‘Such a Joy’

Roxanne Layton returns to Mannheim Steamroller for year 27

By L. Kent Wolgamott

Roxanne Layton doesn’t know exactly how many shows she’s played in the 27 years she’s been with Mannheim Steamroller.

But the recorder player knows she’ll be adding about 40 more to that total this year as the orchestra, which plays the classical rock Christmas music of Chip Davis, makes its annual two-month holiday tour. Mannheim Steamroller comes to The Pasadena Civic at 7:30 p.m. Monday, November 28. 

“I was trying to add it up,” Layton says. “Here’s an average of at least 40 shows a year. The first 10 years we didn’t have 40 shows. We were playing arenas to 10,000 people a night. So, let’s say 500 shows at least.”

And, even though the Mannheim Steamroller program only changes slightly from year to year, Layton never gets tired of performing it, on her recorder and percussion. 

“There is such a joy to doing this,” she says. “This music is timeless. It was the first Christmas album that so many people remember getting introduced to Mannheim Steamroller, even though we know there was much more before that.”

Layton, in fact, came to Mannheim Steamroller before it became an American Christmas tradition.

After graduating from the New England Conservatory of Music, Layton was working in Boston when she initially encountered Mannheim Steamroller. 

“I won tickets from a radio station,’” she says. “I was making recorders at the time, and someone had given me ‘Fresh Aire III.’ I thought, ‘This is so cool. It’s classical rock and roll.’ They had a (touring) orchestra back then, and the trumpet player came into the shop. He asked if I wanted to come to rehearsal. I went from my shop with my instruments for the show, met Chip later, and ended up talking with him until 2 a.m.”

Layton had left a tape with Davis, the Omaha-based composer who created the neoclassical new age group in 1974, who, apparently, listened immediately after.

The next morning, Davis called Layton. “He asked ‘Would you like to be on my next album?” That all happened in 24 hours,” Layton says.

So, why did Mannheim need a recorder player?

“Back in the Renaissance, the recorder was like the trumpet and the saxophone. It was the instrument that led all the dances,” Layton says. 

“Chip is a big Renaissance fan. He was a bassoonist, but he was also a great recorder player and drummer, which is a double you don’t see out there.”

Adding Layton to the group gave Davis, who, for years, played with Mannheim on tour, additional flexibility in his role onstage.

“What it did was allow him to play the recorder while I played the drums or I could play the recorder while he plays drums,” she says of Davis, who no longer tours but still appears at special Mannheim Steamroller events.

The enduring career of Mannheim Steamroller began in 1975 — not with a Christmas album, but with the first “Fresh Aire” album. Combining classical music and pop, and using orchestral instruments and synthesizers and other synthetic tones, “Fresh Aire” helped usher in the new age music genre.

Davis created Mannheim Steamroller during the period when he was writing music with friend Bill Fries, who adopted the stage name and the CB radio toting character of C.W. McCall and became a country music star in 1976 with their hit song “Convoy” (which inspired the 1978 movie of the same name, starring Kris Kristofferson and Ali MacGraw).  

Davis, though, was soon focusing on Mannheim Steamroller and what grew to a series of eight “Fresh Aire” albums, which enjoyed major popularity considering they were marketed in a niche genre.

But today Davis and Mannheim Steamroller are best known for Christmas music. Davis entered the holiday fray with the 1984 album “Mannheim Steamroller Christmas,” at a time when such seasonal albums were largely seen as something artists released when they were on the downside of their careers.

Instead, that first Christmas album became a huge hit, selling 5 million copies, and Mannheim Steamroller has gone on to become the bestselling Christmas act of all time.

The way Davis schedules the holiday tours has helped keep fans — especially families — coming out to see Mannheim Steamroller’s Christmas shows year after year.

“We go to the markets every other or every third year,” Davis said in a 2017 interview. “So, then that gives them time to (think about), ‘Oh, you know, the kids are a little older. We should take them this year.’ I think that has a lot to do with the longevity.”

Like every other music group and artist, Mannheim Steamroller was unable to tour in 2020. But it was back for the Christmas tour last year. Once again, this year, two companies of the group will go on tour — one East Coast and one West Coast. 

That music will be performed by an orchestra that is made up of a core group of Steamroller players, like Layton, and musicians brought in from each community or area where the group performs, who rehearse in the afternoons before the evening show.

That combination works well, Layton says, as the local musicians come in well prepared and the rehearsal tightens up the music before the performances.

“We do the same program every night,” she says. “For me, I just try to do it better every night. For me, it’s a gift to get to enjoy this music. I still cry at a point in ‘Oh Holy Night.’ … I try not to cry during the shows, but sometimes it happens.”

Mannheim Steamroller Christmas by Chip Davis

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Monday, November 28

WHERE: The Pasadena Civic, 300 E. Green Street, Pasadena

COST: Tickets start at $50

INFO: ticketmaster.com

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