Sugar Pie DeSanto, photo by Kelsey Bennett
By Paul Freeman [July 2017 Interview]

At 81, Oakland. California resident Sugar Pie DeSanto can still deliver some of the tastiest R&B vocals around. She’s known for such vintage hits as “I Want to Know,” ”Baby, What You Want Me To Do?," "Soulful Dress" and "Rock Me Baby.”

Following two surgeries and throat problems related to bronchitis, she hasn’t performed in more than a year. But that’s about to change.

“My health hasn’t been that good. But I just keep gettin’ up. And I just kept on pushin’. That’s all you can do,” DeSanto tells Pop Culture Classics. “They keep pushin’ you. You keep getting up. They knock you down. Get up and try again. That’s the way I look at it. Don’t be laying there. Get up and get busy. I’m not going to be run, run, running, like the years before. But I’ve got these few things that I want to do. And hopefully I can stay strong enough. My health ain’t A-1, like it was.

DeSanto recently played festivals in Norway and Italy. “They’re good people,” she says. “They were very, very gracious, really receptive, much more than the United States. They greet you so well.”

She has always adored the sound of applause. Born Umpeylia Marsema Balinton in Brooklyn, DeSanto grew up in San Francisco. Blues and R&B were not staples in her household.

“My mother was a concert pianist. She taught me the standards as a young girl. I never knew anything about the blues and all of that until I went to some of the school kids’ houses. My father was Filipino and my mother was black and white. Her mother was white. So mixed. So we never grew up in a black atmosphere. We grew up in a caucasian sort of atmosphere with Filipino.

“I didn’t know anything about grits and all of that until I started going to some of the schoolgirls’ houses. I found out what they were cooking and all that kind of stuff. But I didn’t grow up in that kind of atmosphere. I grew up in an atmosphere of all mixed people - like white, Jews, everything. My block was mixed with everything.”

As soon as DeSanto did hear blues and R&B music, it resonated with her. “I liked it and found out about it. And I brought the soul stuff back home. They didn’t know nothin’ about that.

“I loved the feeling of the music and the life stories. These were songs about how you lived daily. That’s what I liked about it — it told the truth about how you were living.”

She wanted to be a singer ever since she was a little girl. “My mother was teaching me the classics, like ‘Blue Moon,’ songs like that, old classic music. She taught me a lot of stuff of the better songs.”

Her vocal inspirations were jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.

DeSoto was a born performer. “That just came out natural. It just came out of me. I didn’t have to study it. I would practice at home in the mirror, different facial things. Once I hit that stage, I just had it. I was gifted. God gave me a gift.

Writing also came naturally. “I started writing when I was a little girl. I always was writing something on a piece of paper. At a later age, I noticed that I could write songs. I’d get a little pad and write all over the place, little sayings and stuff that came to me. I’d look at it and say, ‘Hmm, that sounds pretty good. Maybe I ought to put some music to it.’ I played piano myself, not like my mama, but enough to write my songs. I never could read music. I was self-taught. And she couldn’t either. But she could hear a song one time and sit down and play it all the way through.

“My grandfather didn’t want her to play, so he knocked her out of a lot of her music. My dad was kind of against me being out there, too. But my mama would let me sneak, because she could tell I had it and I wanted to pursue it. So she would lie for me. She’d say I was going to a friend’s house and I would sneak into clubs around the Fillmore, because I was too young. And I’d just put some tennis balls or even some socks where they belonged and just went about my business. I was sneaking in clubs at 15 and had no business being in there, but I’d put on my makeup and fix myself up to look like a grown woman, put a pillow in my behind and went on about my business. I was something. I was fast when I was coming up,” DeSanto says, laughing, “because I wanted to be an entertainer. And I just followed my mind.”

Sugar Pie DeSanto, photo by Kelsey Bennett
DeSanto won talent shows at Bay Area and Southern California theaters. Johnny Otis caught one of those performances.

“He dropped in, looking for talent. He found me and he liked me. He said, ‘Who are you?’ I said, ‘I’m Umpeylia.’ ‘Who? Umpeylia, who’s that?’ I said, ‘That’s a Filipino name. My daddy’s Filipino.’ Once we got to recording, he said, ‘Look we can’t put you on no record as no Umpeylia.’ He said, ‘They won’t understand. But I’ll tell you what, you’re a little cutie pie, so I’m going to call you Sugar Pie.’ And that’s where it came from. He named me.”

As the headliner, James Brown watched DeSanto electrify audiences at New York’s famed Apollo Theater.

“The people were saying, ’Have you seen that lady just like James Brown? She be jumpin’ off the chairs, hangin’ from the balcony, upside-down!’ And they called me the Lady James Brown. I was a ticket back then. I’m still a ticket.”

Brown knew a draw, when he saw one. In 1959 and 1960, DeSanto toured as part of the James Brown Revue.

“We got along real good. A lot of people talk about him, but they’re a liar. He wasn’t no rough guy. They say, ‘Oh, he did this and he did that.’ That’s a lie. He was real cool. He just didn’t want his music messed up. That’s all. If you played it wrong, you were going to leave his stage. And he practiced every day, all day. That’s what made him so tough, so tight. If you couldn’t play, he was going to let you go.

