A few years ago, Billboard looked at the best-selling Christmas albums of all time. At number 1 sits Elvis’ Christmas Album, and the second seat goes, surprisingly, to Kenny G, but the third spot is a three-way tie between Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song and both of Mannheim Steamroller’s original Christmas records: Mannheim Steamroller Christmas and A Fresh Aire Christmas.
This accounting is a bit skewed, as the electronic minstrel band has primarily released holiday albums. While the two records at #3 have sold about 6 million copies each, Mannheim Steamroller has sold over 27 million Christmas albums, between studio and live recordings. Considering the peak of success for most artists is going Diamond (10 million records sold), this great a number is nearly unheard of for all but the most culturally influential performers.
The monumental success of Mannheim Steamroller all started with Chip Davis, the founder of the band and the driving creative mind behind the music. He and William Fries were working for Bozell & Jacobs, writing commercial jingles, in 1974, when they hit on something special with a character named C.W. McCall. After a series of commercials that featured McCall, a long haul truck driver, the character was signed to a record deal and the tune “Convoy,” which took the nation by storm in the 70s, was not far behind.
Davis took the money he made from “Convoy” and started his own band, Mannheim Steamroller. Named for a mid-16th century musical term developed in the city of Mannheim, Germany, he described the group as “18th-century classical rock.” Their music is best described by The New Yorker’s Amanda Petrusich:
There is something dorky but hugely glorious about the entire enterprise. For me, it slots neatly alongside such prized cultural artifacts as “Game of Thrones” and Dungeons & Dragons: at first, it requires some intellectual acrobatics to enjoy, but its pleasures are deep, weird, and pure.
Davis had some trouble marketing his new and often outrageous music. Their debut album Fresh Aire was met with apathy from record shops who were reveling in the heyday of disco and funk with bands like The Bee Gees, Earth Wind and Fire, and David Bowie. Even though no one wanted his music, however, Davis was determined to make it work.
In a move of utter brilliance he began shipping copies of his LP to stores that sold high-end stereo equipment. With a little convincing, these stores began using Fresh Aire, an album that often tests the extremes of speakers, in their shops on their display models. The gambit worked and Fresh Aire was eventually certified Gold.
It wasn’t until 1984 that Davis decided to start releasing Christmas albums. In the mid 1980s releasing Christmas music was seen negatively, as a sign that the artist was on their way out, but for Davis the move led to an extremely lucrative career, decades of touring, and the creation of a second Mannheim Steamroller so that they could reach all the audiences that demanded their performances.
Davis was not well-loved by every critic and received a lot of negative reviews over the last 44 years. Some have even deemed it “music for people who do not like music.” The artist, however, believes that the proof is in the Christmas pudding:
“I’ve read some of the headlines, things like ‘Commercial Musical Stew,’ ”he told the Times, in 2005. “All I know is that 15,000 people came to my concert, and I saw them stand up. And they weren’t standing up to leave.”