Life hasn’t been easy in recent years for diminutive dynamo Sugar Pie DeSanto.
Based since the late ‘60s in Oakland, California (the same metropolis she grew up in), the feisty singer lost her husband, Jesse Davis, in an October 2006 fire that destroyed their third floor apartment. At the beginning of this year, a serious health crisis arose that imperiled her career.
“I’ve been fighting cancer,” says DeSanto. “I’ve been off since before March, because I’ve been ill. I’m under the gun from the radiation and the chemo.” Particularly difficult to deal with was the devastating toll the disease exacted on her precious pipes. “I lost all vocal. I had no throat at all,” she says. “I lost 18 pounds. I had 35 days of radiation in a row, as well as chemo. You talk about make you sick! No, you don’t want that stuff. You don’t want no chemo, and you don’t want no radiation. Tell ‘em no. I ain’t never been this ill.”
Nonetheless, DeSanto is bravely waging a comeback. “It’s coming back around, but it’s not there as of yet. I’m still struggling with sound and all that,” she admits. ”It’ll take a while. It didn’t happen overnight, so it ain’t gonna be cured overnight. But you can fight it. You know what I’m saying? You can keep fighting. That’s all I can do. That’s what I better do if I want to survive.”
The singer’s longtime manager, James C. Moore Sr., is putting the finishing touches on a new EP, Sugar’s Suite, scheduled to be released on his own Jasman label this fall. The disc contains some of DeSanto’s most personal music to date. Although Sugar Pie worries that her voice wasn’t up to par when she cut the four tracks (“I don’t think I did a good enough job that I could do, by getting ill,” she frets), they’re revealing autobiographical treatises rendered in raw and emotionally charged fashion.
“Chocolate City,” the half slow-grind/half funk lead tune, covers DeSanto’s formative years. “That’s my song!” she says. “I wrote that from the spoils of San Francisco, coming up in the Fillmore. And that’s true stuff. It’s not jive. The life I lived at that particular time.”
“Grieving” and “Deepest Hurt” are heartrending tributes to her late husband. “That’s some of my love life years ago. That’s the way I write,” says Sugar Pie. “All songs I write are true. A part of life that I have lived. Real life, not crap! That’s the way I write: the real me.” Multi-instrumentalist Bill Jolly, who directed the house band for DeSanto when she journeyed to Philadelphia to accept the Rhythm & Blues Foundation’s prestigious Pioneer Award in 2008, handled all the musical backing on the remaining funk-steeped title, “Jump Back.”
Standing just shy of five feet tall, DeSanto started out in the business with another name entirely. She was born Umpeylia Marsema Balinton in Brooklyn, New York, answering to Peylia (pronounced Pel-eye-a) as she grew up. Her huge family moved to San Francisco in the late ‘30s, when Peylia was a wee child. Her father was a Filipino ex-seaman, while her mother was an African-American well versed in proper musical upbringing.
“That’s who taught me my music, my mama. She was a classical pianist, and she played ever since she was a very, very little young girl. She was a monster. She never read a note. Everything she played, she could hear it one time and play it all the way through without an error,” says DeSanto. “In those days, we didn’t do the blues. I didn’t come up in that. I came up with classics, like Frank Sinatra songs, that kind of stuff. I grew up with that kind of music.
“Later on, I started hanging out with some of my soul people. Then that’s when I started picking up the blues and all of that, by going to their house and listening to what their parents were playing. I said, ‘What is that?’ They said, ‘Oh, it’s called the blues!’ I said, ‘What the hell is the blues?’” Listening to B.B. King, Little Willie Littlefield, and other blues luminaries of the era soon taught Peylia the answer to that question. “Then I started learning their food, the kind they ate and all. And my very best girlfriend, Willie Ruth, that’s where I learned a lot—from her house, her family. Which they came from the South, of course—the deep South.”
One of Peylia’s pals in San Francisco’s Fillmore district was her neighbor, who then answered to Jamesetta Hawkins but later embraced major stardom as Etta James. “We grew up together. Her and my sister were close, because they were of the younger set than me. But we still all sung together and hung out together. She went to school with my sister,” says DeSanto. “I was older than they were. We had a little group around Fillmore and all that. Then my sister went off with her to be one of the Peaches.”
