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Featured Interview – Sugar Pie DeSanto

It may just be a simple snapshot, but wow! – What a simple snapshot it is.

To blues fans, it should inspire the same kind of awe that gazing at the Mona Lisa – or of any of the works of art that Rembrandt, Picasso or Salvador Dali created – inspires.

Taken backstage at the October 1964 American Folk-Blues Festival in England, the picture is stuffed to the edges with so many Hall of Famers that it makes your heart rate jump and your head spin just looking at it. There’s Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Sleepy John Estes, Sonny Boy Williamson and Hubert Sumlin, all sitting together in wooden folding chairs.

Take a closer look, however, and you’ll find that a smiling young female has crashed the party at this testosterone-filled ‘boys’ club of the blues’; for sitting in between Sunnyland Slim and Lightnin’ Hopkins is the magnificent Sugar Pie DeSanto. And judging from her performances on the tour, the 28-year-old certainly gave those forefathers of the blues all they could handle on the bandstand.

“It was just fun, playing with all those good blues artists … I mean, real blues. It was a lot of fun,” DeSanto said. “But the only thing was, I found them to be kinda’ old, you know, old men. But I loved it and we had a good time. I just went along with it – they live with me, I live with them – no problem.”

Editor’s note: Both the afore-mentioned photo and DeSanto’s jaw-dropping performances of “Baby What You Want Me to Do” and “Rock Me Baby” can be found on the American Folk-Blues Festival – The British Tours 1963-1966 DVD (Hip-O Records).

You can tell by the emotion in her voice that DeSanto fondly recalls those days and when she allows herself the time to look over that photo, or to watch the DVD, a smile still crosses her face. But it has to be a bittersweet smile, because she knows she’s the last one left standing in that document from another time.

“It’s sad to say, but a lot of my musician friends are gone. I thank God that I’ve been able to keep going,” she said. “I have my little sicknesses and arthritis and stuff like that, but who don’t?”

And apparently the 78-year-old dynamo has no plans at taking her foot off the gas pedal, as a recently-completed 19-hour flight to Norway – where she knocked the sold-out crowd dead – proves. She’s also been spending some time in the recording studio, as well.

“We have a few things in the can that we’re getting ready to get back to,” she said. “I’ve got the frameworks of some new songs already written, so we’ve just got to go back in the studio and finish them off.”

DeSanto has crafted well over 100 tunes that have been covered by everyone from Little Milton to Billy Stewart to Minnie Riperton and more. During her seven-year tenure at Chess Records in the 1960s, she was the label’s highest-paid songwriter.

“Any song you hear that is written by me is a part of the life that I’ve lived. That’s where my songwriting comes from – my life,” she said. “It’s always came from years of experience and the life that I’ve lived.”

Her 1960 smash “I Want to Know” even reached number three on the Billboard R&B charts.

Born as Umpeylia Marsema Balinton in Brooklyn, it was while Johnny Otis was recording her first record in 1954 that she became known as Sugar Pie.

“I was in the studio cutting that record and I was so little and short that I couldn’t reach the microphone, so he (Otis) put up some Coke boxes and a couple of telephone books for me to stand on,” she said. “After that, he said, ‘We’re going to put you (the record) out, but we can’t put it out under your real name, so I wonder what we’ll call you? Hum, you’re little and you’re cute, so how about Sugar Pie?’”

And just like that, Umpeylia Marsema Balinto would be forever known as Sugar Pie DeSanto. Well, almost just like that.

“The last name DeSanto came from Don Barksdale (former Boston Celtic great and Basketball Hall of Famer who was the first African-American to play on the men’s Olympic team and to play in the NBA All-Star game, among other accomplishments). He recorded me later on and was my manager for awhile and he added the DeSanto on there after Sugar Pie,” she said. “So two different guys gave me my Sugar Pie DeSanto name and I think it fits together very well.”

Though ‘little’ Sugar Pie stood only 4’-11” tall, make no mistake about it – petite though she was – she was also a spitfire from the outset. It was DeSanto, along with Etta James and Koko Taylor that helped give birth to the strong, independent female soul/blues singers for the late 50s and 1960s. They may have looked delicate and fragile, and acted saucy and sassy, but they could more than hold their own in any given circumstance.

“That’s just my personality from the get-go. I’ve always been tough and I hold my own,” said DeSanto, who since the late 60s has called the Oakland Bay Area her home.

DeSanto’s stage show was always one to never miss, as she was just as apt to do a number of standing backflips as she was to dance madly from one side of the stage to the other during her high-energy performances.

“I just wanted the people to respect me and know that I’m a good entertainer and invite me back, you know? And all that was done because I gave them a good, solid show right from my heart. I wasn’t drunk, when I gig, I never have a drink … never. I wanted it to be pure soul and pure me and give them what they came for – a great show. And that’s the way it’s been my whole life. It’s all been right from my heart.”

It isn’t just the passion and the soul that her fans feel and hear that DeSanto takes pride in. She’s equally concerned with what her fans see when she’s up on the bandstand, as well.

