Mannheim Steamroller Paves The Way For Its 35th Christmas
While “Deck The Halls” and “Carol Of The Bells” might not be tunes one would associate with one of the most groundbreaking independent artists of the last 50 years, Mannheim Steamroller has made a career out of the unexpected. The group released its first Christmas album 35 years ago – and its debut album, Fresh Aire I, 44 years ago – and today its independent label boasts of 41 million units sold, putting it above Eric Clapton, Backstreet Boys and Tupac’s RIAA’s certification totals.
Not only that, but Mannheim Steamroller’s live success may be even more impressive. Since 2000, Pollstar Boxoffice has recorded more than $132 million grossed by the group and more than 2.5 million tickets sold. Its first proper tours kicked off around the late ’70s, predating Pollstar, but by incorporating data reported before 1998 we can estimate the group’s total career gross as more than $156 million. These figures are more impressive considering the path the group took, which many considered ill-advised at best.
“Everyone said Christmas albums are a career ender,” the group’s founder and driving force Chip Davis told Pollstar. “People only do a Christmas album if they are out of ideas or if they are trying to fulfill a contract requirement so they could move on to another label. But my reasons weren’t anything like that.”
Indeed, Davis came to the concept of a Christmas album much more organically. A native of the small farm town of Hamler, Ohio, Davis was raised in a musical family, as both of his parents were music teachers. His father was a saxophonist in the Glenn Miller Orchestra during World War II and his mother was a trombonist in the NBC symphony band.
“I was surrounded with musicians, aunts and uncles, so I probably really didn’t have any choice,” he laughs.
Davis studied music education at the University of Michigan (where he is still very involved) where he also played basoon. His first job out of college was singing tenor and touring with the Norman Luboff Choir.
After that he worked as a middle school music teacher. “There is nothing like going out and having to teach something to make you realize what you know and don’t know about it,” Davis says of that experience.
He eventually left his gig as a teacher to become the musical director for a production of “Hair” at the Talk Of The Town Dinner Theater in Omaha in the early ’70s. While in Omaha, Davis met his future business partner, Don Sears.
Sears had owned Sound Recorders in Omaha for some years after returning from his last job running a Hollywood recording studio. An audiophile, Sears had owned and operated his high-end recording studio and, after meeting Davis, invited him to start writing commercial jingles for him.
The partnership was successful and when ad exec Bill Fries of the Bozell & Jacobs ad agency started working with them on a campaign for Old Home Bread out of Iowa, C.W. McCall, the fictional character behind the “Convoy” phenomenon was born.
In between working on the commercial jingles, Davis and his group of session musicians would also record the C.W. McCall songs and a series of original compositions Davis would go on to title “Fresh Aire.”
“I was raised as a classical musician. I’d been writing music since I was a little kid and I wanted to see if I could take elements of classical and mix it with rock ’n’ roll elements like drums, bass, and alongside that have harpsichord, strings, French horns,” Davis said of those original compositions. “I was trying to intermingle those things to see if I could pull off mixing classical with pop or rock.”
He scored out the music by hand, as was his way for years and began cutting it with his session musicians in Omaha, playing the drums, percussion and toys (which were featured as alternative percussion) himself. The complex piano parts were performed by Jackson Berkey, the accompanist he had worked with in the Norman Luboff Choir.
“It was like 18th century rock ’n’ roll,” Sears recalls. “It had incredible, various levels of instruments, using synthesizers and a lot of live sounds in that studio. It was just a lot of fun, Chip was an incredible writer.
“When we first met, I thought Jackson Berkey was the head of the group, he was an incredible pianist. But actually Chip was the writer.”
Berkey, along with his wife Almeda, did all the keyboard work for Mannheim’s recordings and shows until their retirement about six years ago. He told Pollstar that he was intrigued when Davis told him about the possibility of recording original compositions, and 46 years later the Berkeys have remained in Omaha since Davis invited him to work on “Fresh Aire” and commercial jingles. Berkey now publishes and records his own catalogue of choral and instrumental music.
Sound quality was a priority for Sears, who cut the first Mannheim Steamroller album himself on 180-gram Teldec virgin vinyl imported from Germany. “We would get a lower bass frequency on the records, it had a really incredible sound.”
Once the group had recorded enough music for an album, Davis had to come up with a band name. Partly inspired by bands with names and objects like Jefferson Airplane, partly because it “sounded like a heavy metal band,” and because it is a translation of the German classical music term “Mannheimer Walze,” which is a reference to a crescendo, Davis decided on the soon-to-be ubiquitous name.
