Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Mannheim Steamroller founder talks 45-year legacy and his love for Christmas music

Chip Davis, an Omaha-based composer, producer and percussionist, has been churning out new-age, rock-bent holiday and secular music under this stage name Mannheim Steamroller since 1974. (Courtesy of Mannheim Steamroller)

Who is the best-selling Christmas artist? Elvis Presley? Bing Crosby? Perhaps Mariah Carey or Josh Groban?

The honor actually goes to Mannheim Steamroller.

The mega group has released a dozen Christmas albums (and counting) with 31.5 million sold to date. Though Mannheim sounds like the German name of some heavy equipment apparatus, it is the nom de plume of Chip Davis, an Omaha-based composer, producer and percussionist who has been churning out new-age, rock-bent holiday and secular music under this stage name since 1974. 

Born Louis F. Davis Jr., the Ohio native is a musical iconoclast and former child prodigy who went from writing his first piece of music at age 6 and into adulthood worked at an ad agency writing jingles. He started his musical persona after numerous labels shot down his neoclassical music pitch. He wanted Mannheim Steamroller — a play on the 18th-century musical technique known as the “Mannheim crescendo” — to lean into classical roots while elevating and crossing over its sounds and rhythms.

“I see it as an eclectic mix of classical forms alongside modern-day rock ‘n’ roll instruments and some older instruments from the 18th century, like the harpsichord,” Davis said.

The major label execs told Davis to go elsewhere — there wasn’t room for something of that caliber.

“But at the same time, they wanted to know if I could send them a box of my debut album because they wanted to pass it around in their office,” he added.

Though a daunting proposition to go forward on his own, Davis was already experiencing concurrent success via CW McCall, a country music persona created by ad agency client and late friend Bill Fries. Fries conceptualized, wrote the lyrics and did the vocals, while Davis wrote the music. In addition to scoring a number of chart-topping country hits, the duo recorded the global No. 1 hit “Convoy” — which earned Davis the 1976 SESAC Country Music Writer of the Year.

With the metaphorical wind blowing at his back, Davis founded the independent label American Gramaphone. The first in the “Fresh Aire” series of records was released in 1975 at a time when the new-age genre was coming into being. Davis’ belief in Mannheim Steamroller found him taking out a loan to finance his first tour in 1975. Money covered three cities: Omaha, Denver and Salt Lake City.

“Mannheim Steamroller was a five-piece with two keyboards, a bass player that also doubled on lute and other fretted instruments,” Davis said. “I was playing percussion and recorder and we had another percussionist. Then when we got to a city, we’d hire a small orchestra to play the orchestral parts that were on the record. Ironically, the band behind CW McCall are the same players that are the Mannheim Steamroller players.”

All this bootstrapping eventually led to Davis indulging in a childhood adoration for the holiday season. Growing up in a small town of 500 people in Ohio — grandmother and father, both piano teachers — he said fond memories were created at the end of every year.

“Christmas music always had a special place in my heart for all the seasonal things that happened, which included my grandmother’s fabulous cooking and all of that,” he said.

So he set out to look into the roots of Christmas music and in 1984 released “Christmas.”

“There’s a song called ‘The Christmas Sweet,’ which is a suite of four pieces,” he described. “I took songs like ‘I Saw Three Ships’ and went back to the origins and played it on instruments that would have been used at that time. Being a wind player, I could pretty much play all of those.”

Mannheim Steamroller’s light show is as electric as the sounds that come through the new-age, rock holiday show. (Photo by Matt Christine Photography)

A mere fascination with the season grew into a cottage industry for Mannheim Steamroller, leading to another 11 Noel releases. Further opportunities sprang up and included performing at the White House for the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony three times under three different administrations. Davis has also joined the lineup for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and produced Mannheim Steamroller holiday ice-skating shows, collaborating with artists including the late Olivia Newton-John, Martina McBride, Kristi Yamaguchi and Brian Boitano. 

Currently, two traveling troupes of Mannheim Steamroller perform across the country each holiday season, with a third ensemble playing at Universal Orlando Resort. Hip surgery a decade ago means Davis has hung up his touring shoes.

“It’s very tiring,” he said. “When we first started with the ‘Fresh Aire’ tours, the band was the crew. We put the stage up and did everything — it was exhausting.”

These days Davis hangs out on his 150-acre farm just north of Omaha. Rather than live the life of a country gentleman, the 75-year-old musician is still intimately involved with the stage shows.

“These tours are a combination of the live music and sound effects, like in some cases where there is a thunderstorm happening with one of the pieces,” he said. “There is also a multi-media show that includes slides and film. And then of course, the musicians and the live orchestra.” 

Davis’ restless creative spirit has yielded music across multitudes of platforms and genres. Disney tapped him in 1999 for “Mannheim Steamroller Meets the Mouse” and he also turned the sounds toward American heritage on 2003’s “American Spirit.” Davis even has a catalog of natural sounds, from the Tucson desert to the full sonic span of all four seasons in the Midwest highlighted in his “Ambience” series.

His latest creation, “Exotic Spaces,” casts a wide musical net. 

“What I did was I tried to musically describe places like the Taj Mahal, so that gave me an opportunity to write using sitars and other really cool instruments, like tabla and those sort of things,” he said.

One of his favorite tracks came when he used hydrophones — or microphones designed to be used underwater for recording or listening to underwater sounds.

“I’ve been a scuba diver since I was in my 20s and with the hydrophones, I actually recorded the song of the whales,” Davis said. “I say it’s in the ‘key of sea.’ I use the whale song as the melody, and it really is in the key of C. I wrote background stuff around the whale song and I had a really fun time doing that because it lined up so perfectly with what I was composing.”

It’s just the latest leg in Davis’ lifelong journey of creating his own path, advice he received from a Nashville lawyer many moons ago.

“What I tell any budding young composer or musician is to follow your own star,” Davis said. “Don’t let anybody detract from what you’re doing because it’s you that’s doing it. It’s the only way I know how to do it.”

Mannheim Steamroller will perform two shows at Wilson Center on Monday, Nov. 28, at 3:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets are still available for the 3:30 show and start at $46.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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