Mannheim Steamroller is on the move, bringing its popular brand of Christmas music to dozens of stages around the country, including the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids on Friday night (12/21).
Now in its 31st year, this year’s Mannheim Steamroller holiday tour is the biggest and longest yet.
“The tour starts earlier every year,” Mannheim Steamroller founder and leader Chip Davis said in a late-November phone interview. “We have close to 100 dates with the two tours.
“I’m not on either tour,” he said. “This will be my 10th or 11th year of doing ‘The Grinch Who Stole Christmas’ at Universal Studios Orlando. So we’ve got three things going on — the two tours and me doing ‘The Grinch.’”
As for its program, Mannheim Steamroller has plenty of options from which to choose. Since 1984, Davis and his company have recorded 13 Christmas albums. Those albums have sold more than 29 million copies, making Mannheim Steamroller the No. 1 selling Christmas artist of all time.
“We’ve even outsold Elvis,” Davis said. “It’s crazy.” (Presley has sold 16 million Christmas albums.)
Davis took a circuitous route to becoming the King of Christmas. After studying music at the University of Michigan, he took a job at an Omaha, Neb., advertising agency writing jingles. One of his clients, Old Home Bread, utilized his jingles sung by writer Bill Fries, who became the voice of C.W. McCall, the bread truck driver.
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Convinced to do non-jingles under the McCall name, Davis and Fries released five albums between 1974 and 1979 and hit it big with the number one single “Convoy” in 1975. Davis was named 1976 Country Songwriter of the Year by SESAC (originally known as the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers).
At the same time he was making McCall records, Davis founded Fresh Aire, the name he gave to the recording group that was to perform the music he wanted to write — a blend that’s been dubbed 18th century classical rock.
“It’s an eclectic mix,” he said from his farm outside Omaha. “I’m a classically trained musician. I went to the University of Michigan for classical music. When I got out, I wanted to write some of that music and try to popularize it. That’s where the drums and bass come in. But I retained instruments like the harpsichord and oboes. I’m mixing pop and classical. It’s worked pretty good so far.”
Fresh Aire debuted on American Gramaphone, the label Davis founded and continues to operate to release his recordings. But he said he didn’t expect Fresh Aire to become a Grammy-winning hit and for American Gramaphone to grow into the largest independent label in the music industry.
“When I wrote the first Fresh Aire album and we finally pressed it and I had the physical goods, I thought ‘I hope I can sell enough of these I can write another one,’” Davis said. “I had no idea.”
Including the Fresh Aire series and its string of Christmas albums. Mannheim Steamroller’s sales total 40 million albums. It has 19 gold, 8 multiplatinum and four platinum albums, putting it alongside Michael Jackson, U2, Jay-Z and the Beach Boys as artists with the most such certifications.
“I think found a niche that was different. The Fresh Aire albums are different from everything out there,” Davis said. “The way it got started was in high fidelity stores, as demonstration records. From that niche, I started doing strong sales, the retailers started picking it up. That really happened in 1984 with Christmas.”
And it happened from the unlikeliest of places: an independent label located in Omaha.
But Nebraska has been key to Mannheim Steamroller’s success, he said, not only for the people he brought together to run the label and perform in the group, but as an inspiration for the music.
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“(In) the Fresh Aire series, the first four definitely are seasonal records,” Davis said. “I live on the farm, I watch the seasons change. I spend a lot of time outdoors. That is definitely from Nebraska.”
Fresh Aire, Davis said, differs from the Christmas recordings in a very significant way.
“Fresh Aire is all original music versus Christmas (which) is based on Christmas carols,” he said. “That’s an arranging process compared to being a compositional technique. Fresh Aire is different to write because the melodies don’t previously exist. I do one of them every five, six, seven years.”
A leader in marketing as well, Davis has expanded the Mannheim Steamroller brand to a line of food items, including his signature Cinnamon Hot Chocolate, bath and apparel products and clothing.
He’s also just released his 11th book, “The Wolf and The Warlander,” a young adult novel about the adventures of Seti, the wolf, and a horse named Ghost.
“It’s based on animals I have,” Davis said. “I have two timber wolves and four horses. The oldest timber wolf is 10 years old, his name is Seti. One of the horses, named Ghost, is 10, too. In nature, they’d be enemies. But they’re best friends. This horse and this wolf run around the pasture together chasing each other. It’s a cool thing to watch them. That’s what started it.”
Davis said his creative process is similar whether he’s writing and recording music, writing his books, with a collaborator or making his food line — he just does them in different places.
“The things I like myself, I find my audience will like,” Davis said. “Whatever project I’m working on, I’m working just on that. When I’m working on music, I’m tied to my studio here at the house and at American Gramophone, I do my cooking products here. But book products I can do about anywhere.”
WHAT: Mannheim Steamroller Christmas
WHERE: U.S. Cellular Center, 370 First Ave. NE, Cedar Rapids
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday (12/21)
TICKETS: $38 to $76, venue box office, 1-(800) 745-3000 or <URL destination="http://uscellularcenter.com/events/">Uscellularcenter.com/events/