The best part of playing with Mannheim Steamroller, Tom Sharpe said, is being part of something that’s a Christmas tradition.
Sharpe is the drummer/percussionist for the Steamroller unit that’s coming to Grand Island Friday. The Omaha-based group is the No. 1 Christmas music artist in history, with more than 29 million records sold — 12 million more than Elvis.
“This is more than playing songs. This is more than just going and doing a concert. I mean, you’re not playing songs, you’re playing traditions,” Sharpe said Wednesday in a phone interview. “The best part about it is being able to spread this joy at the holidays.”
Sharpe has been a part of Mannheim Steamroller since 2008.
“For me and for our band, we really feel called to do this. It’s not a job,” he said. “It really is a life calling to just be able to spread this joy, and do something really special like this. It’s a blessing.”
This year’s tour celebrates the 35th anniversary of the Mannheim Steamroller Christmas tour. The tour is now divided into red and green teams. Sharpe is a member of the red unit.
Chip Davis, the founder, is on neither tour. He spends the holidays at Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla., conducting an orchestra in the music of Mannheim Steamroller.
Davis doesn’t play an instrument anymore in concert. “When he stopped doing that is actually when I joined,” Sharpe said. Davis was the drummer on tour.
So Sharpe feels a “bigger sense of responsibility” than others, knowing he has big shoes to fill.
But actually, he’s not alone.
“I think we all feel that way in the group,” he said.
Davis’ first Christmas disc came out in 1984.
“This is the 35th anniversary of that first Christmas album,” Sharpe said.
That recording rocked the world of holiday music.
“If you’re a certain age you know where you were when that album came out. It really turned Christmas music upside-down,” Sharpe said.
“So to be carrying that on 35 years later” is a privilege, he said. “This is carefully crafted music that people expect to hear a certain way. So we’re honored to do it. It’s a tremendous responsibility. We take great care in recreating this music and really for us — for me taking over the drums and for us as a group — we know that we need to bring it.”
As Sharpe spoke, the group had a dozen shows to go. The Steamroller performs Sunday and Monday at the Orpheum in Omaha. The musicians get a few days off for Christmas. Then they’ll “go straight on through that next week and let people use their Christmas gift tickets for the show,” he said.
In what houses does the band enjoy performing the most?
“There are just beautiful theaters everywhere. Right now we’re in Salt Lake City and the theater is just spectacular,” said Sharpe, who has quite a career of his own.
The classically trained musician lives in the Chicago area, where he graduated from DePaul University. He grew up in the Motor City, so he loves “to go home and play Detroit,” where the group performs at the Fox Theatre.
“That one always feels special for me. People do special things for me when I’m there,” Sharpe said.
Other members of the group would have their own favorite cities, he said. But the band loves “coming back to Nebraska.”
“Everything is elevated when we are there, as far as just the dynamic and the vibrancy of the audience,” Sharpe said.
Davis, 72, still lives on a piece of land north of Omaha that covers more than 150 acres. That land is home to “all sorts of animals” and “an academic-grade observatory that’s high on a hill up there,” Sharpe said.
Davis’ daughters, Elyse and Kelly, sometimes perform with Mannheim Steamroller, but they won’t be around this year.
A Steamroller concert isn’t the same as it was 25 years ago.
“One thing about Chip Davis that’s awesome is that he never just rests on what was. So there’s always something new about the concert,” Sharpe said.
Davis knows the group has to play the music that everyone is expecting to hear — i.e., the hits. But he also realizes the need to bring in new things, Sharpe said.
“So that returning audience members are seeing some things they expect, and some things that they don’t,” he said.
Something new sometimes means new music.
“Chip has a new album out called ‘Exotic Spaces.’ We’ll be doing something from that,” Sharpe said.
But the unexpected also might involve “going way back into his amazing catalog. We’re pulling out something this year from ‘Fresh Aire 3.’”
People often thank the musicians for playing something they didn’t expect.
“So along with ‘Deck the Halls’ and ‘Carol of the Bells’ and everything that you expect to hear, there are always new surprises, which is great,” Sharpe said.