Francesca Balinton was a part-time member of Etta’s vocal group, the Peaches, but she wasn’t with them when hitmaking R&B bandleader Johnny Otis discovered the group in 1954 and they hit big their first time out with “The Wallflower,” an answer to the Midnighters’ “Work With Me Annie.” Otis, fluent on drums, vibes, and piano, dreamed up the handle of Etta James for Hawkins, and he performed a similar renaming service for Peylia.
“I was at the Ellis Theater in San Francisco, winning the talent show each week,” says Sugar Pie. “He said, ‘You’re coming with me!’ I said, ‘Who are you?’ He said, ‘I’m Johnny Otis!’ I said, ‘Oh, really? And I’m Peylia!’ I wasn’t Sugar Pie then. So then he picked me up, and Johnny recorded my first record in 1955. That’s when Johnny named me Sugar Pie.”
That debut single for Syd Nathan’s Federal label, “Boom Diddy Wawa Baby,” was a duet with fellow newcomer Hank Houston. Federal issued it under the name of featured saxist Preston Love with vocals credited to the Love Bugs, but the duo’s encore “I’m So Lonely” hit the streets as by Hank and Sugar Pie. The flipside, “Please Be True,” just mentioned Sugar Pie, who didn’t even know Houston prior to the recordings. “Johnny brought him,” says DeSanto. “He brought him up with me to do a duet. That was Johnny’s idea.”
Duets remained prominent on Sugar Pie’s recording schedule after she married guitarist Alvin Parham, professionally known as Pee Wee Kingsley, in 1957. “That was my husband for almost 14 years. I met him in Stockton, California at one club, and I was playing in another club. And we met up and put our music together. Then later on, we married and played music together all that time,” she says. “He was quite an entertainer though, playing guitar and singing.”
The pair hooked up with Rhythm Records, an Oakland imprint owned by a pioneering African-American athlete. “Don Barksdale of the Boston Celtics, he done some recordings on me for awhile and managed me,” says Sugar Pie. “He named me DeSanto.” There were variations on her billing; Barksdale’s Jody subsidiary called her Paliya DeSantos for 1958’s “(If I Had A) Wishing Well” (the other side was a Paliya & Alvin duet). The Mesner brothers’ considerably better-established Aladdin label in Los Angeles picked up the Sugar Pie & Pee Wee duet “One, Two, Let’s Rock” from Barksdale in ‘58. Ray Dobard’s Bay Area-based Music City logo was the first to spell both ends of her name correctly on their 1959 outing “Nickel And A Dime” but butchered Pee Wee’s last name as Kingsly.
DeSanto found a highly sympathetic producer right in her own back yard in Bob Geddins, whose A&R resume included a raft of Oakland blues classics by Lowell Fulson, Jimmy McCracklin, Jimmy Wilson, and plenty more, many released on his own little labels. “One day, I had made the record ‘I Want to Know.’ I had a tape of it,” says DeSanto. “Something told me to just walk into his studio, and I did, and he liked the song. And that’s where I met my manager, Jim (Moore).
“Bob told me, ‘Who are you?’
“I said, ‘Don’t worry about it—I know I’ve got a hit!’
“He said, ‘How you got a hit?’
“I said, ‘Put this on. You’ll see!’
“Sure enough, he put it on, and he said, ‘Uh-uh! Come back tonight. We’re gonna record it tonight!’ And that’s how that came about,” she says. “That was a big one for me. Had my career take off.”
DeSanto shared writer’s credit with Geddins and Ron Badger on “I Want To Know,” her first full-fledged solo release, which blasted into the national R&B Top Five during the autumn of 1960 after being issued on Geddins’ Veltone and Check labels. Kingsley’s band cooked, and Geddins double-tracked DeSanto’s vocal on the cool swayer, giving it an appealing edge.
“I Want To Know” was inspired by “my everyday living of going through problems with men, and smoking weed and hanging out,” she says. “That inspired me. I had a couple of boyfriends back during the day. You know, entertainers running around. I’m young, like everybody else. That all was about Pee Wee a lot, because he used to love to gamble. He never did drink or smoke or nothing like that, but he loved to get on his knees and gamble. And I lost a lot of money that way. But still we hung. We loved each other. So that’s how I wrote it—because I got pissed off at him.”
