Tag Archives: Chip Davis

The King of Christmas Music

October 24, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Despite Best Buy no longer selling CDs, and big-box stores like Target reducing their music inventory to a few small rows of releases, Chip Davis remains married to the physical product. 

His Omaha recording-rehearsal studio is connected to a warehouse full of Fresh Aire and Mannheim Steamroller CDs and albums, ready to be shipped out. But if you want to listen to Mannheim Steamroller’s latest release, you’ll have to pick it up at the merch booth during one of their performances at the Orpheum Theater. 

Davis has released his share of physical product in 2018. In addition to his latest CD, Exotic Spaces (again, currently only available at performances), he released a young adult book trilogy in October. Titled The Wolf and The Warlander, the story about a horse and a timber wolf was written as a collaboration between Davis and Mark Valenti (who has written for Disney, Nickelodeon, and the Hallmark Channel). 

Releasing a book trilogy and a new CD in the span of a year would make a hugely productive calendar for most artists. But for Davis, it’s even more of an accomplishment, given that he was prepping for the holiday season for nearly half of the year. 

In mid-August, Davis was at his studio, getting ready to welcome two different Mannheim Steamroller touring groups into his rehearsal room. The setup is old hat at this point: bring in the musicians, run through the set, and make tweaks where appropriate. Most of the musicians have been in the touring band for years and know the routine, Davis says. As a result, he avoids over-rehearsing the material. 

“They’ve played this stuff so much, you don’t want to beat a dead horse,” Davis says. 

On a hot August afternoon, Davis was in casual mode, wearing lime-green shorts and an Under Armor shirt. He walked through the process of choosing a setlist for each of the cities for this winter’s tour. Davis reviews the cities where Mannheim Steamroller will play, and then pulls up what has and has not been played in the past for those audiences. 

“You have to have certain pieces in there, or the audience is going to mutiny,” Davis says. “But you have to have a certain amount of new.” 

Davis won’t be in attendance for the majority of the touring Mannheim Steamroller shows. Instead, he’ll be at Universal Studios in Orlando, conducting the production of How the Grinch Stole Christmas with another Mannheim Steamroller band. This will be his 10th year conducting the production, which runs the week before Thanksgiving through Christmas. 

“They’ll probably have me doing it until I drop dead on the podium,” Davis says with a laugh. 

The success of the Mannheim Steamroller Christmas albums and tours has enabled Davis to pursue other sonic adventures. For Exotic Spaces, he set out to do a musical characterization of places that inspired him, like the pyramids and the Taj Mahal. For each of the tracks, he tried to use musical instruments native to each location. For one track, he used Naval-grade hydrophones to record a whale song off the coast of Oregon. 

In terms of drawing inspiration from newer bands, Davis says he typically sticks to listening to the classical music radio station KVNO. He rarely listens to the radio at home, but in the car, he prefers to listen to Supertramp’s album Crime of the Century. 

“It’s a fabulous album,” Davis says. “Their rhythm chops are so good.” 

Though Davis may stick with the classics, he is a big fan of some of the musical software used by today’s electronic artists. Some of the tracks on Exotic Spaces were recorded with Pro Tools. 

“The percussion sounds [in Pro Tools] are better than real. It’s dead clear,” Davis says. 

Another benefit of Pro Tools is it gives artists the ability to create a virtual symphony. Records that used to demand a full recording studio can now be done on a laptop or tablet. Davis agrees that software like Pro Tools can enable a person to record a symphony, but software can only accomplish so much. 

“The next thing to that is, ‘Do you know how to use a symphony?’” he says. 

If Pro Tools can offer a somewhat inexpensive way to record, then sites like Bandcamp and Spotify represent how artists now use technology to get their work out to mass audiences. Mannheim Steamroller is available on Spotify and iTunes. But Davis says streaming sites are not a good medium for his music. 

“One of the things that throws me for a loop is that this entire company has been devoted to creating the highest audio possible,” he says, “and when you get into streaming, you can’t really do that.” 

However, Davis believes there’s still a place for the physical product. 

“There are people who want it,” he says. “The problem is ‘How do you find them’ and ‘How do they find us?’” 

Mannheim Steamroller Christmas by Chip Davis will offer two live performances at the Orpheum Theater in Omaha on Dec. 22-23. Visit mannheimsteamroller.com for more information. 

This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Looks Like We Got Us A Failure

October 3, 2016 by

We all know the old quote. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

This kind of persistence is considered a virtue, especially when one is engaged in a noble pursuit like trying to cure the common cold, discovering America, or attempting to rig a bird feeder so that the squirrels can’t loot it, boldly, right in front of you, day after day, no matter what you do…but I digress.

“It is fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.”

Yeah, Bill Gates said that. Of course, there’s another old maxim: “That’s easy for you to say.” Bill Gates is the richest guy in the world, or close enough that it doesn’t make much difference. I mean how many diamond-encrusted, squirrel-proof bird feeders can one man use, right? Failure’s sting can be numbed more than a little bit by just one $55 billion success.

