STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
@brianbingaman on Twitter
The new-age-inspired sounds of Manheim Steamroller have been a Christmas institution since the ‘80s, fusing harpsichord, recorder, rock rhythms, synthesizers and electric bass into seasonal selections.
The brain child of Grammy-winning composer and musician Chip Davis, Manheim Steamroller has sold 28 million albums, 40 million if you include his non-Christmas recordings.
The chance to enjoy a live performance, albeit without Davis himself, comes with a “Manheim Steamroller Christmas by Chip Davis” show at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 11 at Santander Arena, 700 Penn St., Reading. Tickets range from $46.75 -$69.75. Call (800) 745-3000 or go to www.ticketmaster.com.
Just like Santa Claus, this is Davis’ busy season. But he did prepare some responses to frequently asked questions.
Where did the name Mannheim Steamroller come from?
From Mannheim, Germany. That’s where Mozart and composer/music theorist Joseph Stamitz both lived. Stamitz came up with the idea of the crescendo — music building and getting louder in order to excite the audience. The 18th century musical phrase “Mannheim valse” literally meant “roller,” and people used to joke that the loud music would roll over the crowd and flatten them. When it was time to start selling my band, I had to come up with a name to market. At the time, the big rock groups had interesting names like Jefferson Airplane or Iron Butterfly. So I came up with the name Mannheim Steamroller.
When was your most recent Christmas album released?
“Mannheim Steamroller 30/40” was released last year, celebrating the 30th anniversary of my very first Christmas album and the 40th anniversary of the first album in my “Fresh Aire” series.
Everyone in the music industry back in 1984 told me: “A Christmas album? You can’t do that. Only artists who have run out of ideas ever do a Christmas album.” But you know me. When someone says “it’ll never work,” I take it as a personal challenge!
And here we are in 2015, planning for our 31st annual Christmas Tour, which continues to play to sold-out audiences throughout the nation.
Why do you think Mannheim Steamroller’s Christmas albums have been so popular?
At Christmas time, people want to listen to something that is familiar in their lives. And for over 30 years, millions of people have grown up listening to our music. It’s comforting to hear something from your childhood — kind of like comfort food. Also, Christmas time is family time, and our music and concerts are all family-friendly. We often see three generations attending one of our shows.
You started your own record label, American Gramaphone, in 1974 to promote Mannheim Steamroller’s first “Fresh Aire” album. Why did you form your own label?
“Fresh Aire” was well liked by the big record companies, but they all turned us down because they couldn’t figure out how to market an instrumental group that combined Renaissance instruments with rock beats. They said, “There’s no category for this. It will never work.”
So I started my own independent record label to get the album recorded. It was an accident that it took off: my engineer got the idea of sending our album to a national consumer electronics show where there were hi-fi distributors from all over. They used it as a demonstration album because of its quality. Their customers would ask, “What are you playing?” People would buy the stereo and our album along with it.
Everything exploded even more when I came out with the first Christmas album in 1984.
And you also couldn’t find a promoter to book your live shows?
That’s right. In the beginning no one would book us. So I borrowed $385,000 from a local bank in Omaha and rented the theaters myself. We did a five-city tour, including Omaha and Kansas City. That was the beginning of our success. This is the 31st year for our annual tour. I think that’s the longest, if not one of the longest-running tours in the industry. We have two bands that crisscross the country performing in about 100 cities every year.
Why are you no longer touring with Mannheim Steamroller?
Unfortunately, I can no longer play with the band because I was involved in a head-on car accident years ago, where I hurt my neck and right arm. Over the years, I had overwhelming pain because of the lasting effects, and finally underwent surgery, replacing all the cervical discs in my neck. I’m pain-free now, but have limited feeling in my right arm and very little mobility. That’s why I don’t perform on tour.
So now I can instead focus on recording and producing the tours. In addition to our two touring companies that go out for Christmas, we have another company that headlines Universal Orlando’s holiday celebration throughout the month of December. And we often have yet another ensemble for performances on national television shows, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and other activities.
Do you come from a family of musicians?
