Audiofile.jpg

Chip Davis isn’t touring like he used to — but he’s not done making music. 

If you were asked to guess the best-selling Christmas artist, 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 counting) have racked up 31.5 million sales worldwide to date. And while Mannheim Steamroller sounds like the name of a German heavy equipment apparatus, it is actually the nom de plume of Chip Davis, an Omaha-based composer/producer who has been churning out neoclassical New Age 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 wrote his first piece of music at age 6. He eventually worked at an ad agency writing jingles before founding this musical persona after numerous record labels shot down his neo-classical music pitch.

“[Mannheim Steamroller] was just my notion of trying to create a sound that was different, but also at the same time had classical roots to it,” Davis explained in an early November interview. “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. [Those major label execs] said that there wasn’t a place on the shelf for something that was eclectic like that, 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.”

While it may have been a daunting proposition to go forward on his own, Davis was already experiencing concurrent success via C.W. McCall, a country music persona created by ad agency client and late friend Bill Fries. With the latter providing the voice, concept and lyrics for McCall, Davis wrote the music. In addition to scoring a number of chart-topping country hits, the duo recorded the global No. 1 hit “Convoy” (and earned Davis the 1976 SESAC Country Music Writer of the Year award). With the 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 the “Mannheim crescendo.” 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 the first tour.

“On that initial tour, the money was used to cover the costs of playing those first three cities — Omaha, Denver and Salt Lake City,” he says. “That was in 1975. Mannheim Steamroller was a five-piece with two keyboards, a bass player that also doubled on lute and other fretted instruments. 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 C.W. McCall are the same players that are the Mannheim Steamroller players.”

All this bootstrapping eventually led to Davis indulging his childhood adoration of the holiday season nearly a decade later with 1984’s Christmas.

That fascination with Christmas music grew into a cottage industry for Mannheim Steamroller, leading to another 11 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 in addition to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Davis has also produced Mannheim Steamroller holiday ice-skating shows involving other well-known artists like Martina McBride, Kristi Yamaguchi, Brian Boitano and the late Olivia Newton John.

Currently, two traveling troupes of Mannheim Steamroller perform across the country every holiday season, with a third ensemble playing at Universal Orlando Resort during the holidays.

Hip surgery a decade ago means Davis has hung up his touring shoes. So these days, he hangs out on his 150-acre farm just north of Omaha, Nebraska. But rather than live the life of a country gentleman, the 75-year-old musician’s restless creative spirit has continued to yield musical fruit in the past two decades, ranging from albums focusing on Disney music (1999’s Mannheim Steamroller Meets the Mouse) and American heritage (2003’s American Spirit) to amassing a notable 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 is Exotic Spaces, a series that finds him casting his musical net rather widely.

He also remains intimately involved with the Christmas tours, which he promises will tap into the Christmas spirit fans have come to expect. “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 says. “There is also a multimedia show that includes slides and film. And then of course, the musicians and the live orchestra.”