my cup of tea.

dstache's picture
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Joined: Sep 10 2007
scientology

I had the same thought as Nakano Pancake after reading the article and appreciate that Blair did not dodge the question. Also, like Hamal, I read Blair's stuff much more often than I check out the musical selections (I have SO MANY shows and am SO BEHIND on what I already have). I don't always agree with Blair (e.g., the 9/11 subject line) but he is almost always interesting.

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Joined: Jun 6 2007
No, pancake, definitely not!

I know a lot about Scientology; I even lived in a rooming house run by Narconon when I first moved to Berkeley in '73 to go to Cal. Every evening there would be Scientology "auditing" sessions (which I never took part in, but overheard), and I had LONG discussions with the folks (a nice bunch, actually) about the "Church" and L.Ron Hubbard and the whole deal. As a confirmed atheist and cynic, I was not buying it. Fortunately they were not pushy about it, either. Later I learned that files had been kept on the folks who roomed there and that I had been labeled an "ATS WOG"--"Antagonistic Toward Scientology" and "Without Organized Goals"--guilty on both counts, yer honor!

Anyway, I have no doubt that Narconon helped some people kick drugs and that the Church has helped some people take control of their lives in ways that they view as beneficial. Julian Dawson handles Nicky's involvement in Scientology and his infatuation with the writings of L.Ron Hubbard in a very straight-forward, uncritical, even-handed way. Narconon and Scientology definitely helped Nicky Hopkins. The book makes that very clear. So who are we to argue with that or mock it, just because we might not like Scientology? I mentioned it in the review because it is a big part of Nicky's later story.

The Nakano Pancake (not verified)
buttons and all thats between

Nicky Hopkins is indeed a fine fine player; love many of his recordings.

just one thing, blair; you mentioned scientology a couple times. almost unnecessarily it would seem. a follower?

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