The top-selling Christmas artist of all time doesn’t record for a major label. Nor does that artist or its label come from New York, Los Angeles or Nashville.
It’s Mannheim Steamroller — and it and the label, American Gramaphone, are from Omaha.
That’s right, one of the biggest artists ever, and arguably the most successful independent record label in history, come from the unlikeliest of places — Nebraska.
That makes perfect sense to Chip Davis, Mannheim Steamroller founder and leader, who was at home on his farm outside Omaha when we talked in late October to preview Mannheim Steamroller’s Lied Center for Performing Arts shows Thursday.
Why so early? Well, things get real busy for Davis in November and December. There are rehearsals to be held and repertoire to be fine-tuned for the group’s 31st-annual tour, with two companies hitting the road in November. And Davis himself was off to Florida for much of December.
“The tour starts earlier every year,” he said. “We have close to 100 dates with the two tours. I’m not on either tour. This will be my 10th-11th year of doing ‘The Grinch Who Stole Christmas’ at Universal Studios Orlando. So we’ve got three things going on: the two tours and me doing “The Grinch.”
Mannheim Steamroller has sold more than 40 million albums, including its Fresh Aire series and Christmas albums. It has 19 gold, eight multiplatinum and four platinum albums, putting it in the same rarefied air as Michael Jackson, U2, Jay-Z and the Beach Boys.
The 13 Mannheim Steamroller Christmas records account for more than 29 of its 40 million album sales. That’s 13 million more than the second-best-selling Christmas artist, a name you’re likely to recognize.
“We’ve even outsold Elvis,” Davis said. “That’s crazy.”
The explanation for Davis’s Christmas success starts with Fresh Aire, the classical-meets-rock instrumental group he founded in 1974.
“I think I found a niche that was different, the Fresh Aire albums are different than everything out there,” Davis said. “The way it got started was in high fidelity stores, as demonstration records. From that niche, I started doing strong sales, the retailers started picking it up. That really happened in 1984 with Christmas.”
Davis took a circuitous route to becoming the King of Christmas. After studying music at the University of Michigan, he took a job at an Omaha advertising agency writing jingles. One of his clients, Old Home Bread, utilized Davis’ jingles sung by writer Bill Fries, who became the voice of C.W. McCall, the bread truck driver.
Convinced to do non-jingles under the McCall name, Davis and Fries released five albums between 1974 and 1979 and had the No. 1 hit, “Convoy,” in 1975. Davis was named SESAC’s Country Songwriter of the Year in 1976.
At the same time he was making McCall records, Davis founded Fresh Aire, the name he gave to the recording group that was to perform the music he wanted to write — a blend that’s been dubbed 18th century classical rock.
“It’s an eclectic mix,” Davis said. “I’m a classically trained musician. I went to the University of Michigan for classical music. When I got out I wanted to write some of that music and try to popularize it. That’s where the drums and bass come in. But I retained instruments like the harpsichord and oboes. I’m mixing pop and classical. It’s worked pretty good so far.”
Fresh Aire debuted on American Gramaphone, the label Davis founded to release his recordings. But he said he didn’t expect Fresh Aire to become a Grammy-winning hit and American Gramaphone to be the largest independent label in the music industry when he put out its self-titled debut in 1975.
“When I wrote the first Fresh Aire album and we finally pressed it and I had the physical goods, I thought, 'I hope I can sell enough of these I can write another one,’” Davis said. “I had no idea.”
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Looking back, Davis said, Nebraska has been key to Mannheim Steamroller’s success, not only for the people he brought together to run the label and perform in the group, but as inspiration for the music.
“From my standpoint, the Fresh Aire series, the first four definitely are seasonal records,” Davis said. "I live on the farm, I watch the seasons change. I spend a lot of time outdoors. That is definitely from Nebraska.”
Fresh Aire, Davis said, differs from the Christmas recordings in a very significant way.
“Fresh Aire is all original music, versus Christmas is based on Christmas carols,” he said. “That’s an arranging process compared to being a compositional technique. Fresh Aire is different to write because the melodies don’t previously exist. I do one of them every five, six, seven years.”
A leader in marketing as well, Davis has expanded the Mannheim Streamroller brand to a line of food items, including his signature Cinnamon Hot Chocolate, bath and apparel products and clothing.
The food items are created by Davis at the Washington County farm. And he’s just released his 10th book, “The Wolf and The Warlander,” a young adult novel about the adventures of a wolf named Seti and a horse named Ghost, the Wanderer that’s also inspired by the farm.
“It’s based on animals I have,” he said. “I have two timber wolves and four horses. The oldest timber wolf is 10 years old, his name is Seti. One of the horses named Ghost is 10, too. In nature, they’d be enemies. But they’re best friends. This horse and this wolf run around the pasture together chasing each other. It’s a cool thing to watch them. That’s what started it."
Davis said his creative process is similar whether he’s writing and recording music, writing his books with a collaborator or making his food.
“The things I like myself, I find my audience will like,” Davis said. “Whatever project I’m working on, I’m working just on that. When I’m working on music, I’m tied to my studio here at the house and at American Gramophone, I do my cooking products here. But book products I can do about anywhere.”
An animal lover, Davis donated $350,000 to pay for an eagle mew to house a bald eagle at Omaha’s Fontenelle Forest. The mew recently opened with its new occupant.
“I spent a pretty serious amount of money to put up an eagle mew for him to live in,” Davis said. “He can’t really fly. He hops from place to place. He can fly a little to get up on the waterfall thing that’s in there where he gets his water. It’s a big cage, like 100 feet wide.”
Davis got to name the bird, calling him Fisher because eagles fish and Fisher is Davis’s middle name.
“I could only do that because of Mannheim Steamroller and Fresh Aire,” Davis said.
And, of course, Christmas.