Yes. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been around music. I have third generation musicians on both sides of my family. My dad was a saxophone player in a big band during the World War II era. My mother played trombone for the NBC Symphony while she was still in high school. She was even a poster girl for the famed music center, Interlochen Art Academy. Both of my grandmothers were piano teachers, as well.
How many instruments do you play?
I majored in bassoon at the University of Michigan, but I also play the drums, hammered dulcimer, cornamus and a crumhorn. I love to play old instruments.
You were with the Norman Luboff Choir. What did you learn from that experience?
It was my first job out of college. I sang tenor and was also given the opportunity to get some of my compositions published. The choir sang classical music for the first part of the program, everything from 14th century works to classic pieces by Mozart. The second half of each concert included folk songs, jazz and pop. That taught me how one can blend the classics and popular music together to create a fresh and popular concert, and opened my eyes and my ears to a broader musical palette. During our many long bus rides on the tour, I had time to discuss compositional techniques with the master, Norman Luboff. We also used to discuss music and art, and I had time on the bus to write songs.
How did your big break come through a series of radio commercials?
I worked as a jingle writer early in my career. One of the ad executives was Bill Fries, and we wrote a series of commercials about a fictional truck driver named C.W. McCall and his waitress girlfriend, Mavis, at the “Old Home Filler Up and Keep on Truckin’ Café.” Bill was the voice of McCall. Well, those jingles became extremely popular with radio listeners. We produced one in 1975 that became the song “Convoy,” which sold sell 10 million copies. “Convoy” went on to become a movie starring Kris Kristofferson and Ali McGraw. And would you believe I won the Country Music Writer of the Year Award for my work?
What were you trying to do with music when you formed Mannheim Steamroller?
I wanted to explore new ways of expressing music and created a sound I call “18th century classic rock.” I don’t believe in all acoustic or all electronic, all digital or all analog. My style is where they all meet.
If you could have dinner with any musician, who would that be and why?
Mozart. I think he was a lot of fun and probably had a lot of sense of humor — a screwball like I am. He’d be very interesting to be around.
Are your three children also into music?
All three are talented musicians. My oldest daughter, Kelly, is a marketing student, fabulous singer and quite a competitive equestrian. My 18-year-old son, Evan, is into rock ‘n’ roll. He plays electric guitar and also composes at the piano. He has a real future in music. And my youngest, 15-year-old Elyse, sight read and played the piano at a very early age. She’s already made her mark performing with her own band, and last year’s “30/40” album includes a version of “Greensleeves” featuring Elyse on vocals. My kids all learned to play music off the same piano that I did, my grandmother’s small baby grand piano.
You’ve received a number of awards and recognitions from the music industry?
I won a Grammy Award for “Fresh Aire 7” for Best New Age Recording in 1990. Seven, I guess is my lucky number. To date, Mannheim Steamroller has been certified with 19 gold records, eight platinum and four multi-platinum albums.
Why are you in Omaha rather than on the east or west coasts?
I grew up in a small farm town in Ohio. That community atmosphere and values helped shape who I am today. I now live on a 150-acre farm that covers all kinds of natural terrains and surroundings. So I guess the farm boy is still in me.
What are some of the other businesses you are involved in?
We have a whole line of Mannheim Steamroller products, including food items, apparel, a bath and body line, gift products and more. They’re all items that complement the musical experience. Our most popular food product is Cinnamon Hot Chocolate. We sell tons of it during the holidays.
You are also working in the medical field and with NASA?
I’ve been involved in the medical business for several years with a project I created called Ambience Medical. It uses four-channel audio algorithms to simulate nature sounds that can “trick” the brain into lessening the pain signals it sends out, or even fooling the body into believing that it is in a much larger space than it actually is. We’ve done pain studies that have shown that playing these sounds lower the pain perception by 35-40 percent in many patients. We built an audio unit that is currently installed in 96 hospital rooms around the country, including the Mayo Clinic. NASA is also experimenting with the product to see if it will be useful for astronauts going on long-range space travel.
For me, I see all of these latest developments as yet another way to bring music into people’s lives and enrich all of our experiences. It is something that I have always wanted to do, and will continue to do.