After celebrating the 25th anniversary of releasing a Christmas album that changed the music industry, Chip Davis, founder of the multi platinum selling group Mannheim Steamroller, reflects on the beginnings of what has become nothing less than an amazing musical journey.
“I remember when I created Mannheim Steamroller Christmas,” Davis says of his landmark 1984 album. “I took it around to all the major buyers and distributors. Back in those days, there were about 20 or 30 independent distributors and hundreds of retail stores and chains. There were a lot places to go and sell. I remember taking it out and showing it off and playing it for people, and the first thing out of their mouths was: ‘This is a Christmas record; that’ll never work!’
That across-the-board skepticism only fueled Davis’ determination. “For me, it was like, ‘OK, tell me something else I can’t do…’ And today, with 9 million copies sold of that one record, we can look back and say: ‘Well, we were right – you can successfully market Christmas music.’”
When it comes to the music he has created and the massive audience he has built behind Mannheim Steamroller, Davis has rarely been wrong. From his unlikely base of operations in Omaha, Nebraska, Davis has sold over 40 million records – 27 million in the Christmas genre– making the group one of the top 50 biggest selling musical artists of all time and THE biggest selling Christmas artist of all time. He’s produced hundreds of sold-out Mannheim Steamroller concerts around the world, and his American Gramaphone record label stands as one of the most successful independent music franchises in history.
The success of Mannheim Steamroller and American Gramaphone is testament to what can happen when widespread “word-of-mouth enthusiasm” collides with a deliberate series of innovative marketing techniques. Davis’ fan base is so immense, he consistently hits the platinum sales level by leveraging his own marketing company, a label distributed by Universal Music, and savvy website selling not only music but Mannheim Steamroller-branded products.
Born in Sylvania, Ohio as Louis Davis, Jr., he was nicknamed Chip and the name stuck. Chip came from a musical family, and learned piano from his grandmother. Davis’ father was a high school music teacher, while his mother performed with Phil Spitalny’s All Girl Orchestra. By the time he graduated from the University of Michigan he was prolific classical musician, trained to mastery in bassoon and percussion.
After a stretch as a music teacher himself, Davis worked as a jingle writer for a thriving Omaha, Nebraska advertising agency. While there, he and one of the agency’s ad execs, Bill Fries, dreamed up a fictional truck driver named CW McCall for a series of commercials for The Old Home Bread company.
The television commercials were so popular that stations began fielding requests from listeners. Eventually, the Nashville A&R community came calling and Davis and Fries negotiated a record deal to produce recordings for under the name of CW McCall. One of the songs, a single called “Convoy” blew open the popular CB radio craze of 1975. Within two months, 10 million record buyers were singing along and two years later Kris Kristofferson starred in the hit movie by the same name.