Davis and Sears decided to form their own label to distribute the music themselves, American Gramaphone. Sears said the name was intended to be a counterpoint to Deutsche Grammophon, the parent company of Polydor, which was C.W. McCall’s label after it absorbed MGM Records in 1976.
American Gramaphone began by renting booths at Consumer Electronics Shows to sell Fresh Aire I to high-end speaker distributors.
“It all started in the hi-fi industry, as a demo for speaker systems,” Sears said. “What launched the series is the audio world. That’s where we would sell a lot of the records, and we were developing other avenues to sell it. We had dealers all around the countryside. Every time we went to CES conventions, we would add two or three dealer programs. It went from us to the dealer to the customer.”
Meanwhile, as the Fresh Aire music started selling in electronics stores, C.W. McCall fever swept the nation throughout the late ’70s. The Mannheim Steamroller musicians – which included Davis, Berkey and Eric Hansen on bass – would occasionally travel to fairs and festivals and perform live renditions of C.W. McCall’s tunes with Fries performing as C.W. One evening, when the opening act didn’t show up, Davis and the band decided they could open for themselves.
“We put on our coats, blue jeans and tennis shoes and came out as Fresh Aire, … then we left, put on blue jean coats and came out as country,” Davis remembers.
As his attention began returning to Mannheim Steamroller, Davis composed Fresh Aire II, which the group recorded in 1977, and Fresh Aire III in 1979. Around that point, he decided it was time for the band to hit the road, so they took out a $200,000 loan to book the group’s first tour.
“[Mannheim Steamroller] started in theaters and would play a week in a theater, that’s where I found out about them,” Lee Marshall of Magic Space, who now produces Mannheim Steamroller’s annual tours, told Pollstar. “Chip would go on sale with six shows, he’d add two more, and would do great business on eight shows. He’d sit in the market for a week, go to the radio stations, he developed this brand.”
Brian Ackley – now COO of American Gramaphone – in those early days was working as a sound tech on the road, and recalls the effort put into the media blitz whenever Mannheim rolled into town. “Being parked in those locations gave Chip the opportunity to do a lot of press, television, radio, newspaper, interacting with our distributors and their retail customers. It was great grassroots marketing and relationships being built,” he said.
The initial tour, around 1979, hit three cities, Denver, Salt Lake City and Seattle, with Mannheim taking up residence in local theaters. When all was said and done with that first tour, nobody had gotten rich, but Davis had generated enough revenue to pay off his initial $200,000 loan. So they decided to do it again next year, and the steamrolling began.
He started out building the same few markets, adding a few new ones each year. Davis stuck to the model of staying in cities for multiple days at a time, as the expenses associated with moving the gear didn’t really make sense to incur every night.
“Chip’s dad, Louis Davis Sr. traveled with us. Chip’s mom Betty travelled with us just about everywhere we went. Louis Sr. was the senior keyboard technician,” Ackley, who started working with Mannheim Steamroller in 1984, recalls. Ackley started as Davis’ creative assistant and would do sound engineering on the road in those early days. “During our setups and rehearsals Louis would tune the instruments, and given the fact that these instruments had traveled … Louis really did a lot of work.”
Bruce Bisping /Star Tribune via Getty Images) – Mannheim Steamroller
Mannheim Steamroller creator Chip Davis in Minneapolis circa 1996.
“It felt like a big family, everybody knew each other and was good to each other,” Ackley continues. “It was a friendly group of people focused on one thing: Quality presentation of great music that was unique from anything else we were aware of at the time. Bringing an instrumental group from Omaha, Nebraska over the country was a bit of an uphill challenge, but the fanbase continued to grow.”
And as it grew a key aspect of Mannheim Steamroller’s business took shape: a diverse offering of albums and merch.
“In those [early] days, it was all about the albums. We took everything we had in the American Gramaphone catalogue in CD, in cassette, in vinyl. We had a lot of different skews, the merch stand was kind of like a little retail store of all things Mannheim Steamroller,” Ackley said. “That’s where the revenue was, the tour supported the albums. Of course, over time the record business – in terms of physical goods – declined, and our touring revenue kicked up in 2008.”
The original merch was branded Fresh Aire, which changed as the business grew. “You need a place to hang your hat, and ours is the name Mannheim Steamroller,” Davis said. “Whether it’s a book, a food product, a CD, DVD, those all [have to] come under the same heading. It took me awhile to figure that out. I thought Fresh Aire was the name of the album series, and it is, but it’s by Mannheim Steamroller. I needed to connect the dots so any product I did, you knew what you were going to be getting.”
In those early days Davis said there wasn’t enough Fresh Aire material for a unique show each year, so they gradually began incorporating arrangements of traditional Christmas songs into the concerts, so that they would be half Fresh Aire and half holiday material.
