The Life and Music of Sonny Charles

Introduction to Sonny Charles

Born Charles Hemphill in 1940 in Indiana, Sonny Charles is an American soul singer. He was a former lead vocalist of the soul band Checkmates, LTD. They recorded a single called “Black Pearl,” which was co-written with the genius Phil Spector; it went to the Top 10 R&B charts and Top 20 pop charts in 1969. Then he went on a solo career after Checkmates. Against the rising modern musical genres, Charles surprised audiences with his vintage soul hit, “Put It in a Magazine”  which became a Top 10 R&B hit during the early 80s music era. The single’s accompanying album The Sun Still Shines, peaked at #136 on the Billboard 200 album chart and #14 on the R&B album chart. But its follow-up single “Always on My Mind,” went only at #53 on the R&B charts, and Charles and his label Highrise quickly disappeared from the scene. He re-surfaced in 2008, touring with the Steve Miller Band.


Charles’ career in a summary

American soul singer Sonny Charles was born Charles Hemphill on September 4, 1940 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Charles is best remembered as the lead singer of the R&B group from Indiana, Checkmates Ltd. He has performed with The Steve Miller Band.




Charles with the Checkmates Ltd. and their hit singles

Charles’ career with the Checkmates Ltd. experienced brief success during the late 1960’s. The band gained attention in 1969 with their single “Black Pearl.” Produced by the well-known producer Phil Spector, “Black Pearl” registered on the national chart at #13. Later that year, it was followed by another hit with their version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s original “Proud Mary.” It was a big hit in the UK, reaching the #13 spot. After the brief success, the Checkmates Ltd. called it quits the following year.

Roy Clark (fifth from left) and the rest of the Steve Miller Band
Roy Clark (fifth from left) and the rest of the Steve Miller Band



Going solo

Charles continued his musical career as a solo artist and signed a record deal to A&M Records where he issued the single “Half as Much”; it did not sell well. However in 1982, Charles switched to High Rise Records and released the album The Sun Still Shines. The first carrier “Put It in a Magazine” achieved considerable success, making it to the pop and R&B charts at #40 and #2 respectively. Another song from the album was issued the following year called “Always on My Mind.” It charted modestly on the R&B chart at #53. On the Billboard album chart, The Sun Still Shines made at #136 while it was #14 on the U.S. Black Album chart. Also in the 1980’s, Charles and his former band, Checkmates Ltd. had a brief reunion as well. After that, Charles suddenly stayed away from the public eye.

In the mid 1990’s, Charles was active performing at casinos in Las Vegas and at Lake Tahoe. He also embarked on a tour with another ex-Checkmates Ltd. Marvin “Sweet Louie” Smith. Charles’ recent venture was in 2008, joining the Steve Miller Band for a number of tour dates.