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Founded by multi-instrumentalist Chip Davis in 1972, Mannheim Steamroller is probably best known for their New Age approach to Christmas classics like “Carol Of The Bells” and “Deck The Halls.” (Assuming you’re not an existing fan of symphonic pop, of course. If you are, then you probably know the band better from their series of Fresh Aire albums.) Their creative orchestral compositions of Yuletide favorites have a slight prog-rock feel to them, mostly because of consistent use of synthesizers and harpsichord, but the group never veers too far off the carols’ traditional snow-covered path.
Mannheim Steamroller have become so synonymous with Christmas that, every year, talk-radio stations broadcast “Mannheim Steamroller’s An American Christmas,” which is a 12-hour special filled with music and narrated stories. “I had no idea at all that it was going to skyrocket like this,” Davis told AL.com back in 2009. “When I put that first Christmas record out in ’84, they said, ‘Hey, Chip, guys only do a Christmas record when they’ve run out of ideas or have to fulfill a contract.’ I thought, well, I love Christmas music, and I’d like to put a Mannheim spin on it.”
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Mannheim Steamroller – The Beginning
Celebrating 43 years of making Christmas music, Mannheim Steamroller is the brainchild of the talented Chip Davis. Defying the unconventional ways of creating holiday tunes, Davis’s Mannheim Steamroller has put their ingenious stamp on contemporary American holiday music.
Music was in Chip Davis’s genes. Both his parents were music teachers and at 4, his grandmother was his first piano instructor. In 1969, Davis graduated from the University of Michigan as the classically trained percussionist and bassoonist.
Like his parents Chip Davis also took up teaching and also toured regularly with the Norman Luboff Choir. And then he chose a career path that changed his life forever.
Always fond of composing, Davis started writing jingles for advertising agencies and his breakthrough came in the most unexpected way. His spot for a local bakery and penning fictional characters of a truck driver and his waitress girlfriend became a national phenomenon. Radio listeners loved the jingle so much that they would request it all the time, treating it as a pop tune.
Earning a recording contract, Chip Davis composed the truck-driving country song “Convoy” in 1975 and it was a huge hit. Topping the Billboard 200, it sold more than 10 million copies.
Davis’s fondness for traditional Christmas music gave birth to Mannheim Steamroller, formed in 1974. Inspired by the 18th Century classical rock, ‘Mannheim Steamroller’ is a music technique that is today popularly known as crescendo.
Early Years & Breakthrough
Mannheim Steamroller came up with their first album “Fresh Aire”. Davis’s exploration was so unique that it couldn’t be placed under any category and hence, record labels refused to accept it. Not to be discouraged, Chip Davis formed his own label, American Gramophone and distributed the album through it. Ingenious composition called for inventive selling mechanisms. Instead of placing “Fresh Aire” in record stores, the label sent it to the audio showrooms. And it sold. From the US to Germany to Japan, the album was certified Gold everywhere and recorded huge sales.
Its success prompted Mannheim Steamroller to release “Fresh Aire” album series, which has 8 editions. Each version is inspired by a theme, ranging from nature and science to ancient mythology. “Fresh Aire 7” even took home a Grammy Award in 1991 for the “Best New Age album”. With the release of “Fresh Aire 8” in 2000, Mannheim Steamroller called it a wrap on the series, ending it with the theme of infinity.
Mannheim Steamroller Christmas
In 1984, Chip Davis once again kicked conventional to the curb. A huge fan of Christmas music, he pitched the idea to his distributers and their immediate reaction was “don’t do it”. In the world of music, composing a Christmas album is akin to being fresh out of ideas. Once more, Chip Davis accepted the challenge.
Fueled by determination, “Mannheim Steamroller Christmas” was released in 1984 and went on to sell 9 million units. Certified 6 times Platinum, it was also the best-selling Christmas album of the year. That year, many retailers and distributers had to eat humble pie.
Mannheim Steamroller’s rollicking take on “Deck the Halls” set the tone of the album and from then onwards it builds on the heart-thumping bass line and tempo. “Good King Wenceslas” has been composed more on the lines of rock n roll, using plenty of high voltage, powered instruments. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is an infectious number that continues to be a favorite on the radio airplay during the holiday season.
Third on their Christmas repertoire, “Christmas in the Aire” hit the shelves in 1995 and became the biggest-selling holiday album of that year. Featuring popular songs like “Joy to the World”, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and “Jingle Bells”, Mannheim Steamroller served the fans the perfect fusion of new and old age music. Putting enthusiasm into the classics, they also presented mellowness and emotions especially in the track “Joseph Dear Oh Joseph Mine”. Adding more flavor to the album were the songs “Gagliarda” that soared on the traditional European Renaissance mood and “Los Peces en el Rio” that highlighted the edgier, darker side of Latin-American music.
The latest on the Christmas album list was “30/40” released in 2014, followed by the extended version of “Christmas Live” in 2015.
Mannheim Steamroller Christmas Concerts
Enthralling the crowd, Mannheim Steamroller immediately gets into their lively holiday spirit and presents an energetic infusion of sounds. Such is their popularity that currently there are two Mannheim Steamroller touring orchestras, one performing in the West Coast and the other in the East Coast. Their tickets are therefore always in a high demand.
Mannheim Steamroller Christmas spectacle also makes use of visual effects. During the song “Catching Snowflakes on Your Tongue”, which Chip Davis wrote for his son, fake snowflakes fall from the ceiling, making the audience go “ooh and aah”.
For the single “Carol of the Bells” the lighting matches the beats of the song and the synchronization is incredible. Tracks such as “Hallelujah” and “O Holy Night” set a poignant tone and make it a breathtaking experience.
Mannheim Steamroller Tour Tickets
Setting the tone for the season, Mannheim Steamroller gets going with the familiar holiday vibe. Every year the new-age, neoclassical group embarks on a tour, taking their Christmas music around the country. Mannheim Steamroller Tour tickets rake in a huge demand and the group always gets to perform live in front of a packed house.
Verdict – Mannheim Steamroller Christmas might touch upon familiar notes but it’s definitely a reliable holiday extravaganza. One that shouldn’t be missed if it comes to your town.