The story of the Ditchfield Family singers and the Ditchfield family itself are hard to separate.
Both the family and the singing ensemble started with Stephen and Bernice Ditchfield. He was an ordained minister, and the two of them, along with his sister Daryl Ann Beeghley, formed a vocal group called the Ditchfield Trio. They traveled around the country performing spiritual songs.
“It was more of a ministry, never very lucrative,” Stephen Ditchfield said.
The trio’s run ended and the Ditchfields concentrated on raising their growing family. But music was still a big part of their lives. Steven Ditchfield took a job as a performer at a Sarasota dinner theater called Homestyle Harmonies.
The Tabernacle Church on DeSoto Road was drawing 20,000 each Christmas season to its Living Nativity. Hundreds of people who couldn’t get into the early performances would be waiting outside to get into the later one, so they asked Stephen and Bernice Ditchfield to sing Christmas songs for them. They had five kids by that time, and they brought their three eldest along to sing with them. They had discovered they sounded really good doing a cappella four-part harmonies together.
Someone heard them singing and asked them to perform for residents of a mobile home park. Ditchfield readily accepted.
We’re a Christian group and we’re a group of Christians.
“I came home and said, ‘I’ve got good news, we have our first paying date,’ ” he said. “ ‘The bad news is, it’s in August so we can’t do our Christmas songs.’ ”
They developed a show full of familiar songs from the Great American Songbook and Broadway to go along with other religious songs. They became so popular that their fame spread outside of the Sarasota area – and even outside of Florida. The made CDs and they even appeared twice on “The 700 Club.”
As their younger kids grew they joined the group. On two different occasions, women who were not part of the family joined the group. Both ended up marrying sons of Stephen and Beatrice, so both the family and the group grew.
It grew so much that touring around the country became impractical. The group included nine singing family members plus a sound man.
“It’s too expensive to travel around the country with 10 people,” Stephen Ditchfield said. “You can’t make enough to support five families.”
So now it’s mostly just audiences in the Sarasota-Bradenton area that get to see the Ditchfields perform as an full ensemble. Stephen Ditchfield still performs solo shows all over, but the family seldom travels as a unit.
They’re most well-known concerts are their annual holiday shows at the Sarasota Opera House, but fans don’t have to wait that long. The full nine-member group will perform July 22 at Faith Baptist Church in Sarasota.
It keeps us very close, and it has kept us very close for more than 20 years.
The concert will feature gospel songs and hymns, but whether the Ditchfields are performing hymns or Rodgers and Hammerstein songs, there are a couple of distinctive elements to their shows.
“We’re a Christian group and we’re a group of Christians,” Stephen Ditchfield said. “Whether we’re doing sacred songs or something by Frank Sinatra, we do songs that are uplifting, that tell people that life is worth living.”
And whether it’s a sacred or a secular song, the Ditchfields like to make sure it’s a familiar song. They’ve noticed that even in churches, ministers these days prefer to offer modern music to help attract younger congregations. But the Ditchfields find that both older and younger people still appreciate the older songs, the ones they sang in church when they were growing up, or maybe even sang with their own families.
“There’s still a huge market for that kind of music,” Stephen Ditchfield said. “Every time I sing ‘In the Garden,’ every time, someone comes up to me afterward and tells me how much that song means to them, that it was their father’s favorite song.”
The closeness of the Ditchfields as a family has helped inform their music, he said. Some of them have been singing together their whole lives, which gives a special flavor to their harmonies. And the long success of the Ditchfield Family Singers has been a blessing for the Ditchfield family as well.
“It keeps us very close,” Stephen Ditchfield said. “And it has kept us very close for more than 20 years.”