Jeannine Jordan: Please tell us about your early years as the co-founder of Mannheim Steamroller. Where did the idea to create a “new and unusual” sound for classical music come from?
Mr. Berkey: The “new and unusual sound” of Fresh Aire was developed by Chip Davis while teaching music to junior high and high school students in Sylvania, Ohio. Chip combined classical elements with popular music elements in an effort to keep his students attentive and to learn some of the elements of classical music through listening to pop music.
The most obvious musical element added was, of course, the harpsichord, which immediately implies “classical” to both knowing and unknowing listeners. This was all happening during the time period when Mason William’s “Classical Gas” was a major hit across the USA.
J: With a master’s degree in piano performance from Julliard, your work with Mannheim Steamroller was certainly a huge step out of the classical piano performance box. Your first Fresh Aire album intrigued this then college music major and still does today. Please tell us more.
Mr. Berkey: Chip Davis and I met while we were both touring with the Norman Luboff Choir…he, as a member of the tenor section; and I, as tour pianist. In between tours Chip and I roomed together and he began writing piano pieces for me to play. The first of these were the four “Fresh Aire Interludes” which appeared on Fresh Aire I. The music of Fresh Aire I was written at Norm Luboff’s suggestion with the understanding that it would be recorded and produced in a Los Angeles studio by top studio players … mostly as a learning experience for me and Chip. That idea did not materialize, so Chip and I recorded the first Fresh Aire album in “off evenings” while writing and producing commercials for sound recorders in Omaha, Nebraska. The first Fresh Aire album was recorded on 2-inch, 16 track tape using the latest technology available at the time (1973-1975).
J: I love the idea of using all sorts of keyboard instruments in the Fresh Aire albums — especially the pipe organ in Toccata in G. How were these keyboard choices made? Did you have a particular sound in mid? Where was Toccata first recorded?
Mr. Berkey: Toccata, of course, had to be recorded on a large pipe organ…from the initial writing, this was a requirement, as was the use of acoustic strings and acoustic harpsichord throughout the Fresh Aire project(s). Sound recorders had a studio in Kansas City as well as Omaha, and the studio managers in Omaha and Kansas City made arrangements for us to record Toccata on the 129-rank Aeolian Skinner organ in the International Assembly Hall of the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints in Independence, Missouri.
J: What were you doing when the “light” came on and you and Chip said, “Hey, we need to create and record a Christmas album with Mannheim Steamroller.”
Mr. Berkey: The first Mannheim Steamroller Christmas album was produced out of necessity. Almost all artists in the last part of the 20th-century produced Christmas albums to have a “seasonal product” to sell for Christmas, and to gain airplay during the Christmas season, November-December. The sudden impact of “Deck the Hall(s)” was not anticipated. We were in Salt Lake City doing a Fresh Aire tour when “Deck” skyrocketed on the “Billboard” charts!