About Mannheim Steamroller Christmas
Mannheim Steamroller is an American neoclassical new-age music group founded by percussionist/composer Chip Davis that is known primarily for its Fresh Aire series of albums, which blend classical music with elements of new age and rock, and for its modern recordings of Christmas music. The group has sold 28 million albums in the U.S. alone.
Mannheim Steamroller began as an alias for record producer and 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 collaborating with his friend Bill Fries on the songs of the country music character "C. W. McCall" . Even before the height of McCall's popularity, Davis produced an unusual album of classical music performed entirely by Davis and musical collaborator and keyboardist Jackson Berkey, using electric bass 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 published in 1975 under the pseudonym Mannheim Steamroller. Fresh Aire II was subsequently released in 1977, and Fresh Aire III was released in 1979. The first four Fresh Aire albums constituted an exploration of the four seasons, 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 rock, and featured Jackson Berkey's virtuosic keyboard work. Davis and Berkey used whatever instrument seemed appropriate to the piece, using a toy piano on one piece and a full pipe organ on another, with copious interleaving of piano and harpsichord. In 1981 Davis released Fresh Aire Interludes, an album that compiled Berkey's ten piano interludes from the first four Fresh Aire albums.
Davis then moved into exploring some other themes, with Fresh Aire V subtitled "To the Moon," Fresh Aire VI exploring Greek mythology, Fresh Aire 7 based on the number 7, and Fresh Aire 8 based on the theme of infinity. A live tour of the early albums featured a prominent light show and multimedia components, along with spoken poetry by Almeda Berkey. While the music was slightly different from the album versions, it was played in lockstep at each show, as it had to coordinate the live musicians with recorded tracks of strings and other orchestral parts.
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. In 1987, Davis collaborated with guitarist/composer Mason Williams for the album Classical Gas. The music was composed entirely by Williams but produced and arranged by Davis. The album opens with a remake of Williams' 1968 instrumental "Classical Gas", which used the original arrangement.
Steamroller found its greatest fame beginning in 1984 when Davis released his first holiday album, Mannheim Steamroller Christmas, featuring modern contemporary interpretations of Yuletide favorites. This was followed by A Fresh Aire Christmas and Christmas in the Aire , 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. At the end of 1997, they released a live album of Christmas music, Mannheim Steamroller Christmas Live. Their fourth all-new Christmas album, Christmas Extraordinaire, was released in 2001. However, sales of Steamroller's third and fourth Christmas releases fell far short of the sales of Christmas and A Fresh Aire Christmas. Christmas Celebration, a compilation of favorite tracks from the previous studio albums , 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, but co-founder Jackson Berkey is absent from the lineup. The CD Christmasville was released in 2008. Their next release was a 25th anniversary Christmas box set consisting of previously released material, and in 2011 they released Mannheim Steamroller Christmas Symphony with members of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.
Musically, as the 1990s progressed, Davis moved into the mainstream of "progressive rock" music with a heavier reliance on synthesized instruments and less humor. Titles like "Small Wooden Bach'ses" from Fresh Aire III were not seen, nor mechanisms like the creative use of a cricket on the same album or the Gregorian chant on Fresh Aire II. Davis's music became closer to the "light jazz" style that gained prominence in the 1990s, especially with the Day Parts albums.
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