It's been nearly 30 years since Ohio composer, arranger and musician Chip Davis made his first all-instrumental album under the pseudonym Mannheim Steamroller. That release, Fresh Aire, was Davis' attempt at what he liked to call "18th Century Classical Rock," using synthesizers alongside bass, drums, guitars and various keyboards to create a unique hybrid of old-slash-new sounds.
In those early years, Davis also worked as a junior high music teacher, and a composer-for-hire at an Omaha advertising agency. In the latter role, he co-wrote "Convoy," a No. 1 hit in 1976 - cashing in on the country's C.B. radio craze, it was credited to C.W. McCall, a (fictional) trucker portrayed, with tongue in cheek, by Davis' lyric-writing partner Bill Fries.
With a couple of follow-up hits, and a Sam Peckinpah-directed movie starring Kris Kristofferson, C.W. paid the bills for a while. Although the Fresh Aire series sold reasonably well, as instrumental music (marketed as "New Age") found an audience, it wasn't until 1984's A Mannheim Steamroller Christmas that Davis discovered his blueprint.
That one album sold 9 million copies, and to date, Mannheim's extensive Christmas catalog has moved something like 40 million CDs, making Davis' group the top-selling Christmas artist of all time.
The thing is, there is no group, like the Rolling Stones, Journey or even the Dave Matthews Band. Mannheim Steamroller has toured extensively in the 25 years since that holiday debut, usually with a core combo that included Davis on drums, but it's always been about the music - Davis' original stuff and his forward-thinking arrangements of Yuletide classics. And the presentation, with a lot of cued lights and festive video scenes of falling snow and celestial stargazing.
The Christmas Music of Mannheim Steamroller rolls into the Johnny Mercer Theatre Wednesday, Nov. 24.
Today, the 63-year-old Davis is at the center of a merchandising universe - Mannheim Steamroller is his brand, and he owns its record label, American Gramaphone. The Mannheim lifestyle catalog also includes a complete line of bath and body products, coffees and teas, and everything from sweatshirts to keychains bearing the Mannheim logo.
Nearest and dearest to Davis' heart these days is Ambience Medical, a system of soothing multi-channel music and sounds he designed and has found homes for at the Mayo Clinic, UCLA Pediatrics and other hospitals.
He's in talks with NASA to use his idea aboard manned spacecraft.
When I first heard the name Mannheim Steamroller, I thought it had a Teutonic sound - Germanic black forests, prowling wolves, vaguely menacing. So where did the name actually come from?
Chip Davis: I studied formal music at the University of Michigan. In Music History, I learned that there was a term called "Mannheim Steamroller" that meant "crescendo," from the mid 1700s. And crescendo, of course, is to get louder. When the record company got my first Fresh Aire album, they said they needed a name for the group. So I had to come up with a name for a group that didn't exist - because I played pretty much everything myself - and I remembered the term "Mannheim Steamroller," which by the way actually came from Germany. I thought it sounded like it could be a heavy metal band.
Did you ever hear from the public: "Who are the guys in Mannheim Steamroller"?
Chip Davis: I keep it pretty low-profile, and here's a really good reason: I have two companies of Mannheim out, and I have Grinchmas running full-time, seven days a week, at Universal Studios in Orlando. And so by not knowing who "these guys" are, I can plug ‘n' play. Because I use really high-end musicians, and a lot of them are college professors and they can only get out for a certain length of time. They have subs that come in and take over the tour, things like that. I have four or five violinists that come in and out.
So by not being locked to that, it keeps it real flexible. And we can do whatever we need to do to be in so many places where we're getting the opportunities now.
Do you yourself perform live any more?
Chip Davis: About three years ago I had neck surgery. And I lost the use of my right arm entirely. Now, I have gotten about 70 percent of it back, and I could kinda play some. I don't think I could play a whole show. Last year, I couldn't have played anything at all. But it forced me into this new role: "Well, what's my job now?"
My job now is to go out and promote the band, and in all these places, because now we've got three different units playing Mannheim stuff all over the place. The best thing I can do is go out there and do interviews. And I show up at certain key markets - I have a medical division, a food division, some other things. I'll show up at those shows because I'm not tied behind the drums now, night after night.
You became a virtual one-man industry. With all due respect, you really started cranking out the product. Did you ever have to remind yourself that the music was really what it was all about?
Chip Davis: Here's the thing: Let's take any album that I do. After the 1984 Christmas album, I didn't do the second Christmas album for nine years. So what am I gonna do between them? I did maybe one Fresh Aire album in those nine years.
These other things that I mess around with, like medical, the food products, these are hobby things to me that I really love. I love to cook. And I came up with this recipe for this cinnamon hot chocolate - it's like our largest non-music selling product. It's got cinnamon in it from Madagascar. It's drop-dead yum.
I'm a third-generation musician. Both my parents and both my grandmothers were teachers and musicians. So I kinda didn't have a whole lot of choice.
Is the live show all electronic?
Chip Davis: No, no. It never has been! This one of the things that I always find amazing. I get this rap: "Chip does all this electronic music." If you read my album covers it says Chicago Symphony, London Symphony, I work with the greatest symphonic musicians in the world. Well, if it's all electronic, why would I spend $70,000 to have the LSO on two cuts?
The live show has six musicians that represent the Mannheim part, and then we have 20 orchestral musicians in each city. And the whole show is locked, by way of content, to pictures - music videos that I've created, or synchronized lighting. Because I like things to be in synchronicity. I think it has more impact.
The music's all written out. I'm not depending on jazz players to sit over there and improvise my stuff. They're playing by the notes, because they're all classically trained players.
Last question. You and I wouldn't be talking if it wasn't for C.W. McCall, would we?
Chip Davis: Breaker breaker, one-nine! (laughing) Here's something to further tickle your imagination: Most of the original Mannheim band was the same band as the C.W. McCall Band.
One night, as the C.W. McCall Band, we were supposed to do the second half of a show, but the opening band didn't show up. So we went out in our tuxedo jackets and played the opening set as Mannheim Steamroller, then at intermission we put on our blue jean jackets and came out and played the rest as C.W. McCall. And I don't think anybody noticed!
The Christmas Music of Mannheim Steamroller
Where: Johnny Mercer Theatre, Savannah Civic Center, 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave.
When: At 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 24