“The crowd response, applause, standing ovation, they were way into the Christmas music and wanted to hear more of it,” Davis said.
Recognizing a strong demand for modernized Christmas music, Davis began work on the group’s first Christmas album, Christmas, released in 1984.
While occasionally paying homage to the deeply religious Christmas songs, Davis always approached the music from a classical music enthusiast’s perspective, seeking to evoke feelings of joy and generosity associated with the season.
“The core of Christmas music comes from the Renaissance and I have always been a big Renaissance music fan so I took a lot of those pieces and arranged them in a Renaissance style,” Davis said.
Around 1984 Davis also bought out Don Sears’ stake in American Gramaphone, becoming the sole owner of the label, which would go on to sign America and John Denver.
Continuing Davis’ model of parking in one city for several nights and making the Mannheim brand highly visible through local media, Mannheim Steamroller began to do dedicated Christmas shows. They starting touring annually during November and December, in the period leading up to Christmas.
Agent Clint Mitchell signed Chip Davis and Mannheim Steamroller to Triad Artists in 1988, and is still his agent 31 years later after Triad’s acquisition by William Morris in ’92. Mitchell came onboard as Mannheim was picking up enough steam to head into arenas.
“[Chip] had decided he wanted to expand and do an amphitheater tour,” Mitchell says of the period when he signed on. “And he wanted to do more cities. The financial viability of doing five to six shows [during the holiday season] in Milwaukee, Chicago, Minneapolis, these markets where he had a strong following, didn’t allow him to get to other cities.
“So we devised a plan by which he would use the Christmas tour as a base, but he recorded other symphonic records. Yellowstone: The Music Of Nature, To Russia With Love (which was written for the 1994 Goodwill Games in St. Petersburg), several recordings, and we guested the symphony orchestras in amphitheaters. And we grew it into playing arenas three to four times a week, selling those out and doing symphonic programs, expanding his base.”
In terms of new music, Ackley recalls the decision to start steamrolling other holidays and exploring new forms of distribution.
“From the early 2000s to now … Chip concentrated on the Mannheim Steamroller brand,” Ackley said.“One of the things we learned about holiday music is that there is not a lot of interest in Christmas music in the middle of April. It’s kind of like produce, in that we have a limited window when the market is hot, say early-mid November through Jan. 1. So we learned seasonal marketing as it related to Christmas and applied it to other seasons.
“As the retail space for physical, recorded music shrunk, Chip had the idea to take it to grocery stores. People shop in grocery stores and there are way more cash registers in the grocery industry than there were at places like Musicland, Sam Goodie that were closing down.
“We wouldn’t produce a new Halloween album each year, but knowing the seasons would come around each year we could put products into these spaces. We have Valentine’s Day records, Mother’s Day albums, a Fourth of July album, a couple of Halloween albums.
“You could walk into Walmart or Shopko and there was a clipstrip of Mannheim Steamroller albums people could buy with their costumes and candy.”
As product flew off various shelves, arenas filled up, Mitchell recalls, and a new strategy for how to stagger their touring schedule emerged.
“We tried to make it every third year to repeat a market in arenas. We would do between 15 and 20 shows a year in arenas, and we rotated them to do 20 percent new markets, places we hadn’t been before. We’d repeat markets, sometimes do multiples in arenas where we were quite strong, we didn’t want to neglect those, and we would rotate every two to three years other cities we knew were good but wanted to spend time developing. We tried not to do any shows back-to-back because Chip would do all these events locally – media appearances that would help expand the business.”
And the plans for expansion weren’t just domestic. Throughout the ’90s Davis spent time in Germany, worked on a collaboration with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and began cultivating opportunities in Mexico, Russia and Ireland.
“Chip thought if we could replicate what we did in the U.S., during Q4 and Christmas time, we could sell even more units internationally,” Ackley said. “The music was instrumental, there’s not a language barrier, the singing isn’t all necessarily in English. So when a promoter said ‘Come to Puerto Rico,’ we said ‘OK.’ It spoke to hearts, regardless of language.”
In the early 1980s Davis was involved in a severe car accident and later had to undergo neck surgery, eventually leaving him without full use of his right arm, unable to play the drums in Mannheim’s show as he had throughout the group’s history. Operations slowed and some thought the Steamroller might finally come to a stop.
Lee Marshall of Magic Space had promoted Mannheim shows in Cleveland for years and when he heard that Davis was no longer able to perform, he saw a parallel with another big name who could no longer tour with the brand he built.
“I had been doing Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance without Michael,” Marshall said. “I went to him and said, ‘Listen I think there is a way to do this where you don’t have to perform.’ He was skeptical at first, [but now] we put two companies on sale, 85 shows, 90% sold out, and we’ve been partners for the last 10 years on the theater show.”
