Manheim Steamroller soft-rocks all the way to the bank

Jessica Simpson
Among the venues played by the Roller this holiday season is 7th Avenue in Manhattan for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.Charles Sykes / AP
/ Source: Business Week

Reclining on a leather seat in the cabin of his personal jet, Chip Davis gazes out the window and muses aloud about whether he'll winter at his place in the Florida Keys or his new digs on the coast of Panama. Up front, his two full-time pilots steer the Rockwell Sabreliner toward Columbia, Mo. — the site of tonight's gig — as Davis' marketing and logistics people discuss future shows in Independence, Mo., and Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Unlike other graying rockers, Davis hasn't kept the cash flowing with a VH1 reality show, a turn on The Apprentice, or a maudlin memoir. He makes his money by zealously managing an empire of middle-aged fans who live to hear his band's yuletide-themed New Age tunes.

As founder and former front man of the group Mannheim Steamroller, Davis, 63, has created a miniature corporate juggernaut, with two touring troupes playing 90 performances in 77 cities this November and December. When his jet lands, a Lincoln Navigator whisks Davis and his retinue to a sold-out Jesse Hall on the campus of the University of Missouri. It's been a busy week, with performances at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and a two-hour ice skating extravaganza in Rapid City, S.D., televised on NBC. When the curtain rises in Columbia, "the Roller," as Davis calls his act, kicks into a thumping "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." The crowd of 1,600, many in Christmas sweaters, cheers.

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In the heartland world of irony-free holiday rock, Mannheim Steamroller rules Christmas. Its music — think John Williams meets Supertramp meets Bing Crosby — combines lute and harpsichord with trilling synthesizer, throbbing bass, and a rock back-beat that might be described as insistent. Jon Pareles of The New York Times once dismissed Mannheim Steamroller as "Muzak with pretensions," yet over the past quarter century the Roller has sold 38 million records, mostly Christmas collections. It is the music industry's No. 1 seller ever in the lucrative holiday category. No. 2 is a guitar-strumming singer-songwriter named Elvis Presley.

When Davis first tried to land a record contract in the 1970s, major labels turned him away. So he started an outfit called American Gramaphone in his adopted hometown of Omaha. With studios near his 150-acre farm, American Gramaphone has a lean staff of 12 employees and a small army of contract workers. Over the past 25 years, setting aside concert sales, consumers have spent half a billion dollars on Mannheim recordings. That translates into four multiplatinum records, eight platinum, and 18 gold. From his website, Davis sells "the Mannheim lifestyle": branded apparel, children's books, steamroller-shaped Christmas ornaments, and food products including cinnamon hot chocolate, Nebraska steak seasoning, and cherry chutney. His concert tickets go for $50 a pop.

Marilyn and Paul Andre, a teacher and state employee, respectively, attended the show in Columbia. Beforehand they browsed the merchandise table and bought a $20 Mannheim Steamroller Christmas 25th Anniversary Collection CD. "I just love their sound," Paul says. "It's lively, upbeat, good rhythm." Like a lot of Mannheim fans, the Andres still buy CDs rather than online downloads. And while they've cut back on concerts because of tough economic times —neither has had a raise for several years — the couple still has its priorities. Marilyn says: "We wouldn't miss Mannheim Steamroller."

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A bassoonist, pianist, and drummer, Davis' most impressive skill is marketing. He grew up in Sylvania, Ohio, and graduated with a music degree from the University of Michigan in 1969. In his twenties he toured with the Norman Luboff Choir and taught junior high school before landing a jingle-writing job in Omaha. "Convoy," a novelty tune he co-wrote for a country singer who performed as C.W. McCall, became a hit. The song helped spawn a CB-radio craze and a Hollywood movie starring Kris Kristofferson. Davis decided, however, to pursue his real passion: what he calls "18th-century rock and roll." He came up with a band name that sounded vaguely heavy metal, but actually referred to an orchestra in Mannheim, Germany, known for lush crescendos — a veritable "steamroller" of sound. The first iteration of the Roller produced a series of records called "Fresh Aire I," "Fresh Aire II," and so on. "Fresh Aire VII" (1990), a musical study of the number seven, won a Grammy for Best New Age Recording. Lacking major label interest, Davis gave away his music to high-end stereo retailers, who used it to demonstrate the range and clarity of their expensive equipment. The fan base grew. As Billboard magazine declared in 1999: "It can rightly be said that Davis pioneered what is now called Adult Contemporary."

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The Christmas franchise began in 1984. Davis arranged Rollerized versions of Greensleeves, White Christmas, and Little Drummer Boy. He supplemented the set list with selections from his bottomless trove of original compositions. Davis steers clear of religion. "I'm not preaching anything or pushing beliefs," he explains. "I like family and Christmas tradition, and I think a lot of people like to remember Christmas from when they were kids."

His home near Omaha, a large chalet of his own design with Greek columns in front, has a childlike aura bordering on that of Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch. There are models of planes and spaceships, replica medieval swords, and dreamy paintings of mythological subjects, some of which double as Mannheim album covers. Out back, workmen are building a large fenced-in enclosure for newly acquired pet wolves named Seth and Seti. The wolves receive daily training from an animal behavior expert and Davis' intrepid German shepherd, Thor. The ducks and wild turkey housed nearby seem oblivious to the potential peril. In California, Davis keeps Storm Shadow, a three-year-old Warlander show horse, which has won Grand National and World's Championship titles.

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Neck surgery two years ago ended Davis' performing days, but he still jets around to oversee shows, each of which features six Mannheim Steamroller players, a local pickup string section, Christmas videos projected onto huge screens, and numerous references to CDs available for purchase in the lobby. The venues range from 1,500 to 4,000 seats.

Davis, who has three children, went through a tough divorce two years ago that he says left him with emotional bruises and composer's block. Six months ago a new relationship with a younger woman in Panama melted his mental ice, inspiring him to write a soulful instrumental for piano, 12-string guitar, and French horn. Entitled "Finally," it will anchor a forthcoming album, "True Wilderness." Davis seems on the verge of a new creative phase, and given his sales track record, Roller devotees are likely to be pulling out their wallets.