‘Steamroller’ mastermind talks about growing up in NW OhioWritten by Vicki L. Kroll | | firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s been 25 years since Chip Davis melded a merry mix of modern and traditional instruments to create that catchy “Christmas” album by Mannheim Steamroller.
Since then, it’s been multiplatinum holidays for Davis and Co., who have sold 28 million records in the United States, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, and more than 35 million discs around the world.
“In 1974, I stumbled onto a Renaissance Christmas album with the origins of what we know as carols today, but most of these [songs] none of us have ever heard; they’re European Christmas carols,” he said. “So I got really fascinated with the sound of the instruments, the harpsichord, recorders.
“And, actually, I was teaching at McCord Junior High in Sylvania. I was just out of [the University of] Michigan, and I was so fascinated that I organized a Renaissance orchestra … I transcribed a number of these pieces and we performed them at Christmastime as a Renaissance ensemble.”
Fast-forward 10 years. Davis, still intrigued by instruments of yore, decided to make a Yuletide record.
“I wanted to show what the music would have sounded like at the time Christmas music was invented,” the Grammy Award winner said during a phone interview from his Nebraska home. “Then I thought, well if I’m going to do that, I should do some Christmas carols like more futuristic because that’s when synthesizers were being invented and sequencers and computer-driven stuff, so I counterbalanced the Renaissance stuff by going into the more techno kind of thing. And that’s where that kind of overall style came from, a mixture of the old and the new.”
The 62-year-old calls that sound “18th century classical rock.” Fans call it a Christmas tradition.
“People have grown up associating Mannheim with Christmas music and so when they hear it, it’s part of the tradition and it brings back childhood memories when you’re with your family, the Christmas dinners, opening presents, just the whole feeling of Christmas,” Davis said.
Mannheim Steamroller recently released “Christmas: 25th Anniversary Collection” and has two ensembles touring this season.
“I was playing 15,000-seat venues and I decided I wanted to go back to a more intimate setting so the people could be more closely associated with the band … And when I did that, I limited the amount of people we could hit in any given season, so we added the two companies and now we have the ability to hit multiple cities simultaneously,” he said. “We have a couple places where we’re having to play three shows in one day. The shows have sold so far out.”
Mannheim Steamroller will play a sold-out show at 4 p.m. and take the stage at 7 p.m. Nov. 29 at Stranahan Theater. Tickets are $72 and $62.
“They’re shows that I designed,” said Davis, who no longer tours. “[There are] six musicians and an orchestra of about 20 and then a full-blown multimedia show.”
Davis’ love of music began when he was growing up in Hamler, Ohio.
“Both of my grandmothers on each side of the family were music teachers,” he said. “So I was a third-generation musician from my birth. It was kind of like, isn’t that what everybody does?”
When he was 9, the family moved to Sylvania.
“I lived maybe two miles from Sylvania High School, where my dad [Louis Davis] taught music, and it was all wooded then,” Davis recalled. “Growing up I played in the woods and had a very close association with nature.”
He also played bassoon in the concert band and drums in the marching band at Sylvania High School and UM.
In 1974, Davis returned to the area to teach music at McCord.
“I taught one year and then I decided I really wanted to be a composer. I dropped everything and I just went into trying to focus on being a composer.”
He ended up in Omaha, Neb., writing jingles with an advertising agency. Davis and a co-worker cooked up C.W. McCall, a character for commercials, who motored up the charts with “Convoy” in 1975.
Davis still lives in the Cornhusker State, where he has horses on a 150-acre farm. He was excited to report his Warlander, Storm Shadow, took first place in two categories at the International Andalusian & Lusitano Horse Association National Championship.
“Our two-disc set ['Christmas: 25th Anniversary Collection'] is No. 7 in the [Billboard] Hot 100 this week, and I’ve got a No. 1 horse, all in one week!”