Jimmy Charles has sung on "American Idol," made it to the top 50 on "Nashville Star" and opened for country music acts such as Lady Antebellum and Kacey Musgraves.
But the Maryland native says none of that quite compares to the thrill of playing for thousands of cancer survivors.
Charles, 35, who grew up in Ocean City and graduated from Towson University, is the spokesman for Zero Cancer, an organization that seeks to eliminate prostate cancer. These days he finds a happy connection between his charitable work and his music career.
Earlier this month he released a country single, "Superman," which he wrote and performed in Baltimore last year to raise awareness of prostate cancer, a disease which strikes one in six men. The song premiered on Country Music Television and is being noticed by radio stations around the country.
Charles is now touring as he plays at a series of benefit races organized by Zero Cancer to raise money to fight prostate cancer. On Sunday the tour brought Charles — and about 2,500 participants — to Towson University's Johnny Unitas Stadium, a place with which he is already familiar.
Sports was Charles' first love and he played lineman for the Towson Tigers, but when he graduated in 2003, his playing ended.
"When football was done, I had this huge void in my life," he says.
Charles says he turned to music to fill that space.
He had played guitar and written songs since he was 15. Back in Ocean City after graduating from college, he worked as a real estate agent and played music on the side. But after playing a song he wrote for a friend's wedding, Charles started to consider making a career of music.
When the recession hit and the housing market in Ocean City soured, he moved to Baltimore and played in clubs and bars. He tried out for "Nashville Star," a reality TV contest similar to "American Idol." He says he was one of 45,000 musicians who competed for a slot on the show and he made it to the top 50.
"At the last second I was replaced by an underwear model from L.A," he recalls.
But the experience convinced him to give Nashville a try.
In 2008 he moved to Tennessee and found himself just one more musician in a city teeming with talent. He quickly realized he had to get good or get out. "After about three months of living there, you suddenly realize you're not on vacation," he says. "So many people move to Nashville. And so many people leave."
He began playing in the Nashville honky-tonks where the pay is paltry and sets go four hours without a break. Often he played two a day.
"I played every single honky-tonk in Nashville City," he says. "That will whip you into shape."
In 2010 he landed a spot on "American Idol," but he didn't last long. Simon Cowell said he sounded "karaoke like" and he got the boot.
But last year a friend from Baltimore approached him with an unusual request. He wanted him to write a song for a benefit race sponsored by Chesapeake Urology to raise awareness of prostate cancer.
Charles had no idea how to do that. "I didn't want it to be corny," he says.
The doctors at Chesapeake Urology Prostate Center put him in touch with Phil Shulka, a cancer survivor and patient counselor, who flew to Nashville and told his story to Charles and his song collaborators.
Shulka told them he was 60 and showed no symptoms, but his wife had nagged him to have his prostate checked. It turned out he had an advanced form of prostate cancer. He received treatment and has been cancer-free for eight years.
Charles says he and his partners were so inspired by Shulka's story that within an hour after the meeting they wrote the song "Superman." The words "prostate cancer" are never mentioned, but the song's message is that one person can't fight the disease alone.
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Shulka says he was overwhelmed when he first heard the song. "It is my story," he says.
But Chesapeake Urology president Dr. Sanford Siegel, who has worked to raise awareness of prostate cancer through annual benefit races, says the song also tells the story of anyone dealing with cancer. "Cancer is a family disease," he points out. "This could be about breast cancer or colon cancer. … The video and the lyrics talk to this problem of neglect and denial."
Shulka adds that the song's message is one all men need to hear. "You're not Superman," he says. "You can't just be the strong person. We're vulnerable. We're so reluctant to say that."
September is Prostate Cancer Awareness Month and Charles is busy traveling to benefit races and planning his next career move.
He is working on an album and expects a new single to come out soon. But Charles says he plans to continue his charitable work.
In addition to bringing awareness to prostate cancer, he has raised money for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and brought to Nashville the program Gobble Gobble Give, which feeds the homeless on Thanksgiving Day.
"At the end of the day or end of my life, I want to see what I have accomplished," Charles says. "Of course I'd like to win a CMA (Country Music Award), but doing this is so gratifying."