Down In The Basement … that’s where I would like to be with Sugar Pie DeSanto … at one of her concerts … sometime in the 60s … if you know at least her Chess album, which covers songs from that era, you know what I mean …
I discovered Sugar Pie on Vinyl’s 2004 album “All The Way Live” where Sugar Pie performs “In The Basement” with Vinyl. I did some search and dug out several of her recordings and it’s amazing what kind of treasures can be found in San Francisco if one takes a closer look. And it’s a shame as well, that some artists never get the attention they deserve, simply because they follow their own rules and don’t sell their souls for fame and fortune. So please take your time to read this way too short Sugar Pie DeSanto entry – you won’t be dissappointed.
Sugar Pie DeSanto was born Umpeylia Marsema Balinton, October 16, 1935. Her African American mom and her Filipino dad are responsible for her good looks, talent and great voice. Her mother was a concert pianist and taught Umpeylia how to sing – as she did with all her 10 children.
In the early 50s 19-year-old Umpeylia was discovered by Johnny Otis (some call him “The Godfather of Rhythm and Blues”) at a talent show. Otis is also responsible for Umpeylia’s stage name as he named her “Little Miss Sugar Pie” (in reference to her height). The name “DeSanto” was added years later by Oakland disc jockey Don Barksdale.
With Johnny Otis she recorded her first single for Federal Records in 1955. From there she would team up with Pee Wee Kingsley in 1957 and record her biggest hit “I Want To Know” (written by Sugar Pie & Bob Geddins) which climbed to #4 on Billboard’s list of R&B best-sellers in 1960 when Chess picked up the single from Geddins’ Veltone label for national distribution.
Next came the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, who discovered Sugar Pie when she was on tour at the Apollo Theater in New York – sharing the bill with him and Ike & Tina Turner. James Brown asked her to join his show and Sugar Pie toured with Brown for the next two years.
James Brown, Sugar Pie, 1961
Due to her strong writing skills and her hit record “I Want To Know” Sugar Pie started recording and writing for Chicago’s Chess/Checker label. As a matter of fact Chess used her more for writing songs than recording. The reason is quite simple, Chess wanted to protect the success of other female Chess artists like Etta James, who is actually Sugar Pie’s younger cousin but had an earlier contract with Chess. Thus Sugar’s material – she cut 30-plus sides for Chess – got shelved. Nevertheless she stayed seven years with Chess and wrote songs for artists like Little Milton, Fontella Bass, Minnie Ripperton, Billy Stewart, Sam and Dave, Etta James. Sugar has actually written several hundred tunes on her own.
Basically all Sugar Pie released in the 50s/60s were a few singles or then called sides for the labels (see discography link at the bottom of this page), as complete albums were hardly released then. Though, Sugar released several singles for Chicago’s Checker Records and Checker used these cuts to release Sugar Pie’s first self-titled album in 1961 – which is a collectors gem these days. Chartwise the album didn’t do much.
Another highlight in Sugar Pie’s career was her tour with the American Folk Blues Festival to Europe in 1964 where she was the only female artist. Other artists included Willie Dixon, John Henry Barbee, Sleepy John Estes, Clifton James, Sunnyland Slim, Hubert Sumlin, Lightnin Hopkins and Sonny Boy Williamson. As Sugar got the chance to join these famous artists on a European tour one can estimate the amount of talent she has. Chess obviously didn’t care to make more out of Sugar Pie and she left Chicago at the beginning of the 70s.
Sugar Pie returned to to the Bay Area and started to play the San Francisco blues circuit where she got the title “the Queen of San Francisco blues” and won the 1999 BAMMIES Regional Award for Best Female Blues Artist. This is an honour of course but the focus is completely on Sugar’s blues skills – she has more to offer though, as she performs several styles like soul, jazz, funk, hip-hop … you name it. Plus, her famous back flips make her an artist as well.
Back in the Bay Area Sugar Pie also recorded several tunes and in 1984 the album “Hello, San Francisco” (featuring recordings she made between 1968 and 1983) was released by Jasman Records . This Oakland label was founded by Sugar Pie’s manager James C. Moore. Nowadays the LP is an collectors item as well, but many of the songs can be found on the CDs Jasman released in later years: “Sugar is Salty” in 1993, “Classic Sugar Pie” in 1997 and “A Slice Of Pie” in 1999. Although many of the tracks were recorded with Sugar being in her 60s, it is amazing how fresh they sound.
In 2005 Jasman Records released “Sugar Refined” – an album that once again shows the best sides of Sugar Pie DeSanto. The album is a mix between pop and blues and much fun to listen to. I hope by now you say “I Want To Know” who that Sugar Pie is. Please check the discography/links underneath and try to get one of her albums. I highly recommend the “Down In The Basement” CD if you can get it. Plus, if you are lucky enough to live in the Bay Area try to catch one of her shows – as Sugar is alive and well. Thanks to Sugar Pie for being a true artist!!!