Leonard and Phil Chess picked up on the petite spitfire, bringing her aboard their Chicago-based Checker label in 1961 with a Riley Hampton-arranged session that produced “Can’t Let You Go,” which sounded like “I Want To Know” right down to DeSanto’s double-tracked vocal. The company issued an album—DeSanto’s only one for Chess, as it turned out—that included covers of Johnny Mathis’ “It’s Not For Me To Say” and “The Twelfth Of Never,” her early pop training no doubt coming in handy. Geddins retained some rights to the chanteuse as well, issuing three more 45s on his labels that went nowhere.
With a major hit under her belt, DeSanto hit the road. “We did those shows back East, the theaters like the Apollo in New York and the Howard in Washington and the Uptown in Philly,” she says. “If you did the Apollo and got over, you would do the other theaters as well. And I did get over. They named me ‘the lady James Brown.’ I was tough!” Speaking of Brown, Sugar Pie heated up stages for more than a year as one of his opening acts.
“He was a mess!” says DeSanto, who remembers Brown being a trifle intimidated by her uninhibited stage demeanor. “We used to talk about that all the time: ‘Now look here, Sugar, don’t you jump off no piano tonight! Don’t you do that!’
“I’d say, ‘Why not?’
“‘Because you make me work too hard!’”
By the end of 1962, Checker had acquired sole rights to Sugar Pie’s future recorded output. “Chess Records bought my contract for ten grand, and back during that time, that was a lot of money,” she says. DeSanto tried her hand at a plush, violin-enriched New York-generated ballad, “Ask Me,” but what little chart action the song possessed went to Maxine Brown’s competing version for Wand. A similar fate befell Sugar Pie’s next Checker offering in ’63, “Crazy Lovin’,” a peppy effort she wrote herself.
Under A&R man Billy Davis’ astute direction, Chess/Checker was as hot in the soul field during the ‘60s as it had been with blues the previous decade. One of the label’s big sellers in early 1964 was an irresistible blues by organist Tommy Tucker, “Hi-Heel Sneakers,” and Davis crafted an answer song, “Slip-In Mules (No High Heel Sneakers),” that he channeled to Sugar Pie. The mighty Chess house band (anchored by organist Leonard Caston, Jr., bassist Louis Satterfield, and drummer Maurice White) did its best to recreate the lowdown groove cooked up by Tucker’s New York combo, right down to the slashing Gerald Sims guitar solo gracing Sugar Pie’s sequel. “Oh, my goodness, Chess was booming then!” says Sugar Pie. “Slip-In Mules” proved her first hit for Checker in the spring of ‘64.
DeSanto came right back that summer with another solid seller, the eminently danceable strutter “Soulful Dress,” penned by the Radiants’ Maurice McAlister and his frequent collaborator, Terry Vail. Its flip, the swaggering blues “Use What You Got,” elicited one of Sugar Pie’s most extroverted performances on wax (Freddy King covered it a couple of years later without bothering to credit Billy Davis as its composer). Perhaps its downhome charm helped win Sugar Pie her featured spot on the barnstorming American Folk Blues Festival tour of Europe that fall, which surrounded the young singer with grizzled blues veterans Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
“Oh, brother—with all them old goats!” laughs DeSanto. “That’s what I called ‘em: ‘Come over here, you old goat!’
“‘Sugar, can I…?’
“‘No, you cannot take me to dinner! You cannot!’ Because I was the only woman. What a trip! Everybody was hitting (on me). We was eating and having fun.
“‘I’m going out tonight!’
“I’d say, ‘No you’re not. Ain’t none of y’all going out! Because I’m not going!’ The only woman. They like to have drove me crazy. All of them men, and I was the only woman!”
The Sims-scribed grinder “I Don’t Wanna Fuss,” a percolating “Here You Come Running” by Chess staff writers Carl Smith and William “Flash” McKinley, and the hard-charging “Mama Didn’t Raise No Fools,” penned by house saxist and A&R man Gene “Daddy G” Barge, all missed the R&B hit parade for DeSanto.
“I got along with her really good,” says Barge. “She wasn’t no bigger than a hot minute, but you didn’t want to mess with Sugar Pie!”
