DCPA: I understand in 2019 you celebrated a special anniversary?
Chip Davis (CD): Yes — 2019 was the 35th anniversary of our annual Christmas Tour, making it the longest-running consecutive tour in the entertainment industry! We have our fans to thank for this milestone and making Mannheim Steamroller part of their holiday tradition.
DCPA: And I think you’ve celebrated some other anniversaries recently?
CD: We recently observed our “30/40” anniversary, marking 30 years since our first Christmas album in 1984 and 40 years since the very first album in my Fresh Aire series was released in 1974. These were marked by two album releases, “Mannheim Steamroller 30/40” and “Mannheim Steamroller Live” to celebrate those dual anniversaries.
DCPA: Was the music industry receptive to your idea of a Christmas album?
CD: 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!
Here we are in 2022 planning for our 37th annual Christmas Tour which continues to play to sold-out audiences throughout the nation and requires two traveling troupes to meet the demand for our concert.
DCPA: What makes this show a richer experience than popping in a Mannheim Steamroller CD for the 1,000th time?
CD: On a CD, you cannot see the band playing live with a 20-piece orchestra. So, you lose the experience of seeing six Mannheim Steamroller performers accompanied by an orchestra. Additionally, the repertoire they perform is not on one single CD; it is a compilation of Christmas classics, so a completely fresh experience.
DCPA: Why do you think Mannheim Steamroller’s Christmas albums have been so popular?
CD: At Christmas time, people want to listen to something that is familiar in their lives. And for 35 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.
DCPA: What does it mean to you knowing that your recordings have become a part of people’s annual Christmas traditions?
CD: It is one of the biggest honors that you can possibly have: to be invited into people’s homes through my music and have them integrate me into their Christmas traditions. I absolutely love it and love being part of their families!
DCPA: 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?
CD: 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. Since then Mannheim Steamroller has sold over 41 million albums with over 31 million in the Christmas genre.
DCPA: And you also couldn’t find a promoter to book your live shows?
CD: That’s right. In the very beginning, no one would book us when I wanted to try a Fresh Aire tour. 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. And when I wanted to do our first Christmas concert tour, I was able to self-fund it — and it sold out immediately.
DCPA: Why are you no longer touring with Mannheim Steamroller?
CD: 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 plays at Universal Orlando Resort’s holiday celebration.
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, cornamusa 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 10 million copies. “Convoy” went on to become a movie starring Kris Kristofferson and Ali McGraw. And would you believe I won SESAC’s 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.
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.
Are your three children also into music?
All three are talented musicians. My oldest daughter, Kelly, is a fabulous singer and quite a competitive equestrian. My son, Evan, is into rock and roll. He plays electric guitar and also composes at the piano. And my youngest, Elyse, sight read and played the piano at a very early age. She’s already made her mark performing with her own band and our 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 several 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. I also just recently released my latest childrens/YA book, a trilogy named The Wolf and the Warlander, which was inspired by one of my two timberwolves and my prize Warlander horse.
You are also working in the medical field?
I’ve been involved in the medical business for several years with a project I created called Ambient Therapy. 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. The system is currently installed in 96 hospital rooms around the country including the Mayo Clinic and The National Intrepid Center for Excellence in Bethesda, MD which treats brain and trauma injuries in military members.
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.
Forty-plus years after MS’s founding, what do you hope your legacy will be — as a musician, pop culture figure, and businessman?
My legacy and hope is that Mannheim Steamroller continues on without me. That actually happens right now. Our two touring companies have the ability to perform without me being there. And while I have a video piece welcoming the audience, that is my primary contact unless I do a surprise visit. So my legacy and hope — as a musician, pop culture figure and also businessman — is to keep Mannheim Steamroller rolling.
Mannheim Steamroller by Chip Davis
Dec 10 & 11 • Buell Theatre