“They all laughed at Alexander Graham Bell. They all laughed at Steve Jobs.  They all laughed at Jeremy Geomorphia…”

And yet we have telephones, or at least we used to have them. Anyway, now we have “smartphones,” and nobody’s laughing anymore. Jeremy Geomorphia?  Well, they were right to laugh at him. Turned out nobody needed his innovative, non-slip collars for their pet boa constrictors.

People laughed at Chip Davis, too. But that’s exactly what he wanted them to do.   

When the kid out of Ohio came to Omaha to work for an advertising agency, he brought the funny. He and Bill Fries put together the “Old Home Filler-Up an’ Keep on A-Truckin’ Cafe” campaign for Old Home Bread. It was a huge success. That success naturally led to Davis and Bill (under the pseudonym C.W. McCall) catching the CB radio wave and surfing it all the way to a number one hit song, “Convoy.”

Within two years, Davis was riding the wave even higher. No less a Hollywood icon than Sam Peckinpah was bringing Rubber Duck, Pig Pen, and Sodbuster to life on the silver screen in a big-budget movie starring Kris Kristofferson and Ali McGraw. The 1978 flick remains a cult classic to this day, and…interesting fact: Convoy was the biggest grossing box office success of the legendary director’s career.

Davis wasn’t finished succeeding. About the same time “Convoy” was taking the pop music world by storm, he started a little thing called Mannheim Steamroller. FYI, the moniker comes from “Mannheim Roller,” a crescendo passage having a melodic line over an ostinato bass line originating in the Mannheim school of composition in the 18th century. Add a little Christmas in the `80s and the rest is, as they say, history—or just plain success.

Success. Success. Success. So what’s missing?  Ah yes, failure. Where’s the failure? What huge mistake taught Davis a valuable lesson? What misstep gave Davis the chance to appreciate all of his success?

In a word, his biggest failure was me.

Disco was running big in the `70s. Really big. Davis decided to paddle towards that ocean swell. Thus he produced the dance club classic, “I am the Boogie Man,” a disco anthem for the ages. The lead vocalist? Me. But this time the muse had misled Davis. Almost simultaneously, Steve Dahl held “Disco Demolition Night” in 1979 at Comiskey Park in Chicago and nearly destroyed the venerable stadium when a riot broke out. Disco was dead.

There was an apocryphal story that thousands of unsold vinyl copies of “Boogie Man” were unceremoniously dumped in Davis’ driveway in the dead of a cold Nebraska night. It was the biggest disaster of his long career.

And I was to blame.

If it is true as Sophocles said, “There is no success without failure,” then I must finally take credit where credit is due. 

Chip, you’re welcome.

OtisXIIOtis XII hosts the radio program, Early Morning Classics with Otis XII, on 90.7 KVNO, weekday mornings from 5-9 a.m. Visit kvno.org for more information.

Still Taking Orders

September 24, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The year: 1955.

Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower occupy the White House, gas costs 22 cents per gallon, “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” hits the top of the record charts and Donna Malone greets the very first customers at the Pink Poodle Steakhouse.

Time has a relentless way of relegating things to the past, but both the waitress known simply as Donna and the Pink Poodle have outraced the last six decades. They have persevered through fire, flood, five owners, and an uncertain economy. How? With affordable prime rib and, in Donna’s case, a strong work ethic.

Excitement came to tiny Crescent, Iowa, in May 1955 when Jake Brummer, a local developer who owned three other restaurants in western Iowa, bought an establishment at 633 Old Lincoln Highway called the Black Glove and gave it a new name with a quintessential ’50s flair. The Pink Poodle served up a variety of steaks, chicken, and seafood, providing a quality entertainment venue across the Missouri River from north Omaha and a source of income for a teenage farm girl from just up the road in Honey Creek.

“The Brummers were real good friends with my mom and dad, and I’d known them forever,” Donna recalls. “Jake asked me if I wanted to work at the restaurant and I said, ‘Sure.’ I was 15.”

The new restaurant drew crowds immediately. Donna started out as a cashier and hostess, carefully observing how others did their jobs. One night Brummer asked her to fill in as a waitress. With her characteristic “I can do that” attitude, Donna found she liked waiting on tables—and the benefits that came with it.

“Back then, if you got a quarter per person per table it was a heck of a tip; a dollar from four people,” says Donna, 75, shaking her head at the thought. “One Saturday night I remember making $32. The other girls just couldn’t believe it, absolutely unreal. Of course, a lobster dinner back then was $7.95. Things have changed. But I still make real good money.”

It’s hard to pinpoint when Donna became as sought-after as the Pink Poodle’s signature prime rib (introduced to the menu in the early 1960s). The ease with which she talks to customers vanishes when asked to talk about herself. A private, humble person by nature, Donna will only credit “great food and a wonderful clientele” for the restaurant’s continued success. Current owner Doreen McNeil, who began as a waitress in 1983 and worked with Donna in the party room, shows no such reluctance in focusing the spotlight.