“I just don’t understand the clothes that these performers wear these days. You’ve got holes in your jeans and stuff like that and you’re on the stage and call yourself a star?” she said. “I don’t get that. When I take the stage – now or then – I’m lookin’ sharp. The pros are the ones that leave the people saying, ‘Oh, he was sharp’ or ‘She was sharp.’ My theory on that is to give everything you’ve got and look sharp and they’ll invite you back to perform again.”

That’s probably one of the many reasons that DeSanto has always managed to leave audiences wanting more, whether performing in Norway or taking the stage at Harlem’s Apollo Theater.

“I have never, ever been booed on the stage in all my years performing. I’ve always been well appreciated, I promise you. Even at the Apollo, which playing there the first time can be one of the hardest things to do,” she said. “They don’t put up with no stuff there if they don’t like you. They throw rotten eggs and everything. I saw it for real. And if you’re lousy, they got a man that jumps out of the balcony with a thing on his head goin’ round-and-round and lookin’ like a dunce or something. And the other guy comes from the other end of the stage with a broom and sweeps your butt off the stage. I’m serious. I’ve been there 18 times, so I know. But they named me the ‘Lady James Brown.’ I really brought it to those people, now. And to be called that is quite a compliment.”

DeSanto played in the ‘Hardest Working Man in Show Businesses’ road band for two years and it sounds like she managed to keep Mr. JB on his toes during that time.

“I was one of the few that made him come on, you know, work his butt off. He told me when we was playing the Apollo ‘Oh, Sugar Pie, will you stop doing that, for Christ’s sake? I’ve got to double my energy to keep up. Stop jumpin’ off that chair. Quit doin’ those backflips. You’re makin’ me work,’” she laughed. “But I said, ‘I’m your understudy. I’m supposed to make you work.’ We played all over the place. You name it, we did it. I stayed with him for two years.”

DeSanto is in the R&B Hall of Fame, has won the Rhythm and Blues Foundation’s Pioneer Award and is the recipient of a Bay Area Music Award for Best Female Blues Singer, among other accolades she’s racked up over the years. It’s obvious that DeSanto was born to sing and entertain and she’s made sure to use her powers to their fullest extent over the years.

“I’ve always been gifted … and my mother was gifted. She’s the one that set the pace for me to be a singer. She was a concert pianist,” she said. “I learned a lot of songs from my mother – not the blues, she wasn’t in to that – but the classics. She was more refined, she was from Philadelphia. She really didn’t know anything about the blues until I brought them home.”

DeSanto spent a good chunk of her childhood in the Bay Area, which has always been regarded as a huge melting pot of musical styles and cultures. While the uniqueness of the San Francisco/Oakland sound may have caught her ear, it didn’t seem to really have an impact on the kind of music that DeSanto would go on to breathe life into during her adult years.

“No, that really had no influence on me. I just started on my own and paved my own way at the different clubs that I played at as a young woman,” she said. “I’d see clubs where they were doing the blues and I just picked up on everything on my own. And when I picked up on it, I didn’t let it go. I took it to the max.”

A young DeSanto and a young Etta James were fast friends in the Bay Area and they did most of the things that normal teenagers do, with thoughts of future stardom and glory never really crossing their minds at the time.

“We never really talked about what we were going to do later in life. But, we did sing around the neighborhood – me, Etta and my sister that passed, who was one of her Peaches (James’ group),” she said. “We just sung around the neighborhood, on back porches or wherever we could. I was the oldest of all of them, so I kind of departed to do my own thing. Then the next thing I know, Johnny Otis is sending for Etta to record her for the first time. So she traveled with him (the Johnny Otis Revue), but I didn’t.”

DeSanto and James did eventually cross paths again when they recorded some classic duets at Chess Records, starting in 1959.

“That was something else. She was already recording for them (Chess) when I went up there to record with her. I was writing and singing at that time on my own, but the producer, Bill Davis, said it would be nice if me and Etta recorded something together. So me and my partner, Shena DeMell, wrote some records and that’s how that came about. Next thing I know, me and Etta are recording together. But it was the company (Chess) that put us together.”

One of those songs, “Do I Make Myself Clear” became a Top 10 sensation, while another one, “In the Basement” also became a classic.

Though she may not have started out to blaze any trails, DeSanto was nevertheless at the forefront of the electric soul sound that ended up working its way – along with the blues – into what is considered modern rock-n-roll.

“I just did my job and that was it. I never really thought about coming up with a new style or a new sound, or anything like that,” she said. “I was just writing tunes and playing them, straight from my heart.”

It’s clear that DeSanto is not quite completed with her musical mission. Instead of just playing her old songs or living off her impressive past achievements, she’s more focused on what’s happening with her career in 2014 than she is about 1954.

“I don’t intend to quit. My quit is 80 – I’m serious. But when I finally do quit, I just hope people remember that I put out some good tunes and always gave them a good show. I just want people to remember that I was a Hellava entertainer,” she said. “It would be nice to get my props, too. I don’t think I’ve gotten all the props that I’ve deserved over the years. If any of these young singers today want to see what a real entertainer is like, I hope they get a hold of some of my videos. Nowadays they stand there and hold the microphone like a stick and it’s boring. They don’t have any idea what real entertainment is, honey. I’m not from that school, I’m from the school where an entertainer moves around on stage and gives the people a real show. I want to leave that kind of legacy for the people.”.”

Photo by Bob Kieser

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