One of the first art-rock bands to experiment with classical forms and fusion, the Nice was an early vehicle for the talents of keyboard virtuoso Keith Emerson, who plundered Mozart, Bach, Sibelius, and Tchaikovsky for his extended rock instrumental forays. The group began as the backing band for British soul singer P.P. Arnold and also featured guitarist David O’List, drummer Ian Hauge, and bassist Lee Jackson. In October 1967, only two months after formation, the group split from Arnold, replaced Hauge with former Mark Leeman Five drummer Brian “Blinky” Davision christened itself the Nice, and released a single called “The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack,” which became the title track of their 1968 debut album.
The Nice quickly built a reputation as an exciting, theatrical live band thanks to Emerson, who dressed in gold lame, hurled knives into his Hammond organ to produce strange sounds, and mimed masturbation onstage. Emerson’s antics spawned controversy with an adaptation of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story song “America.” The Nice performed it at the Royal Albert Hall while burning an American flag, and Bernstein subsequently attempted to stop the song’s release in the U.S., although it was released in edited form on the U.S. release of their second album Ars Longa Vita Brevis.
Emerson was the real star of the group, both in terms of instrumental skill and showmanship, O’List, whilst an exciting and innovative musician, was felt by the band to be erratic and unreliable and was jettisoned by Emerson before the release of Ars Longa Vita Brevis to join the Misunderstood and subsequently (and briefly) Roxy Music and later the under-rated Jet.. The reduction of the Nice to a trio allowed the band to further explore fusing rock with jazz and classical music, most notably with an adaptation of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 3.
Nice and Five Bridges became big hit albums in Britain, but the group never broke through in America. In 1969, Emerson met Greg Lake, then with King Crimson, on a U.S. tour, and broke up the Nice in frustration in 1970 due to its lack of success. He, Lake, and drummer Carl Palmer formed the much more popular Emerson, Lake and Palmer, which expanded on Emerson’s innovations with the Nice. After the Nice, Lee Jackson formed Jackson Heights which recorded four albums between 1970-1973 and Brian Davison formed the short lived band Every Which Way and was in a mid 70’s line up of Gong. Davison and Jackson formed Refugee with keyboardist Patrick Moraz, this was however short lived as the group disbanded after Moraz was invited to replace Rick Wakeman in Yes. In 2002 and 2003 Emerson, Jackson and Davison reunited for a one off Nice tour in the UK.