For nine years, a local singing competition — reminiscent of American Idol or The Voice — has helped those in recovery re-integrate into society, rebuild their confidence and sustain their sobriety.

Recovery Idol, a citywide singing competition for people in drug addiction recovery, will kick off its first round Friday evening. Twenty-five contestants will croon and compete before an audience, and be whittled down over four rounds. The top two will battle it out at the Dell Music Center in August for a cash prize, and the chance to perform for a crowd of 20,000 at an annual recovery walk at Penn’s Landing in September. Each round will have a separate theme and be held in different parts of the city.

At 6 p.m., the crowd will hear participants vocalize to tunes by Stevie Wonder and Philly’s own Jazmine Sullivan. Judges will consider song selection, song articulation, and vocal prowess, among other skills, to make their selections at each round.

“I do this because there’s a need for hope and healing,” said Derrick “Rick” Ford, founder and organizer of the competition.

The Inquirer spoke with a former winner of the nine-year-old Recovery Idol competition, in anticipation of tonight’s kick-off:

‘It gave me my life back’

Mark Dixon performs at the Dell Music Center in the final round of the 2013 Recovery Idol competition, which he went on to win.
Courtesy Mark Dixon
Mark Dixon performs at the Dell Music Center in the final round of the 2013 Recovery Idol competition, which he went on to win.

As a child, Mark Dixon belted gospel tunes for North Philadelphia church congregants. Back then, music was his passion. He was reunited with that passion after he decided to get clean in January 2013 and joined Recovery Idol..

Dixon spent about 18 years wavering in and out of active addition. “I just never had a vehicle to keep me clean,” Dixon said, “to give me something that would motivate me to stay in the program.”

But things would change for Dixon, after he was unknowingly signed up for Recovery Idol.

Dixon, who was then in a three-month recovery program at Girard Medical Center, was shocked to learn that someone he met at breakfast submitted his name for the competition. “I was only like two months clean, and I didn’t really have the spirit to go,” he said. But after he spoke with the competition’s founder Ford, who helped to arrange Dixon’s audition with the center, and later his rehearsals, he was sold.

He auditioned before a panel of judges with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” For the next eight months of competition, he leaned on well-known hits, singing songs like Michael Jackson’s “The Lady in my Life,” and eventually winning the competition with a crowd-moving rendition of the Luther Vandross’ “Superstar.” By about the fourth month of the competition, Dixon said, “you kind of grab hold of that idea ‘maybe this is possible for me.’”

The competition built his self-confidence, too, he said, to hear the claps and praises, to feel wanted and like a true part of society. “I began to feel accepted again,” he said.

“Participating in the competition gave me something to look forward to accomplishing each month. I had done a few stints in rehab but recovery idol was the biggest motivating factor for me to stay clean. It gave me my life back.”

Now 52, Dixon says Recovery Idol was instrumental to his sobriety, giving him a built-in support system of people who became “more of a family” and a new purpose to stay clean. Since he’s left the program, he’s received a bachelor’s degree from Drexel University and now is now studying for his master’s degree at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine for his masters degree.

This year, he will be vocal coach to the competitors. Each year since he won in 2013, he returned to witness new contestants. But he anticipates “this year is probably going to be the best year for vocals.”

“Those eight months, I had done more spiritually; performance-wise; re-conciliating with family and friends; meeting new people ... I’d done more of that in those eight months than I had in the last 20 years of my life,” he said.


Recovery Idol

6-8 p.m. Friday, Grand Yesha Ballroom, 2308 Snyder Ave., free,