When Chip Davis was searching for a name for his musical group, he had to find something that would best label its holiday sound.
His vibe, best described as a New Age take on old-school Christmas carols, became known throughout the world as Mannheim Steamroller.
Mannheim Steamroller Christmas by Chip Davis will take the stage at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 29, at Bell Auditorium. Tickets are $55, $60 and $65 from broadwayinaugustaga.com.
So, where does the name come from?
“From Mannheim, Germany,” said the Grammy-winning Davis. “That’s where Mozart and composer/music theorist Joseph Stamitz both lived. Stamitz came up with the idea of the crescendo: music building and getting louder in order to excite the audience. The 18th century musical phrase
‘Mannheim Valse’ literally meant, ‘roller,’ and people used to joke that the loud music would roll over the crowd and flatten them. When it was time to start selling my band, I had to come up with a name to market. At the time the big rock groups had interesting names like Jefferson Airplane or Iron Butterfly. So I came up with the name Mannheim Steamroller.”
The name is also a good description for the momentum built up by not only the Omaha, Neb.-based group’s performances, but also album sales. Mannheim Steamroller boasts several million album sales, not bad for a production that couldn’t find a record label in the beginning.
To promote the first album, Davis had to start his own label, American Gramaphone in 1974. He also couldn’t find promoters to book them, so Davis had to borrow $385,000 and rent venues on his own.
“My first album, Fresh Aire, was well liked by the big record companies but they all turned us down because they couldn’t figure out how to market an instrumental group that combined Renaissance instruments with rock beats,” he said.
“So I had to start my own independent record label to get the album recorded. It was an accident that it took off: my engineer got the idea of sending our album to a national consumer electronics show where there were hi-fi distributors
from all over. They used it as a demonstration album because of its quality. Their customers would ask, ‘What are you playing?’ People would buy the stereo – and our album along with it. Mannheim Steamroller has sold 40 million albums since then.”
The number of performances has also grown over time, with this year’s schedule including two performance groups that tour throughout the United States at the same time.
Davis said the reason he thinks the production is so popular is because people want something familiar around the holidays.
“At Christmas time especially, people want to listen to something that is familiar in their lives,” Davis said. “And for over 25 years, millions of people have grown up listening to our music. It’s comforting to hear something from your childhood – kind of like comfort food.”