Behind the Music: Mannheim Steamroller


LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Chip Davis can’t be in four places at once, but Mannheim Steamroller can.

Back in the 1970s, Davis didn’t know his fusion of pop and Renaissance music would be barnstorming 94 cities every holiday season.

But he did see the value in name extensions in 1976, when “C.W. McCall” recorded the novelty hit “Convoy” to cash in on the citizens band radio craze.

There was no C.W. McCall, just a guy named Bill Friess talking over the track he and Davis concocted. And in that same period came the first “Fresh Aire” album by Mannheim Steamroller — not Chip Davis.

“There was a reason for that,” he explains now. “If my name was attached too much to it and people didn’t like it, I left myself an out to go try something else.

“I didn’t brand myself into it 100 percent, because I didn’t want to be known just as an artist (where) everybody thinks that’s the kind of music I do and that’s it.”

It’s a choice that’s paying off fourfold this year. Two different Mannheim ensembles play the Christmas show on the road. That leaves Davis free to conduct eight orchestral concerts at Universal Studios in Orlando next month.

“It seems like the stuff kind of has taken a life of its own, if that’s fair to say,” says the down-to-earth producer and entrepreneur, who bases his independent American Gramaphone label (and hot chocolate mix) out of Omaha, Neb.

But any fears of Steamroller saturation are leveled by what Davis calls “giant-visibility advertising things,” such as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and an ice-skating special, “Pandora Unforgettable Holiday Moments on Ice,” airing Sunday on NBC.

Davis was five albums into his “Fresh Aire” series of “18th Century Classical Rock” before he decided to do a Christmas album in 1984. Even though he was successfully self-distributing his music — far less common then than in today’s era of Cracker Barrel exclusives — he remembers getting flak from retailers.

Christmas albums were seen as contractual obligations from singers who were planning to jump labels, or “a sign to retail that you’re giving up.”

Instead, “Mannheim Steamroller Christmas” went on to be certified six times platinum, and the first of 11 Christmas albums.

The “Fresh Aire” series “had the door cracked open,” Davis explains. “If they hadn’t known those ‘Fresh Aire’ albums and got used to hearing harpsichords and recorders alongside synthesizers, bass and drums,” they wouldn’t have been prepared for the Christmas album.

But the Mannheim version of “Deck the Halls” — still perhaps the most-heard track in shopping malls — also had a familiar melody. Much as jazz men rework familiar pop songs, “When I Mannheim-ized it and arranged it with my instruments and all that, they could actually hear what I was doing to the song because they recognized it.”

Mike Weatherford is an entertainment writer for the Las Vegas (NV) Review-Journal. Contact him at MWeatherford@reviewjournal.com