Exploring the history and mystery behind Mannheim Steamroller is like a musical advent calendar. Behind every window is a new story, a different instrument, or an inspirational moment waiting to be discovered.
Mannheim Steamroller delivers a special holiday performance one night only on November 20th at the Times-Union Center’s Moran Theater (www.artistseriesjax.com). The program will include interpretations of holiday classics and a 20-minute segment of material from the beloved Fresh Aire series.
EU Jacksonville had the opportunity to speak with creator Chip Davis from his home nestled deep in hilly, tree-lined Nebraska about finding joy in the little things and harnessing the magic all around you. For Davis, the sky is the limit.
“I have bounced back and forth between a couple different projects which helps keep the concerts and everything fresh,” he says. “Right now, I have a Halloween three-disc set that we do every year. In the summer, I’ve got American Spirit which is made up of all kinds of Americana music. In February, I’ve got two romance albums made up of romantic music to share with your loved one. I’ve got all four seasons covered pretty well.”
Mannheim Steamroller is the story of a purposeful journey with enough space to go off course. When he set forth creating the Fresh Aire series, Davis was moved to create music in a blend of baroque classical music, light jazz, and rock based on his love of nature. When none of the major labels would distribute the project, he established his own music label, American Gramaphone which is a play on the classical record label Deutsche Grammophon. The result, Fresh Aire, was released in 1975 under the pseudonym Mannheim Steamroller. The Fresh Aire music series was inspired by his love of nature, which is represented by the four seasons in his Fresh Aire series I through IV.
The series later evolved into celestial bodies. Fresh Aire V is about German astronomer Johannes Kepler who was a key figure in the 17th-century scientific revolution. The album also drifted into Greek mythology. “I’m fascinated by those topics. Once I got through the four seasons, I wanted to do a Fresh Aire V, but it’s like okay, what do I do that about? I’m an amateur astronomer. I have a real big telescope with an observatory. It’s all automated, and you can talk to the telescope and tell it where to go, and it will find whatever star is there. It’s a really cool deal. It’s like We Three Kings following a star or something.”
Many artists have released collections of Christmas music, but few have made it an art form. In 1984, Davis took a festive freefall into the seasonal soundscape. “Anyone who does a Christmas album looks like they ran out of ideas,” he says. “That’s not why I’m doing it. I’m doing it because I love the music.”
While Davis has always loved the Christmas season, the first Mannheim Steamroller holiday album was born from his love of Renaissance music. Instruments from the time-period including a harpsichord, crumhorm and a full choir of recorders with soprano, alto, tenor and bass were used to create the seasonal melodies. The name “Mannheim Steamroller” comes from an 18th-century German musical technique, Mannheim roller, a crescendo passage having a rising melodic line over an ostinato bass line, popularized by the Mannheim school of composition.
“Renaissance Christmas music is what really started everything in the 1600s. Picture these big castles, and they decorated them in holly and ivy, which is where the song “The Holly and the Ivy” comes from. And the colors are red and green which is where the Christmas colors come from,” he says. “All that stuff fascinated me, and on the first Christmas album, we played the carols that we know now but on the instruments that would have been performing it back when they were written. No one was doing Christmas before that. The first album sold like nine million copies over a few years, but when it first came out, I had a lot of resistance from retail. They said that will never work. Do another Fresh Aire album, and we’ll be delighted to sell that. Now here we are 30 years later, and the reverse is true. We’ve got to do a full Christmas concert.”
There is nothing better than a cozy night in front of the fireplace than listening to Mannheim Steamroller Christmas with a piping hot cup of hot chocolate. Davis has expanded his repertoire to include his own line of food products. Cinnamon hot chocolate is his best seller.
“It’s just astounding. There’s nothing else like it. My biggest competitor would’ve been Conagra Foods up here at one time, but I then gave them the recipe, and now they make it specifically just for me, so that worked out great,” says Davis. “People have asked me why’d you do that? And I tell them I just make stuff that I like myself. I figure if I like it, someone else is bound to like it. I’m not that different from them. I’m just one of the fans, too. And I like an eclectic mix.”