If you were asked which artist is the best-selling Christmas artist, the answers would invariably range from Elvis Presley and Bing Crosby to Mariah Carey, Josh Groban or Kenny G.
But that honor actually goes to Mannheim Steamroller, whose dozen Christmas albums (and more) have racked up 31.5 million sales worldwide to date. And while Mannheim sounds like the name of German heavy equipment, it’s actually the pen name of Chip Davis, an Omaha-based composer/producer who produces neoclassical and secular new age music under that 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 six, eventually working at an agency of publicity by writing jingles before founding this musical character after many labels turned down his tone of neo-classical music.
“[Mannheim Steamroller] was just my notion of trying to create a sound that was different, but at the same time had classic roots,” Davis explained in an interview in early November. “I see it as an eclectic mix of classical forms alongside modern rock and roll instruments and older 18th century instruments like the harpsichord. [Those major label execs] were saying there was no room on the shelf for something eclectic like that, but at the same time they wanted to know if I could send them a box of my first album because they wanted to pass it around in their office. ”
While it may have been a daunting proposition to move forward on his own, Davis was already enjoying concurrent success through CW McCall, a country music persona created by ad agency client and late friend Bill Fries. With the latter providing McCall’s voice, concept and lyrics, Davis wrote the music. In addition to scoring a number of chart-topping country hits, the duo recorded the worldwide No. 1 hit “Convoy” (and earned Davis SESAC Country Music Writer of the Year in 1976). With the metaphorical wind blowing at his back, Davis founded the independent label American Gramaphone and took the name of his new project from a play on the 18th century musical technique known as “Mannheim crescendo”. The first in the “Fresh Aire” series of records was released in 1975 at a time when the new age genre was emerging. Davis’ belief in Mannheim Steamroller led him to take out a loan to fund the first tour.
“On that first tour, the money was used to cover playing costs in those first three cities – Omaha, Denver and Salt Lake City,” he recalled. “It was 1975. Mannheim Steamroller was a two-manual quintet, a bass player who also doubled on lute and other fretted instruments. I played percussion and recorder and we had another percussionist. Then, when we arrived in a city, we hired a small orchestra to play the orchestral parts that were on the record. Ironically, the group behind CW McCall are the same players as the Mannheim Steamroller players.
All that booting eventually led to Davis indulging in her childhood adoration for the holiday season nearly a decade later via “Christmas” in 1984.
“I grew up in a nice little town in Ohio of about 500 people when my grandmother was a piano teacher and my dad was a piano teacher at the school there,” he said. . “Christmas music has always had a special place in my heart for all the seasonal things that have happened, including my grandma’s fabulous cooking and all that. I decided to find out where some of the roots of Christmas music. That’s why on the first ‘Christmas’ there’s a song called ‘The Christmas Sweet’, which is a suite of four tracks. I took songs like ‘I Saw Three Ships ‘ and I went back to the origins and played them on instruments that would have been used at that time. As a wind player, I could play just about anything.
This fascination with Christmas music became a cottage industry for Mannheim Steamroller, leading to 11 more Christmas releases. Other opportunities arose and included performances at the White House for the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony three times under three different administrations in addition to Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Davis also produced Mannheim Steamroller ice skating shows involving other well-known performers like the late Olivia Newton John, Martina McBride, Kristi Yamaguchi and Brian Boitano.
Currently, two traveling Mannheim Steamroller troupes perform across the country each holiday season, with a third set playing at Universal Orlando Resort during the holidays. Hip surgery a decade ago means Davis has hung up his hiking boots.
“It’s very tiring. When we started with the ‘Fresh Aire’ tours, the band was the team,” Davis said. “We set up the stage and did everything. It was tiring.”
These days, Davis hangs out at his 150-acre farm just north of Omaha. But rather than living the life of a country gentleman, the 75-year-old musician is still intimately involved in the stage shows that he promises to tap into the Christmas spirit fans have been waiting for.
“These tours are a combination of live music and sound effects, like in some cases where a thunderstorm happens with one of the pieces,” he said. “There is also a multimedia show which includes slides and films. And then of course, the musicians and the live orchestra.
Davis’ restless creative spirit has continued to bear musical fruit over the past two decades, ranging from albums focused on Disney music (“1999’s Mannheim Steamroller Meets the Mouse”) and American heritage (“American Spirit” from 2003) to the constitution of a remarkable catalog of natural music. sounds, from the Tucson desert to the full sonic span of four seasons in the Midwest highlighted in his “Ambience” series. His latest creation is “Exotic Spaces”, a series that allows him to launch his musical network quite widely.
“What I did was I tried to musically describe places like the Taj Mahal, which gave me the opportunity to write using sitars and other really cool instruments like the tabla and that sort of thing,” he said. “Then one of my favorite cuts had me using hydrophones (microphones designed to be used underwater to record or listen to underwater sounds). I’ve been a diver since I was 20 and with the hydrophones I recorded the song of the whales I have one of the songs – I say it’s in the “key to the sea” I use the song of the whale as a melody and it’s really in the key of C. I wrote some background stuff around the whale song and really had fun doing it because it lined up so perfectly with what I was composing.
It’s just the latest leg of Davis’ lifelong journey of following his own musical star, advice he received from a Nashville attorney many moons ago.
“What I tell any young composer or aspiring musician is to follow your own star,” Davis said. “Don’t let anyone get in the way of what you do because you are doing it. It’s the only way I know of to do it.
Mannheim Steamroller Christmas by Chip Davis arrives at the Johnny Mercer Theater on Saturday, November 19. For more information visit savannahcivic.com