Born Louis (Chip) Davis, Jr.; son of Louis (a music teacher) and Betty Davis; married; wife's name Trisha; children: three, Kelly, Evan, Elyse. Education: Graduated from the University of Michigan, 1969. Addresses: Record company--American Gramaphone, 9130 Mormon Bridge Rd., Omaha, NE 68152. Website--Chip Davis Official Website: http://www.amgram.com.

The only child of Louis and Betty Davis, Louis Davis Jr.--or Chip, as his mother called him--grew up in Toledo, Ohio, where his father taught high school music and his mother played the trombone. At age five, Chip took piano lessons from his grandmother, and he later learned to sing and play the oboe and bassoon. Due to a blood disorder, Davis's physical activities were restricted. So he focused his energy on music, and by the time Davis attended high school, music was his sole interest. Davis attended the University of Michigan, from which he graduated in 1969 with a music degree.

Davis went on tour with the Norman Luboff Choir for a time, during which he met Jackson Berkey, a noted pianist and keyboard player who became a close friend and later part of Mannheim Steamroller. Davis also played with the Toledo Symphony, taught high school music, and learned to play rock and roll drums for gigs with local groups. Much of what eventually became the album Fresh Aire I were pieces that Davis composed to interest his high school students in classical music by giving it a jazzy cast.

By 1972 Davis was earning a living writing advertising jingles for an Omaha advertising agency, while unsuccessfully trying to interest record companies in a demonstration tape of his works. Davis teamed up with advertiser Bill Fries to record a highly successful series of commercials for Old Home Bread. The commercials, which related the exploits of the colorful and fictitious Old Home Bread delivery truck driver C. W. McCall, evolved into the hit country and western song "Convoy," which sold more than seven million copies and engendered the major motion picture Convoy, starring Kris Kristofferson, Ali McGraw, and Ernest Borgnine. Davis composed the soundtrack for the film. One hit led to another, and then to a string of gold records and international recognition. Davis was not particularly fond of country and western music, yet he paradoxically earned the title Country Music Writer of the Year in 1976. "Sometimes the irony of it gets to me," Davis told T. L. Henion of the Omaha World Herald. "Everything that I'm able to accomplish now came about largely because of the success of a country and western song."

The financial success of "Convoy" allowed Davis to concentrate more intensely on his own work. While working as a musical director at the recording studio Sound Recorders, Inc. in Omaha, Davis heard his music come alive. Davis loosely gathered together musicians and called them Mannheim Steamroller, after an eighteenth-century musical devoce called Mannheim Roller. The group was formed as a vehicle for Davis's own music, a blend of classical and pop. In 1974 he founded the American Gramaphone label to record, produce, and market the album Fresh Aire, "aire" meaning "song."

Davis combined authentic period instruments, such as harpsichords, clavichords, and recorders with synthesizers. While his music has been solidly placed in the vanguard of New Age music--characterized by the use of synthesizers, computers, exotic instruments, multiple overdubbing, and often non-melodic qualities--Davis's style is obviously rooted in the tradition of classical music. Each representing a different season, Fresh Aire (spring) was Baroque in tone, Fresh Aire II (fall) reflected medieval influences, and Fresh Aire III (summer) was characterized by renaissance and contemporary sounds. Fresh Aire IV (winter) focused on twentieth-century avant-garde repertoire. According to Davis, later albums reflected his interest in intellectual themes: Fresh Aire V explored outer space with French Impressionist overtones and Fresh Aire VI interpreted the music and mythology of ancient Greece.

The American Gramaphone label has been known for the very high quality of its recordings and packaging. Davis used state-of-the-art equipment and innovative techniques, which included the use of a separate microphone for each acoustic instrument in an ensemble. Because of the high quality of these recordings, they have been used often in stereo stores to demonstrate equipment and were initially distributed through such stores. American Gramaphone was one of the first labels to commit strongly to the compact disc. The sales success of Davis's recordings has been largely due to word of mouth, for the Fresh Aire recordings have received little radio play, and though they are frequently used by the ABC television network, Davis has not been credited.

