'Convoy' Composer Chip Davis Traded in His 18-Wheeler for a Solo Ride on Mannheim Steamroller

updated 12/19/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/19/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

Breaker one-nine—squawk—breaker one-nine, this is the Wheels of Time, do you read me? I'm pickin' up somethin' strange on the AM/FM that sounds like Christmas carols without the words. Over. I said Christmas carols. Can you give me a make on it? Over. I said can you give me a make? Over. I said over, over. Is anybody out there?

It was 13 years ago that a mystery man by the handle of C.W. McCall rolled onto the country music scene with "Convoy," a catchy ballad about lawless truckers that capitalized on the citizens-band radio craze and rode to the top of the U.S. pop charts. Old C.W. was in fact two people: singer and lyricist Bill Fries and the composer of the ditty, Chip Davis, 41, a classically trained musician who now makes New Age music under the curious name of Mannheim Steamroller. The group's eighth and latest effort, A Fresh Aire Christmas, which features classic carols, remarkably has sold more than a million copies, making it easily the year's most popular yuletide platter.

For all that success, though, Davis isn't wild about that New Age label. "Too fluffy," he says. "I think of my music as eclectic. I write by finding superstructures of classical music, then using melodies more akin to today, or rock and roll rhythms." On the other hand, he notes, there is a plus to being pigeonholed as a New Ager. "Until recently," says Davis, "it was real hard to locate our stuff in record stores."

To back up a minute, "Convoy" was a fluke. In 1972 Davis was writing commercial jingles in Omaha and struck up a working relationship with local adman Fries. Together they created a series for Old Home Bread that told the saga of a C.W. McCall and his waitress girlfriend, Mavis. The spots became so popular that the pair decided "it would be cute to string a couple of them together and make a record. Until then I'd always said there were two things I'd never do," recalls the Ohio-born Davis. "Live in Nebraska and write country and western." But "Convoy" took off, and Davis was able to use the profits to launch Mannheim Steamroller—the name is a whimsical play on "Mannheim roller," an 18th-century music style characterized by volume that could flatten a listener.

Despite the imposing name, Mannheim Steamroller is basically a solo act. "I do 90 percent of the stuff, and I use studio players for the rest," says Davis, who does his noodling at a seven-keyboard, computer-driven synthesizer in the basement of his home on 40 acres outside Omaha. A Macintosh computer records and scores his musical experiments and can play them back and, at a keystroke, add other instruments or harmonic notes. The hi-tech equipment makes it possible for Davis to compose and arrange almost as rapidly as he can think. "By the time I finished the Christmas album, I was the fastest on this junk that I've ever been," he says. "The last tune I wrote, I got up at a quarter to 7, hit on the name "Traditions of Christmas," and by 9:15 I was printing the full score out."

Davis' wife, Sharon, 30, who runs a stable on their property, says she's happy that her husband has an artistic passion, even though it's one she doesn't share. "I'm not very musically oriented," she says, "but we're attuned to each other." Davis' father, Louis, is a retired high school music teacher, and his mother, Betty, played trombone. "When he was a baby," says Betty, "the only way I could get him to stop crying was to get out my trombone. We got him a Playskool toy bench with a little hammer, but I don't think he ever hammered. He'd conduct."

As part of his continuous search for new sounds, Davis recently conducted himself to the Grand Canyon, where he recorded "rocks, sticks, anything I could find" in hopes of converting the sounds, via synthesizers, into music. He disagrees with those critics who complain that technological innovation is becoming a substitute for musical imagination. "I wish Mozart could sit in my basement," he says. "Think how much fun a guy like him could have with all this junk."

—Tim Allis, and Beth Austin in Omaha

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