Davis wisely paired Sugar Pie with her old Fillmore running partner Etta James for the highly infectious “Do I Make Myself Clear,” which inexplicably avoided hit status as well in late ‘65. “‘Do I Make Myself Clear,’ that rhythm on it was something else,” notes DeSanto. “All we did was get in the studio and act a fool! You know how musicians are. We’d be partying and stuff, of course.”
The record-buying public finally succumbed to the glorious groove and raucous fun of their followup duet “In The Basement,” written by Davis, Smith, and Raynard Miner. Part 1 of the infectious anthem turned out to be Sugar Pie’s last chart appearance on Chess during late summer of ‘66. “Oh, that was fun,” says DeSanto. “We come up together. Come on! We come up together in the Fillmore as kids.”
When she wasn’t in the studio recording, Sugar Pie broke the glass ceiling in the Chess writers’ room in conjunction with her songwriting partner, Shena DeMell. “Oh, that was my girl,” says DeSanto. “We ran into each other. She was writing songs and so was I, so we decided to join forces. Because we seemed to be able to write little songs together, and then we just started hanging out together around the company. ‘Well, I’m gonna write.’ I said, ‘Yeah, me too! Let’s try this one!’ She was something.”
Not only did the pair churn out great material for Sugar Pie (notably “Do I Make Myself Clear”), they wrote gems for labelmates Little Milton, Billy Stewart, James Phelps, Fontella Bass, and Bobby McClure’s biggest solo hit in late ’66, “Peak Of Love.” “We said, ‘Hey, this would be a good one for Bobby!’” she says. “So I would play piano, and we’d sing, and that’s how we did it.” DeMell eventually ended up in a similar staff writing role at Motown.
After the DeSanto/DeMell-penned “Go Go Power,” easily one of Sugar Pie’s hottest soul pounders of all, failed to burn up the R&B hit parade at the end of 1966, Sugar Pie decided it was time to move on (she’d lived in Chicago during her time at Chess). “I just wanted to do my own thing,” she says. “Since I was kind of warm during the time, I said, ‘Let me go on and make my little money while I can.’”
Sugar Pie wasn’t without a label for long. Her driving “Get To Steppin’,” which she wrote with soul star Joe Simon, was issued in 1967 on Brunswick, which also pressed up her ‘68 encore “(That) Lovin’ Touch.” “He was a sweetheart. That old boy can sing!” says DeSanto of the mellifluous Simon. “I could see he was cool.” DeSanto’s next stop was Ron Carson’s Bay Area-based Soul Clock label, where she cut a self-penned “The Feelin’s Too Strong” in 1969 and “My Illusions” the next year.
Jasman has been Sugar Pie’s recording home ever since then. Moore produced her two-part Geddins-penned “Hello San Francisco” in 1972, the logo issuing several followup 45s as well. Jasman has released a series of DeSanto albums: Hello, San Francisco in 1984, Sugar is Salty (1993), Classic Sugar Pie (1997), A Slice of Pie (1999), and Refined Sugar in 2006.
Sugar Pie is raring to get back onstage again. “I’m doing what I was born to do,” she says. “Hey, I’ll be around. With God’s help, I can still be kicking and going. I really miss my life. It’s not a joke. I miss it. But there’s nothing I could do. I got ill, so I do what the rest do–I try to get well.” She isn’t even ruling out bringing back her climactic and quite amazing scissor-lock stage move; she would leap at the waist of an unsuspecting fan feet first in mid-song, locking her legs around the startled male like a pro wrestler.
“I’m going on 83. I’ll do it in a minute. But the doctor told me, ‘Don’t do it!’” chuckles DeSanto, who took ballet lessons as a child. “I had the surgery on my back a couple of years ago, but still, that don’t stop me. If I feel good, I’m gonna do it!”
Interviewer Bill Dahl is a lifelong Chicago resident who began writing about music professionally in 1977. He’s written for Vintage Rock, Goldmine, Living Blues, Blues Revue, Blues Music Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, and the Reader, and is the author of The Art of the Blues, a 2016 book published by University of Chicago Press, and 2001’s Motown: The Golden Years (Krause Publications). Bill was awarded the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive Award in journalism in 2000.