The holiday-inspired albums Mannheim Steamroller Christmas and A Fresh Aire Christmas introduced many listeners to the Mannheim Steamroller sound for the first time. These contemporary holiday classics, which reached number two and number one, respectively, on Billboard's 1989 "Christmas Hits" list, went platinum, and Mannheim Steamroller Christmas was nominated for a Grammy award. A Fresh Aire Christmas is unique both in its recording process and in that eleven of the carols on it were chosen by vote among thousands of fans on the American Gramaphone mailing list. The twelfth carol was an original composition by Davis. Several additional Christmas releases appeared over the course of the 1990s.

For many years, Davis led Mannheim Steamroller on annual tours that drew increasingly large, responsive, and loyal crowds. The performing ensemble included Davis on drums, Jackson and Almeda Berkey on keyboards, Rick Swanson on percussion, and Eric Hansen on bass, dulcimer, cello, and other stringed instruments. Several local musicians were usually hired in each city to supplement the core group's synthesizers, computers, and other special sound equipment. The shows were multimedia events, featuring slides and video, dances, film animation, and computerized lighting. Davis has also moved into the realm of video sales. His digital video samplers feature clips that had previously been presented in Mannheim Steamroller's live concert performances, as well as some seen on network and cable television.

Davis took on many responsibilities with American Gramaphone, yet he found his greatest satisfaction in composing. He told Henion, "I do a lot of different things, but I consider myself a composer. That is what I do best; make music from experiences in my life and hope somebody who listens to it can grab those feelings."

In the 1990s, Davis not only continued with the Fresh Aire series but also began to extend the Mannheim Steamroller vision to other themes by recording such albums as 1994's To Russia with Love and 1998's Renaissance Holiday. The 1999 Mannheim Steamroller Meets the Mouse album was released in collaboration with the Disney entertainment conglomerate, one of the few instances in which Davis operated in an orbit that reached beyond his Omaha headquarters. Davis continued to live in Omaha, where he married and raised three children.

With the 2000 release Fresh Aire VIII, Davis announced that he was bringing the Fresh Aire series to a close. That album was accompanied by its own DVD, and was recorded in a digital surround-sound format that rivaled those of cinematic extravaganzas. Mannheim Steamroller's shows by this time had become extraordinarily complex undertakings, with a staff of 200 and enough equipment to fill nine semi-truck trailers.

In the early 2000s, Davis occasionally recorded under his own name but mostly continued to use the Mannheim Steamroller designation. His new creations, both in concert and on recordings, were explorations of a single theme; the 2003 Mannheim Steamroller releases American Spirit and Halloween were examples. No matter how complex Davis's music became, it rested essentially on its original mixture of classical music with Davis's own compositions. Always exploring new media, Davis penned a Christmas book, A Night Like No Other, in 2003. Large entertainment companies were knocking on Davis's door by that year, eager to learn the secrets of his continuing success during a period of implosion for the music business. He might have answered with a brief observation he made to the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 2002 regarding his relationship with his audiences. "I'm just really out to wow them and take them on a journey to infinity," he said.

by Jeanne M. Lesinski and James M. Manheim

Chip Davis's Career

Taught high school music; played with the Toledo Symphony; founded American Gramaphone Sound Recorders, Inc., 1974; recorded many albums, including multi-part Fresh Aire series, 1970s-2000s.

Chip Davis's Awards

Country Music Writer of the Year for "Convoy," 1976; Grammy Award, Best New Age Album for Fresh Aire 7, 1991.

Famous Works

Further Reading

Sources

PeriodicalsOnline

Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 9 years ago

I love all of the music that I have heard from Chip Davis & Manheim Steamroller. He is truly inspired with his music writing/arranging. The varied instruments that he chooses really add fullness to his musical works of art. I am personally very curiuos as to whether he is the "Chip Davis" credited on a CD (or two) called "Joseph: A Nashville Tribute to the Prophet" and/or "Trek: A Nashville Tribute to the Pioneers."