“The City Came Out & Really Showed Us Favor”: Fort Wayne Youth Ensemble’s 25th Anniversary

“The City Came Out & Really Showed Us Favor”: Fort Wayne Youth Ensemble’s 25th Anniversary

Choir director revisits group’s history

25 years ago, Chris Ford started the Fort Wayne Youth Ensemble for a favor.  The National Baptist Youth Convention was set for Union Baptist Church and the youth director there, Bobbie Jackson, asked Ford to assemble a choir for it.  The impromptu group was so dope Ford was inundated with business-card requests afterwards, from folks out of town, for his (supposed) choir to come to them for a performance.  After the group’s 25-year reunion, held November 24, 2018 at Mount Calvary Baptist on Warsaw Street, the group’s showmanship brought more requests for Ford to produce more shows.  He spoke with the Fort Wayne Ink Spot about the reunion.

Fort Wayne Ink Spot (FWIS): Can you talk about what happened after that initial show?

Chris Ford: The National Baptist Youth Convention was coming to town so I called some friends, 25 or 30 of us.  It was just an amazing event overall.  And we did it as a favor.  A lady named Donna Brown, who was also the youth leader/director at Union Baptist, kept calling and leaving messages.  She wanted to talk about “my choir,” but I wasn’t interested.  At the time, I had a six-member group of my own.

In the four weeks [after the first show], a lot of young people at Union Baptist inquired about wanting to be in the choir.  And I was getting calls from young people in the community.  The people I gathered [for the show] were from various churches in the city.

I guess the Lord changed my heart so we started practicing.  These were young kids, from age 7, up to young people in their early 20s.  We had the Tolbert boys, Kevin Hayden, Steve Hayden, Estwan Jackson, Stan Jordan, Linwood Bolden, and Eric Adams. Our only goal was to sing on Sunday nights.  We had requirements: had to have the grades and be active in their own church.

One of our proud moments was the time gang-bangers [joined the choir] because they heard about the choir.  But to see lives transformed from ungodly to godliness through the ministry…this vehicle has moved a lot of kids.

Somewhere between 1993 and ‘98, we won McDonalds Gospel Fest in Indianapolis…windows of opportunities opened.  We also developed an annual Spring Break Tour; we’re flying to the destinations or taking three or four charter busses.  A lot of these kids were from low-income households who may have never had the opportunities to [travel]; we were very proud of that.  And we’re talking almost 200 kids.  Logistically it was a nightmare moving that many people but we had great support through our parent volunteers.

About ten years later, in 2003, the majority of us were no longer youth.  We were young adults so we decided to change the name of the choir, at the recommendation Al Hobbs, who owned a record label at the time he was interested in signing us.  We couldn’t keep calling ourselves youth when we had mustaches and beards.  That’s when we became Chris Ford and Power of Praise.  At the time we were probably 50, 60 strong.  Our travel schedule had become so intense that a lot of the parents of our younger kids said they couldn’t keep up with this kind of schedule.  I still have that group today.  It’s changed over the years.  We don’t meet on Sundays anymore at 7. Probably about half the size now; a lot of people have moved to other places here in the country

FWIS: Let’s swing back to the reunion…

Ford: It was a blessing to see everyone that came back. Around 50 [singers] made it to the reunion and participated; there were about 25 in audience that I called them up to perform one of our familiar songs.  One of our musicians, Lance Tolbert, who was part of the choir since day one at probably 12 or 13 years old, has played the bass guitar for Mariah Carey for the past 11 years; he didn’t make it to the reunion because they were in China, I think.  We have so many success stories out there.  We have another guy, Kevin Hayden, professional musician in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and doing some amazing things. 

There probably isn’t a church in Fort Wayne that we didn’t sing at some point in the journey.  So when people heard we were doing the reunion they really came out.  We made a weekend out of it. We did some activities, starting Thanksgiving night and [through Sunday, with brunch at Granite City].

FWIS: What songs did you perform?

Ford: It was tough trying to put the song list together because over the years we’ve amassed a library full of songs.  We did “Jesus Is Real” by John P. Kee, one of our most popular songs, “We’ve Come To Lift Him Up.”  We did an original song; the Fort Wayne Youth Ensemble did a recording in probably in the mid-90s titled “There’s A Man.”  We did that song during our candle light vigil piece of the service.  This group has lost 12 folks since its inception. We lit a candle in their honor and presented their families with a plaque, with a very nice message on it, to each of them.  The young lady who did that solo on that particular song was one of the deceased.

FWIS: Sometimes after these reunion shows, people start getting ideas to do more? They have been blowing my phone up. (Laughs.) They want us to come back next year.  I said absolutely not.  (Laughs.)  What I’m considering is (maybe) in 2020, bring the choir back together.  And because we have a such a jukebox of material, we can do these concerts every other year for probably about the next ten years and never run out of songs.  (Laughs.) 

Chris Ford and past members perform at the Fort Wayne Youth Ensemble 25th Anniversary celebration.
Kevin Hayden, Walter "Papa" Hayden, Chris Ford, and Steve Hayden.

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