“A lot of people come in here because of you, Donna,” McNeil tells her friend. “People who were children when Donna first waited on them now bring their grandchildren to meet her.”

Even first-time customers like Marianne and North Witcher of Omaha find themselves easily drawn into Donna’s orbit.  “She’s fabulous as a waitress, very knowledgeable and courteous,” says North. “She got our orders exactly right, knew the specials and their prices by heart. We were floored when we learned how long she’d been there.”

Donna’s journey to a 60th anniversary hit a roadblock in January 1972 when fire ravaged the Pink Poodle. “One of our regulars spent too much time at the bar late one night,” recounts Donna in her slow, deliberate delivery, “and a lit cigarette got away from him and fell in a booth. It started smoldering. By 3 in the morning the place was on fire.”

In the four-year interim it took to secure the cash to rebuild, Donna worked at another Crescent establishment where she ran into Kenny Malone, a trucker she had met years earlier. They married in 1974. With no children of her own to raise, Donna continued waitressing at night in addition to her day job as a legal secretary.

“I’ve worked for the same lawyer in west Omaha for the past 45 years and one before him for 10,” she says, matter-of-factly.

Donna’s knowledge of Omaha came in handy during the Missouri’s record flooding in 2011. McNeil decided to keep the restaurant open despite closures from June to November of the Mormon Bridge leading into Crescent and sections of I-29. McNeil says whenever a customer from Omaha called asking for a way to get to the restaurant, “I’d just give the phone to Donna. She’s our resident GPS.”

A solid regular customer base that includes Chip Davis of Manheim Steamroller and KMTV meteorologist Jim Flowers helped keep the restaurant afloat during a tough time, one of many Donna has faced. Tall and thin with porcelain skin and blue eyes, Donna shows no interest in slowing down. “Not unless Doreen fires me,” she says, half seriously.

“Oh, Donna, I’ll never do that,” McNeil quickly responds. “I wish I could find 10 more of you.”


“Convoy” 40 Years Later

September 10, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appears in the Sept./Oct. 2015 issue of 60-Plus.

In the 1975 trucker song “Convoy,” a voice can be heard on a CB radio. “What’s your 20?” the voice asks, code for “what’s your location.” The answer comes back: “Omaha.”

Of course it did. The song itself was from Omaha. And while there were a lot of trucker songs in the 1970s, few could boast the sort of strange backstory “Convoy” could, and none could look to the sort of future the song had.

First, the backstory: “Convoy” was the product of a successful advertising campaign. The product was Old Home Bread, the advertising agency was Omaha’s Bozell & Jacobs. They conceived of a series of ads featuring a truck driver delivering bread to a diner waitress. The waitress was named Mavis Davis. The truck driver was C.W. McCall.

The campaign proved to be popular—so much so that McCall broke off to be an independent character, releasing a number of recordings. The lyrics and singing voice for McCall belonged to Bill Fries, while the songs were written by Chip Davis. Fries later became mayor of Ouray, Colorado, while Davis founded Mannheim Steamroller.

“I said one time that I would never live in Nebraska and I would never write country music,” Davis explains. “I guess we see how that all worked out. My love of music was really in the classical area but my good fortune—and I mean fortune—came by way of writing “Convoy.””

The song tells the story of a lawbreaking, protesting collection of truckers riding cross-country together as a miles-long ribbon of working class antiheroes communicating on CB radios. It became a crossover hit, spending six weeks in the number one slot on the country charts and a week as number one on the pop charts.

As a result, “Convoy” joined the ranks of country songs in the ‘70s that became films along with “Harper Valley PTA,” “Ode to Billy Joe,” and “Take This Job and Shove It.” The film version began shooting in 1977 and boasted an impressive collection of talent. Country legend Kris Kristofferson was cast in the lead along with Oscar-nominated Ali MacGraw and character actor Burt Young. Oscar-winner Ernest Borgnine was the villainous county sheriff determined to break up the I-can’t-drive-55 convoy.

“Convoy” was a pop culture sensation and helped spawn an era when CB radios were all but ubiquitous in every vehicle, even your mom’s station wagon, but Davis and Mannheim Steamroller are also celebrating a pair of even more notable milestones.

This summer, public television stations throughout the U.S. will air Mannheim Steamroller 30/40 Live. The concert special marks two anniversaries for the hugely successful act; their debut album, Fresh Aire, was released four decades ago, followed ten years later by the release of Mannheim Steamroller Christmas, their first holiday album, to huge success.

‘“Convoy’ and the other 12 hits we had,” Davis explains, “ultimately funded Mannheim Steamroller and [record label] American Gramaphone. I’m a lucky guy. Going from a semi to a steamroller wasn’t all that difficult.”