Mannheim Steamroller is an American music group founded by Chip Davis and Jackson Berkey, known primarily for its modern recordings of Christmas music. Mannheim Steamroller began as an alias for record producer/composer Chip Davis. The name "Mannheim Steamroller" comes from an 18th-century German musical technique, “Mannheim roller” a crescendo passage having a rising melodic line over an ostinato bass line, popularized by the Mannheim school of composition. Before the fame of Steamroller, Davis had been best known for creating the country music character "C. W. McCall" (of "Convoy" fame) for his friend Bill Fries. Even before Davis made McCall a star, he produced an unusual album of classical music performed entirely by Davis and musical collaborator and keyboardist Jackson Berkey, using electric bass (played by Eric Hansen) and synthesizers.
Since no major label would handle its distribution, Davis founded his own music label, American Gramaphone, to release the album. The result, “Fresh Aire,” was released in 1975 under the pseudonym Mannheim Steamroller, in the hopes of the album being a best seller.
“Fresh Aire II” was subsequently released in 1977 and “Fresh Aire III” was released in 1979. The first four “Fresh Aire” albums constituted a "four seasons" exploration, with “Fresh Aire” being spring, “Fresh Aire II” being fall, “Fresh Aire III” being summer, and “Fresh Aire IV”being winter. All four of these albums maintained the blend of baroque classical music, light jazz, and a light sense of humor, and featuring Jackson Berkey's virtuosic keyboard work. Davis and Berkey would use whatever instrument seemed appropriate to the piece, using toy piano on one piece and full pipe organ on another, with copious interweaving of piano and harpsichord.
Davis then moved into exploring some other themes, with “Fresh Aire V” being subtitled "To the Moon," “Fresh Aire VI” exploring Greek mythology, “Fresh Aire 7” being based on the number 7, and “Fresh Aire 8” being based on the theme of infinity.
In 1986, Mannheim Steamroller released music composed for a PBS special called “Saving the Wildlife,” which featured one track from “Fresh Aire VI” and twelve new tracks.
But it was beginning in 1984 that Steamroller found its greatest fame. Davis released his first holiday album, “Mannheim Steamroller Christmas,” featuring modern contemporary interpretations of Yuletide favorites. This was followed by “A Fresh Aire Christmas” (1988) and “Christmas in the Aire” (1995), which showcased creative approaches to old carols, as well as some new carol-like compositions. Steamroller had now become one of the most requested Christmas music artists of all time, in part by adopting a very radio-friendly approach.
By the end of 1997, they had released a live album of Christmas music, “Mannheim Steamroller Christmas Live.” 2001 saw the release of their fourth all-new Christmas album, “Christmas Extraordinaire.” “Christmas Celebration,” a compilation of favorite tracks from the previous studio albums (with one new song), was released in 2004. The studio album “Christmas Song” was released in late 2007 and features guest vocals by Johnny Mathis and Olivia Newton-John. 2008 saw the release of the CD "Christmasville." Their newest release is a 25th anniversary Christmas box set consisting of previously released material.
Musically, as the 1990s progressed Davis moved into the mainstream of "New Age" music with a heavier reliance on synthesized instruments and less humor. His music became closer to the "light jazz" style that gained prominence in the 1990s, especially with the “Day Parts” albums.
Steamroller developed a full-length theatrical motion picture based on their Christmas albums, but the plans fell through. Instead, the following year, they collaborated with Olivia Newton-John for yet another Christmas album, a mostly spoken-word recording, scored with previously released material called “The Christmas Angel: A Family Story.” In 2003, they released an album entitled “Halloween.”
In addition to their “Fresh Aire” and Christmas collections, Steamroller has released an album of Disney music (1999's “Mannheim Steamroller Meets the Mouse”), one celebrating his American heritage (2003's “American Spirit,” which reunited Chip Davis with C.W. McCall and featured a remake of "Convoy"), and an album "Yellowstone," mixing prior Davis compositions and a series of classical pieces by Ottorino Respighi and others.
“Mannheim Steamroller's An American Christmas” is a 12-hour nationally broadcast special radio program of music and narrated stories, heard on over 250 stations across the United States. The program is hosted by the group's founder Chip Davis, and is produced and distributed each year by WestStar TalkRadio Network.