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Brian Davison: Drummer with The Nice

A battering fusillade at the climax of "America", the West Side Story song adapted by The Nice, was a hallmark of the drumming style of Brian Davison. A passionate and gifted player, he saw his role in any group as a fellow musician and creative percussionist. He was inspired by the jazz drummers Jack DeJohnette and Art Blakey, and brought a dynamic approach to rock when he joined the keyboard virtuoso Keith Emerson in The Nice in 1967.

Davison was part of the progressive rock movement that boldly blended elements of rock, jazz and the classics. Although he had previously played in pop and soul groups, he was happiest being given free rein for expression and The Nice proved a perfect home for his talents.

His bubbling personality endeared him to his fellow musicians and his quick-witted responses would disarm even those in the firing line for criticism. Eyes twinkling, he'd laugh his way out of most situations, although he would endure some pain and despair as well as joy during a turbulent career.

He was born in 1942, the second child of Bella and Jack Davison, in Leicester, where his mother had been evacuated from London during the Blitz. His interest in drumming was encouraged by his Uncle George, a jazz drummer who gave him his first kit. Brian also received help from his older brother Terry, who played him records by Max Roach. Brian played in a youth club skiffle group before leaving school to work as a delivery-van driver for the London Evening Standard. He carried on drumming in his spare time and joined his friend Terry Goldberg in his group The Rocker Shakes.

In 1962, Davison joined the Mark Leeman Five, managed by David Bowie's mentor Ken Pitt. The band was impressed by Brian's left-hand independence, which led to him being compared to Art Blakey – "on the blink". As a result he earned the nickname "Blinky", which he disliked. The Mark Leeman Five released one single, "Portland Town" produced by Manfred Mann, before Leeman died in a car crash in June 1965. The vocalist Roger Peacock replaced him but the group broke up in July the following year.

Davison joined The Habits and later the Mike Cotton Sound. He also played with The Attack soul group fronted by the singer Richard Shirman with Davy O'List on guitar. Shirman recalled:

I remember we did a gig at the Mojo Club in Sheffield run by Peter Stringfellow. Blinky did a solo and half way through some wag in the audience called out "Ginger Baker the Second – ha, ha!" Blinky stopped playing, stood up and shouted "No – it's Brian Davison the first." He got an enormous round of applause and carried on with a phenomenal solo.

Shortly afterwards Davy O'List left to form The Nice, with Keith Emerson and the bassist/vocalist Lee Jackson in 1967. The group was signed by Andrew Oldham to Immediate Records and was scheduled to support the soul singer P.P. Arnold. However, The Nice soon parted company from Arnold as they began to experiment with extended arrangements. Davison replaced their regular drummer Ian Hague on O'List's recommendation and The Nice began to develop such numbers as "Rondo", "America" and "Hang on to a Dream". Davison played on all the band's albums including The Thoughts of EmerlistDavJack (1967), Ars Longa Vita Brevis (1968), Five Bridge (1970) and Elegy (1971).

The Nice became a trio with the departure of Davy O'List and increasing demands were placed on the drummer. Emerson not only performed rhapsodic solos but had a dangerous stage act. This included stabbing his Hammond organ with a pair of German army daggers, donated by Lemmy Kilminster (of Hawkwind and Motorhead fame). The knife-throwing became a bone of contention. Emerson recalled:

I practised hurling the daggers into a dartboard but had a low hit rate. I threw the knives on stage at the organ anyway and after the show was confronted by a very angry drummer sporting a large cut across his forehead. "Who the hell do you think you are . . . Errol Flynn?" At the next gig Brian surrounded himself with a protective screen of gongs.

Lee Jackson remembers a night in Sheffield when both band and audience became helpless with laughter.

We were playing "Hang on to a Dream". Brian usually added a Doppler effect using a triangle spun above his head on a piece of string. Only the string broke. The triangle flew up in the air and crashed back onto the drum kit. We tried four times to restart the number but "corpsed" and gave up.

Relations later became strained between the band members due to heavy touring. Emerson subsequently split from The Nice and formed Emerson, Lake & Palmer in 1970. This shocked his old colleagues but Jackson formed his own group, Jackson Heights, while Davison set up Every Which Way, fronted by the singer Graham Bell. They recorded one eponymously titled album, in 1970.

In 1973 Jackson and Davison were reunited as Refugee with the Swiss keyboard virtuoso Patrick Moraz. They released one well-received album but Moraz left shortly after to join Yes. Davison began to drink, resulting in the breakdown of his marriage. For some time he was out of the music scene but received counselling and recovered from a period of alcoholism, vowing never to drink again. Life improved greatly when he moved from London to north Devon with his partner Teri West. He began teaching percussion at Bideford College and also played regularly in a local blues band.

On 9 April 2002 the three members of The Nice, Emerson, Davison and Jackson, performed at a reception at the 100 Club in London, the first time they'd played together in 32 years. It was the precursor to a full UK tour by the band which included a concert recorded for a CD, Vivacitas: live at Glasgow 2002. Although Davison suffered ill health in recent years he and Teri celebrated his 60th birthday at his cottage by the sea in 2002 with a party that reunited old friends, including Lee and Keith, when there was more laughter than tears as they remembered the heyday of The Nice.

Chris Welch

Brian Davison, drummer: born Leicester 25 May 1942; married (one daughter); died Horn's Cross, Devon 15 April 2008.