The Gospel according to Middletown’s Steven Ford, a Wilmington student masters the “Jeopardy” clicker, local filmmakers seek peace with Michael Berg, and Delaware’s new king of the jingle.




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Photograph by Thom Thompson





Middletown is music to the ears of this Grammy winner.

Grammy award-winning gospel producer Steven Ford can’t wait to kick back in the den of his home in Middletown with his wife, Deborah, and son, Aaron. He’ll do that the second he wraps up production on “Journey,” his latest CD, slated to hit all major music stores in June.

“Journey” is a showpiece for singer Richard Smallwood, a new inductee into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. But in the recording world, the producer is the real mastermind of the music. Ford is the talent behind many of the industry’s distinguished gospel recordings.

“And here I am,” Ford says, “in the small corners of Delaware.”

Ford is a native Philadelphian who was ordained minister of music for his father’s church at 9 and began producing at 15. He found Middletown nearly four years ago, while living in Marlton, New Jersey. “When I came here, I saw areas that just melted my heart,” he says. “ I wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of New York and L.A. I just love Delaware.”

Ford loves it so much, he plans to bring great gospel acts to record and perform here. Next year he’ll host a conference for musicians and producers of all genres. He’ll follow that with the local release of “Steven Ford and Friends,” a CD of his original music, vocals, lyrics and orchestrations. Ford can’t say which friends will join him, but he’s produced multiple-award winning albums for Shirley Caesar, Kelly Price and the Winans family. A smattering of other music legends, namely Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan and the Hawkins Family, joined Ford for Smallwood’s CD.

Ford, a graduate of Temple University, travels the globe as a subcontractor with Integrity Music, a company based in Mobile, Alabama. “I talk to lots of young people, encouraging them to stay in school, stay off drugs,” he says. “ I know it’s not so hip to talk about spirituality these days, but I tell people that my success has everything to do with my relationship with the Lord and with my family.”

“The key to making it all work, even when you travel most of the time, is excellent communication,” he says. “No matter where it is—could be London—Deborah knows where I am 24-seven.” She recently called while Ford was conducting an orchestra. “The orchestra got put on hold,” he says. “Not my wife.” —Maria Hess



Photograph by Christian Kaye; Transit Web, Print, Photography





Anything but, says a winner of the famous TV game show.

Life changed for David Walter after he won the “Jeopardy” Teen Tournament and $75,000 in February.

Wilmington Friends School welcomed its newly famous senior with fanfare befitting Justin Timberlake. And “a lot of sophomore girls might chase me down the hallways.” But they won’t ravage Walter because of “Jeopardy.” He also scored a cameo on MTV’s teen megahit “True Life.”

“The whole thing made my senior year far more exciting and fun,” Walter says. “I was able to keep my cool on TV. ‘Jeopardy’ confirmed my public speaking skills and taught me that I can stand up to pressure. It was one of the best experiences of my life.”

His pals in Delaware stayed with him all the way, even sweating through his near loss: Trailing by $25,000, Walter bet the farm on a question about Greek mythology, which thrust him to victory in Final Jeopardy.

The tournament pulsed with braniacs who, Walter says, “were all able to recall tons of useless information on cue.”

“All the (contestants) were sharp and quick and on the same wavelength, but I got very good with the clicker.”

Walter’s triumph started on a whim last September when he took an online Jeopardy test, then was invited to New York to vie for a spot on the show. About 7,000 kids competed. Walter, of Brandywine Hundred, prepped for all of two weeks.

“This won’t change me. It’s not like I suddenly won’t do my schoolwork or abandon my friends while I hole up in my room counting my winnings,” says Walter. “But Jeopardy did give me a great boost, and I’m gonna ride this wave the best I can.”

Walter will ride all the way to Princeton, where he won early acceptance even before becoming front-page news. After paying his tuition, he hopes to travel.

He has suggested a family vacation in Iceland.

—Maria Hess




Speaking Their Peace



With a documentary of Michael Berg’s congressional campaign, tiny Hollydog Films might have a hit.

The scene is unusual, especially in Delaware: Michael Berg, running for Congress on the Green Party ticket, crashes a candidates forum. The moderator asks him to leave.

Berg, the father of Nick Berg, one of the first American civilians to be executed by insurgents in Iraq, grabs a folding chair and joins the other candidates at the dais.

“I know you want to make a spectacle of yourself,” the moderator says.

“I think you’re making a spectacle of Democracy,” Berg snaps.

The moderator asks a police officer to escort Berg from the stage. Berg pulls a campaign bumper sticker from his pocket, slaps it over his mouth, then leaves.

The moment is captured on video by Hollydog Films, also known as JJ Garvine and Tai Parquet of Wilmington. Even the indie filmmakers, who had been filming Berg’s campaign for months, were surprised.

“I knew he was not allowed to speak,” says Parquet. “And I knew he was considering protesting. I didn’t know he was considering disrupting. But I was like, ‘Cool.’”

The moment will no doubt be one of many memorable scenes included in the documentary, “Keeping the Peace,” which chronicles Berg’s mission to share his anti-war message. Garvine and Parquet hope to hold a local premiere before the film festival season begins in September.

“The film is primarily about a father’s journey, about him losing a son and how he chose to deal with it,” Parquet says. “It shows the changes from the inside out. It shows how he dealt with his grief.”

Berg said they all became friends during the process. The work included piling into Berg’s 1992 Geo Metro and heading to Mother’s For Peace in Washington, D.C., where they were able to film famed protester Cindy Sheehan and social activist Patch Adams.

Berg hopes “Keeping the Peace” gains notice, not to draw attention to himself, but to help spread his anti-war message.

“If it becomes a success, if it’s shown at film festivals and people watch it who wouldn’t normally watch it, I’d be adding an audience,” he says. —Drew Ostroski



Photograph by Christian Kaye; Transit Web, Print, Photography


He Won His Babyback, Babyback, Babyback


Sex, drugs and barbecue sauce? The unholy triad of rock stardom may not translate to the world of casual family dining, but for local musician Cliff Hillis, the famous Chili’s “babyback ribs” jingle has led to new success.

Hillis, a fixture of the beach music scene, is the winner of Chili’s Rock Star for a Day contest, in which musicians retooled and re-recorded the obnoxiously catchy jingle. One of 10 finalists, Hillis wound up with nearly 30 percent of the vote.

In a weird wrinkle, “C. Hillis” looks an awful lot like “Chili’s,” but Hillis swears his win is legit.

“I was just messing around at home and I started recording my own goofy version,” says Hillis. “Then I bugged everyone I knew to vote.”

Hillis’ version, sort of a sampler platter of ’50s doo-wop and ’70s dream pop, ran away with the competition. “I’m a big fan of The Beatles, and most of the stuff I come up with ends up having some of their sound in it,” he says. “So I layered in a whole bunch of backup vocal harmonies. In my mind, I was kind of going for a Queen, ELO thing.” Think “Mr. Blue Sky” slathered in honey mesquite.

Chili’s has yet to determine how to use Hillis’ song. It could wind up in a commercial or as a downloadable ring tone. The second part of Hillis’ prize is an all-expense paid trip for four to Los Angeles, which includes a face-to-face meeting with a representative from New West Records.

“I’m trying not to have unrealistic expectations, but I’ve been recording a bunch of new songs for a new CD, so I figure I’ll bring as many new songs as I can with me when I go out there,” he says.

Hillis’s new album is a more melancholy follow-up to his “Better Living Through Compression.” If anything, his newfound exposure could get the record into the ears of new fans.

“I guess in a way, it is selling out,” he says. “But it certainly can’t hurt.” —Matt Amis



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