Monday, May 21 , 2018, 8:27 pm | Fair 61º


Jeff Moehlis: Christmas Music, Mannheim Style, at the Granada Theatre

Mannheim Steamroller will perform in Santa Barbara on Dec. 29

Mannheim Steamroller will perform a Christmas show at the Granada Theatre in Santa Barbara next Thursday. Click to view larger
Mannheim Steamroller will perform a Christmas show at the Granada Theatre in Santa Barbara next Thursday. (Matt Christine Photography photo)

Christmas music comes in many flavors, from traditional carols such as "Joy to the World" and "Silent Night," to secular pop songs such as "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "Jingle Bell Rock," to novelty songs such as "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" and "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch." And then there's Mannheim Steamroller, which for the past 30 years has brought an instantly recognizable modern synthesizer-driven spin on traditional Christmas songs and beyond.

The mastermind of Mannheim Steamroller is Chip Davis, who got his start writing music for C.W. McCall of "Convoy" fame, then struck gold with Mannheim Steamroller's Fresh Aire albums before striking platinum in the Christmas realm. To date, Mannheim Steamroller has sold more than 40 million albums and is the top Christmas music artist of all time.

Mannheim Steamroller will be performing at the Granada Theatre next Thursday, Dec. 29. Tickets are available by clicking here.

Davis talked to Noozhawk about how the music of Mannheim Steamroller became such a big part of Christmas.

                                                                        •        •

Jeff Moehlis: The first Mannheim Steamroller album, Fresh Aire, is just over 40 years old. How did you see that album fitting in relation to the musical landscape of that time?

Chip Davis: When I wrote that album, I thought I was writing a pop album, and much to my surprise found out that I wasn't. The album took off sales-wise actually in hi-fi stores, instead of regular, traditional retail. The hi-fi stores were selling high-end turntables, speakers, high-end cartridges and all that. So the album was being used to demonstrate high-end audio. The first place it was at was as a demonstration record that the hi-fi guys were buying. But then people would come in and say, "Hey, I love that turntable or speaker, but what's that thing you're playing on it?" And the guy is like, "Well, it's Fresh Aire, it's this group Mannheim Steamroller." Then, what happened is the hi-fi stores started stocking the albums so that they could sell it with the turntables, because people wanted to buy it.

Eventually, by Fresh Aire II, which was several years later, it started working its way into traditional retail. Best Buy I don't think was around then, but Target certainly was. So it got into the big stores then at some point in time, and at one point when the Christmas album came in '84, which was 10 years later, that whole thing just rocketed. The head buyer at Target bought a lot of them, and it created quite a stir in the whole record business.

JM: What inspired you to do a Christmas album?

CD: You know, I just liked Christmas music. I wasn't doing any Fresh Aire albums at that point. It was in between albums. I usually let myself have a few years between Fresh Aire albums so that you weren't stepping on your own sales in retail. So I thought, "Maybe I'll do a Christmas album, because I really like Christmas music."

I have a lot of Renaissance Christmas albums. Christmas really got started musically by a guy called Johann Hermann Schein in North Germany. I started listening to some of the pieces that they were doing, and in fact one of the pieces he wrote is on one of the Christmas albums ["Gagliarda" first appeared on Mannheim Steamroller's Christmas in the Aire], and we play it at the concerts also. So I got enthralled with Christmas music because of the Renaissance spin on it.

As you can hear, the first Christmas album gathers songs like "Deck the Halls," which is a real techno sort of thing for its time, but there are four cuts on there that are pure Renaissance. I played all of the instruments myself. I was a bassoon major at (University of) Michigan, and so I played all of the instruments myself, whether it was the tambourine/percussion instruments, or recorders, or the crumhorn, or any of the ancient double reed instruments.

JM: Did you have any inkling that the first Christmas album would be so popular?

CD: No, actually. I was discouraged by a lot of the retailers at the time to do a Christmas album. They said, "An artist usually does a Christmas album if they're running out of ideas. Or they're fulfilling a commitment with a label and they want to get off that label, so they write a Christmas album. They're saving up their good stuff." Yeah, I was kind of discouraged, but I've never let that bother me in the past, and I didn't let it then. That album went on to sell 9 million copies, and I think everyone thought it was OK after all.

JM: Do you have a favorite childhood Christmas memory that you're willing to share?

CD: I grew up in a town of 500 people back in Ohio, and my grandmother was the church organist, and their house was right across the street from the Methodist church. My dad was the choirmaster there. I just remember how magical a candlelight evening service was, with the music and the candlelight and all that. Walking out the back door of the church between services you'd smell wood smoke in the air from the chimneys around. It was just magical. That image has stuck with me my whole life.

JM: For someone who hasn't seen a live Mannheim Steamroller Christmas show before, could you describe how it's staged?

CD: The show overall is basically all Christmas music, except for — and this is by popular demand from my fans telling me — there's a 25-minute segment of Fresh Aire in the show also. Other than that, it's all Christmas music. But there is a little bit of Fresh Aire.

There are six performers in Mannheim, and then we always hire a local orchestra of about 20 players, and they'll be in the pit or onstage, depending on how the setup of the theater is.

The other thing that the audience will see is that we have synchronized lighting. It's a very colorful show. There's synchronized lighting that goes with it, and we have some special effects, some fog that comes on, things like that. The lighting and the sound ... it's really quite a spectacular looking show, as well as sounding.

Click here for the full interview with Chip Davis.

— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, The opinions expressed are his own.

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