Mannheim Steamroller is a music group founded by Chip Davis, and co-founded by Jackson Berkey, known primarily 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/composer Chip Davis. The name "Mannheim Steamroller" comes from an 18th-century German musical technique, Mannheim rocket or roller, an ascending arpeggio 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 (a play on the classical record label Deutsche Grammophon), 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 (less obviously than the others), Fresh Aire III being summer, and Fresh Aire IV being winter. All four of these albums maintained the blend of baroque classical music and light jazz. Albums have featured Jackson Berkey's 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 interleaving of piano and harpsichord.
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.
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.
In 2008, Chip Davis underwent surgery which prevented him from touring or performing with the band. Rather than force the tour to stop completely while he recovered, Davis opted to hire additional musicians to temporarily replace him. He also decided to create two different lineups of the band, one of which toured in the Midwest, the other on the East Coast.