Photo by: Mona Johansen
||Sugar In Hell
By Tee Watts - 09/08/2013
The list of all the Queens still on this earth that were once on the Chess Record label is shrinking. Koko Taylor gone. Etta James gone. Big Maybelle gone. Myrtle Jones gone. Laura Rucker gone. Fontella Bass gone. Minnie Ripperton gone. Alberta Adams, sitting down at age 96. Laura Lee preachin’ the Gospel. Irma Thomas still workin’. Martha Reeves still workin’.
Ms. Sugar Pie DeSanto, whom Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin loves so much that she has had The Sugar perform twice recently at her annual Christmas party. As I stated on Soul-Patrol before, The Sugar is The Queen of The West Coast Blues. What follows is a description of how one of the last Queens standing from the glory years of Chess Records took over Hell, Norway on September 6 & 7, 2013
I left Lake County at 7 p.m on Tuesday 9/3 and headed down Jim Moore's house in Oakland. Jim is eighty-somethin’ years old has been Sugar Pie's manager for close to thirty years. Before that he was Big. Mama Thornton's manager. In an interesting bit of supersonic audio history, on the Big Mama Live In Europe album, at the end of track 15, Swing It On Home she highlights Jim and all of the band members as men she will marry one day. I had Big Mama in the cd player on the way down to Oakland
After arriving at 10 p.m. Jim and I were up until past midnight going over details of the trip. We were back up at 4 a.m. on Wednesday giving Sugar Pie and Jimmy (Jim's son) wake up calls. Jimmy picked up Jim and I, we all picked up The Sugar and skedaddled to SFO for our 9:00 a.m. departure. On the way we stopped at a food mart for sandwiches and coffee. As I recall The Sugar made her sandwich last almost to Amsterdam. She only weighs ninety pounds.
Checking in at SFO was a breeze with their new technology in place. We boarded the 767 which sported a Black pilot and we were airborne about 9:30.
Four and a half hours later we hit Detroit with enough time to make waste of some Popeyes Yardbird before we boarded a plane for Amsterdam. Bumped into our pilot as I navigated the touchscreen at Popeyes. He recommended staying out of the Coffee shops in Amsterdam. I'm already knowing...
Seemingly, it was a long jaunt between Detroit and Amsterdam. We chatted, napped and ate the bad plane food. We hopped on a KLM Cityhopper in Amsterdam which took us to Trondheim Airport, three minutes from Hell. The flight attendant on the flight was a woman of African descent who was fluent in English and Norwegian. She hardly cracked a smile. We arrived in Hell just before noon on Thursday September 5.
Hell, Norway is almost magical. It is a village of only 1100 or so people. However they sport two four-star hotels, a strip mall, a car dealership and they are snowed in six months of the year. They take great pride in their Blues Festival. From the moment we arrived Sugar Pie was the Grand Dame of Dames. The face of the Queen of the West Coast Blues was plastered all over the place; a huge banner on the Rica Hotel, on festival vehicles as well as on the cover of the official magazine of the festival. They treated The Sugar like the royalty she is. Whatever she wanted all she had to do was speak it.
While The Sugar was being given the treatment, I went and hung out with The Band which had arrived before us. All these cats are tried and true Chicago musicians. Willie Henderson, bari sax player and Musical Director has his own star studded history. Well known as a top flight producer and arranger, Willie had hits of his own including Funky Chicken Pt.I and Dance Master. He produced all of Tyrone Davis's major hits and produced, played or arranged hits for Jackie Wilson, The Chi-Lites, Barbara Acklin, Donny Hathaway and many more.
Henderson assembled a mighty cast for Sugar Pie’s invasion of Hell. On guitar he recruited Sir Walter Scott of the famous bass/guitar playin’ Scott family of Chicago. The bassist was renowned Chicago music educator and former student of Henderson’s, Phillip Castleberry. On keyboards was top session player Vince Willis. Rounding out the rhythm section was another very accomplished former student of Willie Henderson, Malcolm Banks. To quote Willie Henderson, “When you smell somethin’ burning, it’s bound to be Malcolm smoking those drums.”
The horn section was razor sharp. In addition to Henderson’s baritone sax, the great Willie Woods, a childhood friend of Willie Henderson’s played trombone. Woods, a grade school classmate of Curtis Mayfield, has played or recorded with Nancy Wilson, Barry White, Otis Rush, The Dells, Jerry Butler, Lloyd Price, Charles Earland, The Ojays, Joe Tex and many others.
Rounding out the horns was the baby of the bunch, trumpeter Leon Quincy Allen. Brought on board by Willie Woods, Leon Q has worked with Tony Toni Tone and shared the stage with Common, Kanye West, James Brown, Wynton Marsalis, Tito Puente, Jr. and countless others.
The horn section called a “secret” rehearsal Thursday afternoon in Willie Henderson’s room. The horn arrangements The Sugar had sent ahead were for five horns and had to be pared down to three. Somehow The Sugar found out (ok, I confess) and she crashed the rehearsal with a still photographer and videographer in tow. Master Willie was just a tad perturbed. All in all though it went great. The horn section was so sharp they could perform major surgery without anesthesia.
After rehearsal we had dinner in the artist’s hospitality section of the hotel. Three or four entrees with sides and desserts. They fed us well. I believe we all crashed early.
We all stayed at the Rica Hotel. They start serving a scrumptious breakfast buffet at 7 a.m. with every possible entrée imaginable. I was beginning to think we were in Heaven. Thursday found me scheduling interviews, transportation and other business for The Sugar and the band. I was in close communication with Jim Moore and Festival Director
Kjell Inge Brovoll. Hard to pronounce I know. He spoke credible English and everybody called him Hellboss. I kept my Jesus close!
The Sugar and The Band had a full 2 hour rehearsal at 2 p.m. It was amazing to watch. They couldn’t do nothin’ but have a great show Friday night. We retired back to the hotel after rehearsal and chilled until 6:30 p.m. when transportation picked us up for the band to hit at 7:00. Now it was supposed to be a secret that they were honoring The Sugar but she already knew. We were under the impression that they would be filming for broadcast later on Norwegian TV. At 6:55 Hellboss and the President of the Norwegian Broadcasting Network, came over and told me to be sure and have The Sugar ready at precisely 7 p.m. because they were going on live TV in front of 1.5 million viewers to present Sugar Pie as The Ambassador of The Hell Blues Festival! The presentation was fabulous and after the presentation a 45 minute set ensued. The Sugar and the band were on fire.
The next day it was all over the newspapers. Though the Friday night crowd was limited to maybe 300 persons, Saturday night was projected to be standing room only and indeed it was. The Sugar and The Band played essentially the same set list from Friday; Woke Up This Morning, Life Goes On, Slip In Mules, Use What You Got and I Want To Know. The band started the set off with Jimmy Smith’s Back At The Chicken Shack and threw in an original Blues instrumental halfway through to give The Sugar a little break. She did her famous back flip and lured an unsuspecting gentleman to the stage and worked him over. She went out into the crowd and had’em dancin’ in line. With her patter the show went over 60 minutes. Not bad for a Queen seventy-eight years young. Still standin’, still dancin’, still burnin’ em up.
T. Watts, Road Manager Jasman Records
Soul-Patrol, West Coast Correspondent
Reporting from Hell, Norway
The Sugar and The Band would like to thank Hellboss Kjell Inge Brovoll and his incredible staff especially Randi and Jann.
Thanks also to Mona Johansen for the great pictures.