“He was a grand guy. He was cool, as far as I was concerned. He wasn’t all that mean and all that stuff they talked about. I didn’t see nothin’ wrong with him, except he didn’t want no raggedy music and stuff. What’s wrong with that? He just hired who he wanted to hire. If you were good, it was cool with him. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be there,” DeSanto says, “because he was a professional, a perfectionist. It’s that simple. They said, ‘He did this and he did that.’ Uh-uh. I was out there with him every night. So they lie. People lie.”

Brown knew how to create tremendous excitement in audiences. “I’m afraid I caught up with him,” DeSanto says, laughing. “He’d tell me [she goes into a JB impression], ‘Sugar, don’t you go out there and make me work tonight.’ That was his voice. He had that little gruff… ‘Don’t you go out there and jumpin’ off the chairs and all that, because I’ve got to jump, too.’ I said, ‘Uh-huh, I know. But I ain’t gonna stand back. I’m going to do my thing.’ {back in the James Brown voice] ‘Yeah, but you’re going to make me work too hard.’ I said, ‘That’s all right. That’s why they call me ‘The Lady James Brown.’ So if I kick it, all you got to do is close it.’ And we got along real well. We were cool.”

In 1960, DeSanto had a hit with “I Want to Know,” recorded with her first husband, Pee Wee Kingsley. In 1962, single again, she signed as a singer and writer with Chess Records and moved to Chicago. Other memorable songs followed, including “Use What You Got,” “Soulful Dress” and “Slip-In Mules,” an answer to Tommy Tucker’s “Hi-Heel Sneakers.” Her songs have been recorded by such artists as Fontella Bass, Billy Stewart, Little Milton, Minnie RIpperton, The Dells, The Whispers and Marcia Ball.

“Chess was a big scene, big-time to me. They picked me up from San Francisco. They took my contract, paid me money, around about 10 grand — that was a lot of money then. And they took me to Chicago. There I spent seven years writing songs for other artists, as well as myself — Etta and all of us. And that did it.”

DeSanto and Etta James recorded two notable duets, “In The Basement” and “Do I Make Myself Clear.” The two women had been childhood friends.

“She’s like a cousin, “DeSanto says. “She’s family. We were kin. She used to stay with my family a lot of the time. We slept in the same bed. My father loved her a lot. He named her ‘Watermelon Head.’ We loved her. We were close.

“My sister used to sing for her group, The Peaches. She was one of The Peaches, singing with Etta for a while, on the road, little gigs. And then we all sung along all the time anyway, on the back porch. We went to school together. Her and my sister were real tight. They were around the same age. I was the oldest. We all came up together.”

In 1964, DeSanto toured Europe with Folk American Blues Festival, which featured such legends as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Clifton James and Sonny Boy Williamson.

“It was a mess, if you really want to know,” DeSanto says, laughing. “I was the only woman. They made me go through holy hell, because all those old men were trying to hit on me. I don’t like old men. Never did. My husband, when he passed, was 52 and I was 71. Come on! Still he was young. I never did have a real, real old man. I don’t like ‘em. They make me tired.”

But she did like their music. “They made some great music - Howlin’ Wolf and all of them — Willie Dixon, Sunnyland Slim, these were the best of the best in blues. And they did their thing. And I did mine. But it was quite a thing with one woman. Come on now. What do you think? All them old-ass men and me,” DeSanto says, chuckling.

It was tough for women performers back then. But DeSanto more than held her own. “I had that thing. I had that glitter. I thought I was Sugar Pie, which, I was. I was stuck on myself. Get your butt up and go to work. I just do the best I can.”

And her best is still exhilarating to behold. “It’s hard for me, because I had two surgeries. I’m kind of laid-back. I have to be. And my vocals are not as cool as they used to be, because of my throat problems. So I’m strong, but I’m not as strong as I once was. And I will say so. I tell the people, ‘I do the best I can. And if you don’t like it, guess what?’ [Blows a raspberry]. I’m trying to come back and do a couple of things, before I leave this Earth. I’m going on 82. What do you want from 82?’”

Through the tough times in life, music has helped her to heal. Eleven years ago, her husband, Jesse Earl Davis, died at age 51, attempting to put out the fire consuming their apartment. First he had pushed her out the door, to safety.

“The music always has solved problems. Just grab you a song. Certain songs bring back memories. Every show I do, I dedicate a song to my husband, who’s deceased since 2006. It’s a very special song. I spent 26 years with him. It’s one of my favorites, ‘Life Goes On.’ It’s so beautiful.”

The song can be found on her 2006 album, “Refined Sugar.” It’s her most recent release, but she has been working on material for a new album.

In September 2008, for her lifetime achievements, she was given a Pioneer Award by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. A documentary about her life has been planned. Her early work has been reissued on CD. But DeSanto isn’t concerned about her legacy.

“I really don’t care what it is,” she says. “I ain’t gonna be here to see it.”

In the meantime, she still relishes her time on stage. “I like being out there. I like the respect people give me. I like to make people happy. I really get off when I see them grinning, having a good time, really enjoying themselves. Not phony. But for real. I can tell when they’re phony. I just know. And I love that about people. If they like that certain artist, it ain’t no jive, they let you know that. That’s what I get off on.

“It would kill me if I did a show and people weren’t into it. Thank God, that has never happened to me. God has graced me and I stand strong as I can stand. That is my gift, my happiness — to see the people happy. I never did have a failed show, where they went, ‘Oh, my Lord. What is that?’ Never. I never failed. God’s been good.”

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