In the early 1980s, composer Chip Davis decided he wanted to make a Christmas album.
He was warned against it, though. This would signal the end of his career, they said. Christmas albums are for old, washed up artists with nothing better to do and no new ideas. Don't make a Christmas album, they told him.
He made a Christmas album anyway.
As a series of slides told this story on a massive video screen behind the band, they played Deck the Halls and the crowd tapped and clapped and cheered along. In the background, a video of Mannheim Steamroller playing for President Bill Clinton, and then George W Bush, showed up. Then a clip of them on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Then with Regis Philbin, then with Dick Clark, then the Today Show, and pretty much every other benchmark of popular culture success. Chip Davis, the guy who was warned not to make a Christmas album, had made it big — and the Christmas album led the way.
They’ve sold something like 40 million albums over the years. They have a handful of platinum records spanning across three decades. They’ve been doing an annual Christmas tour for over 33 years and still selling out shows, including tonight’s at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland. In fact, now they’ve got two “casts,” touring simultaneously, traveling all across the country playing Christmas music for families and couples and every kind of individual you can imagine. Mannheim Steamroller is a Christmas tradition, a staple of the holiday season, and it's because Chip Davis decided to do what he was told not to do.
I guess it’s a good thing he didn’t listen to the critics. Following conventional wisdom is a great way to be mediocre, but Chip Davis chose another path.
Hearing his story, and listening to his music, put a smile on my face. It was a great official kickstart to the Holiday season with my dad, going to a show in downtown Portland at the Schnitz.
The Mannheim Steamroller story reminded me that the market — and not just the economic market, but the market of people’s attention — rewards passion.
It’s like that scene from La La Land (my favorite movie of all time), when Sebastian and Mia are fighting at the dinner table. They're yelling at each other, and Mia asks Sebastian if he even likes the music he's playing -- it's not the jazz like he dreamed of playing. Sebastian reminds Mia that she hated jazz. She loves jazz because he loves jazz, she explains. "People love what other people are passionate about," she says.
And she’s right. In creative pursuits, if you love what you’re doing and people can feel it and they really believe you, it will happen for you. With a little bit of talent and patience, it will work. That's how a career-ending Christmas album became a ticket to the Tonight Show. I guess one lesson here is, if people are telling you to give up on a creative pursuit, the first step is signaling the end of your career. That's when the fun begins.
The path of least resistance for Chip Davis likely would have led him to a career of anonymity, composing music most people would never hear — and of course there’s nothing wrong with that. He still would have been doing what he loved. But tonight his music led an audience of a couple thousand, myself included, on a walk down memory lane and into a new holiday season. So yeah, I’m glad Chip Davis ignored the cynics.