Mannheim Steamroller’s tours are still being produced by Magic Space: the current incarnation features several touring companies playing setlists curated by Davis in theaters around the country every Christmas. Each performance begins with a recorded greeting from Davis and features six Mannheim musicians with a local orchestra.
This year, to celebrate the group’s 35th consecutive Christmas tour, the Red and Green touring companies will perform the original Christmas album, including some songs which haven’t previously been played live Ackley said. The merch stands will have special 35th anniversary vinyl editions of Christmas on green vinyl, as well as 35th anniversary CDs. That original Christmas album remains Mannheim Steamroller’s all-time best seller Ackley said and it will be a special treat for fans to hear it in its entirety.
– Mannheim Steamroller
Mannheim Steamroller’s smaller but more numerous touring productions have reported $96 million grossed on 1.6 million tickets, averaging 2,277 tickets sold and $130,412 grossed per market appearance.
When looking at the Pollstar Boxoffice numbers for Mannheim Steamroller, it’s useful to break them down into three periods.
Mannheim Steamroller started properly touring around 1979, predating Pollstar’s existence. The group started reporting in 1986 and began providing substantial amounts of data in 1989, when the group reported $1.1 million grossed. Pollstar has logged $18.3 million grossed by Mannheim before 1999, though this figure is still missing large swathes of dates before 1989. Davis mentioned that the early tours were able to pay off his initial loan of $200,000, so estimating the early tours as raking in $300,000 annually, and assuming there was a gradual increase in revenue during the missing period, we can estimate about $6.3 million grossed before 1989 and $24.6 million before 1999.
Most of the reported shows from 2000-2006 were in arenas. During that six-year stretch Mannheim Steamroller reported $31 million grossed and 743,749 tickets sold. During the same period the group reported an average of 7,364 tickets per market appearance and $311,431 per show.
From 2008 onward the venues have been scaled down, but during that 10-year span the group reported a total gross of nearly $96 million and 1.6 million tickets, averaging 2,277 tickets sold and $130,412 grossed per market appearance. This has meant fewer tickets per show, but a major increase in gross per year due to a much higher volume of shows after the transition to multiple companies touring theaters, though it does put the group into a separate category from holiday touring behemoths like Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
Davis still writes music for Mannheim Steamroller. In 2017 Mannheim released Exotic Spaces, an LP full of songs inspired by specific places and incorporating instruments indigenous to those locations. He also recently wrote the young adult book “The Wolf And The Warlander.” He is developing an Ambient Therapy System, which hones his audiophile instincts, setting up four amplifiers in 90 hospital rooms and broadcasting hi-fi sounds recorded from the woods outside his farm in Omaha. The system is in 90 hospital rooms in the country. He also conducts Mannheim Steamroller’s arrangement of “The Grinch” music at Universal Studios Orlando annually.
But everyone interviewed for this piece made a point to mention Davis’ generosity as an enduring aspect of his legacy. He raised $500,000 in donations to Yellowstone National Park after devastating fires in 1988; he worked with NASA to document the launches and landings of Space Shuttle Discover and Space Shuttle Atlantis; he has donated more than $1 million to education and nature-related causes; he was honored by the Department of Defense after donating 1 million Christmas CDs to military families; and his colleagues spoke of many other undocumented acts of generosity that truly make a man stand out.
“He’s had people close to him that needed an emergency surgery, he’s put them on his airplane and flown them to Mayo Clinic. When people need disaster relief, he has been the first one to step forward. He’s a good guy,” Marshall said of his partner and friend.
When asked about legacy, Davis says he just wants the music to go on without him. And, in a sense, it already does. Though he has been known to make guest appearances at Mannheim shows from time to time, the Mannheim brand will forever carry the signature of Chip Davis.
Berkey said one of Davis’ gifts is his ability to “adapt, adapt, adapt! The touring shows over the years have encompassed theatres, arenas, ice shows, summer outdoor venues. In each instance, his imagination has created and reached into new frontiers.
“Just listening to Fresh Aire I through Fresh Aire 8 is an all-encompassing history lesson in the development of synthesizers and their unique sounds, especially when combined with the traditional classical symphony orchestra. And our traditional classical symphony orchestra eventually was the London Symphony!”
When asked to reflect on his career and his knack for trying different things, Davis recalls a conversation long ago.
“Someone once said to me: ‘Chip you really think out of the box.’ I thought for a second and said: ‘What box? There’s a box?’ When people say, ‘The sky’s the limit,’ I say ‘What limit? There’s a limit?’ That’s the underpinnings of not being afraid to try anything.