A Breath of Fresh Aire

MusicChip Davis is the man behind the phenomenon of Mannheim Steamroller. 

by Lindsey Lowe Osborne


If I asked you if you recognized the name “Chip Davis,” you’d probably say no. But Davis has revolutionized music as we know it. He is credited with creating the New Age music genre. He has written, arranged, and recorded more than 35 albums, selling more than 40 million copies. Nineteen of his albums reached gold status, eight reached platinum, and four reached multi-platinum. There’s no denying that he’s made an indelible mark on the music industry. So who is he?

Well, you may not know the name “Chip Davis,” but I’m certain you’ll recognize the phenomenon he created. Davis is the man behind Mannheim Steamroller, who came to town on their Christmas tour on Dec. 23. The tour, which just finished its 30th year, is one of the best-selling tours in the nation. In fact, two troupes now tour at Christmastime to handle the demand for the Mannheim Steamroller Christmas sound, which is now a classic in homes around the world. But Davis says that his music—which he describes as “18th-century classical rock”—hasn’t always been received the way it is now. “When I created my Fresh Aire music, so many people in the music industry said, ‘This will never work. There’s no category for it,’” he says. “Same thing happened when music execs said holiday albums were a bad move. Today almost every artist does a Christmas album. You need to find a way to keep moving ahead on your own, while at the same time being true to your fans.”

Davis has been immersed in music his entire life, growing up in a musical family. Both of his grandmothers were piano teachers and both of his parents were also teachers and played professionally. “My grandmother was my first piano teacher, and the song my mom said I could hum at six months was, ‘Silent Night,’ which is ironic, because I ended up winning a Grammy for my arrangement of the song,” he says. Davis graduated from the University of Michigan a prolific musician, trained to mastery in bassoon and percussion. He moved to Omaha, Nebraska, for a role in a dinner theater production of the Broadway musical Hair. Then he began writing jingles for an ad agency. One of them, about a fictional truck driver named C.W. McCall for a company called Old Home Bread, became very popular, and Davis eventually created an album “by” C.W. McCall. A single from that album, “Convoy,” was later turned into a movie by the same name, starring Kris Kristofferson.

With the income from that, Davis recorded the first album of Fresh Aire. Though Davis was the only artist behind the record, he released it under Mannheim Steamroller. The name Mannheim Steamroller pays homage to an 18th-century orchestra in Mannheim, Germany, which was known for building intensity by adding layers of sound, color, texture, and volume. The technique was designed to “flatten” the listener, so Davis dubbed it “The Steamroller.” And then he set out to sell the album. “With Fresh Aire, which means ‘fresh song’ in Italian, I was trying to write a new version of songs with old forms of music,” he explains. “I thought in order to stretch my classical background I would write something with drums and synthesizers. But I found you just couldn’t take the classical out of Chip! The result was this new combination of sounds that brought ‘fresh’ music to the public, something that had not been heard before.”

Fresh Aire was first met with rejection from the traditional music industry, so Davis created his own record label, American Gramophone (which went on to become one of the most successful independent music franchises in the industry), and marketed the music himself. He began by placing the music with hi-fi equipment dealers to use in demonstrating their equipment. “Showroom customers would say, ‘I like this stereo system, but I really love the record you’re playing. Who is that?’” Davis says. Mannheim Steamroller gained in popularity, selling millions of albums of the Fresh Aire series, and Davis won a Grammy and the respect of the music industry.

His next venture, though, was initially met with as much rejection as his first. When he proposed the idea of a Christmas album, those in the industry said that Christmas albums were for artists trying to save dying careers. But Davis thought that he could create something that was superb in and of itself, not something that seemed like a last resort for a struggling artist. So he forged ahead and Mannheim Steamroller Christmas appeared in 1984. “Deck the Halls” broke into the Top 40 charts and people couldn’t get enough of the album; indeed, Davis had changed the sounds of Christmas forever. After the seeing the success of the album, Davis gathered some his classically trained friends and they embarked on the first Christmas tour. Since then, the band has released more than 18 Christmas albums and compilations. “Knowing that we have become part of the Christmas tradition is something very special to all of us,” Davis says. “It’s amazing when you’re on stage and you look out at the audience sitting there. One of the coolest things and something I really love is that you’ll see three generations of families all sitting together: Grandma and Grandpa, Mom and Dad, and their kids. I think that has a lot to do with the longevity of Mannheim Steamroller at Christmastime.”

When he’s not reinventing the sound of music, Davis is keeping a low profile on his 150-acre farm, where he lives with his pet Timberwolves, Seti and Ramses, and his four horses (including one who loves to run with the wolves). In addition to the music, Mannheim Steamroller boasts a whole line of lifestyle products. To find out more, visit mannheimsteamroller.com.

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