Sugar Pie Desanto – If the shoe fits
As is often the case with veteran R&B artists, details concerning Sugar Pie Desanto have been embellished over the years. For instance, although the Bay Area singer is petite — she stood 4-foot-11 and weighed 85 pounds at her first recording dates, as a teenager in the mid-’50s — she is hardly Lilliputian. Contrary to legend, she does not wear a size 3 shoe.
“No, no, I’m a 4 or 4-1/2,” she reports, chuckling. “But that’s almost as bad. I have a very small foot. Sometimes I have to shop in the kids department.”
Not that Desanto (born Umpeylia Marsema Balinton) has ever let such obstacles deter her from dressing her best. “In the early days, I made all my own stage clothes,” she says. “That’s why I looked so different.” Today, 70 years old, she still employs favorite seamstresses; on her last trip to Paris, she purchased a couple “special things” at the boutiques and had them shipped back on the sly.
Image is not the only carefully tailored aspect of Desanto’s career. Since being discovered at a 1951 talent show by bandleader Johnny Otis, who anointed her “Little Miss Sugar Pie,” she has written or co-written much of her own material, from her 1960 #4 R&B hit “I Want To Know” to the majority of the fourteen selections on her new album, Refined Sugar (her fourth on Jasman Records).
What Desanto lacks in stature, she easily compensates for with vocal sass and onstage pizazz. But after winning numerous accolades in recent years for her prowess as a blues interpreter, with Refined Sugar she hopes to highlight other facets of her artistry. “I wanted to let the public know that I can do any song I choose to,” she explains.
“When I was younger, I had a lighter voice. But as you get older, your voice changes…just like your body changes. A lot of entertainers — Gladys Knight, Etta [James], myself — have changed considerably.”
Desanto’s vibrato may have widened with the passing years, but so have her interpretive abilities. Thus, alongside her rallying cry for induction into the “Blues Hall Of Fame”, she also makes room on her new disc for horn-driven funk (“Matter Of Time”) and poignant ballads reminiscent of her vintage 1960s weepers: the string-laden original “How Many Times”, the bittersweet “Life Goes On”.
Desanto cut her earliest sides for the Federal (“I Love You [Boom Diddy Wawa]”) and Aladdin (“1-2, Let’s Rock”) labels, but it wasn’t until Chess Records picked up her 1959 cut “I Want To Know” that she broke nationally. For the Chess imprints Checker and Cadet, she cut such rousing tunes as the country-tinged “Mama Didn’t Raise No Fool”. Most memorable of all, perhaps, were a pair of duets — the 1965 dance party “In The Basement, Part One” and its confrontational follow-up, 1966’s “Do I Make Myself Clear?”, on which Desanto threw down with her cousin and childhood playmate, Etta James.
Despite her small stature, mixed-race heritage (her father is Filipino, her mother African-American) and gender, Desanto insists she didn’t have to struggle too hard for recognition within the Chess family. Unlike some of her R&B peers, she exerted firm control over her material. “They didn’t give me everything I wanted,” she concedes, “but because I was signed as a songwriter to Chess as well, they respected my choices.” In time, her compositions were also cut by colleagues including Little Milton, Fontella Bass, the Dells, and Minnie Ripperton; the title track of Marcia Ball’s 1989 album Soulful Dress is also one of Desanto’s tunes.
Desanto relocated to Chicago during the Chess era but spent most of her time on the road, playing the big halls of the chitlin’ circuit: the Regal in Chicago, the Howard Theater in Washington, the Uptown in Philadelphia. It was at New York’s famous Apollo Theater that she caught the attention of James Brown. “He saw my act, and liked it,” she recalls. “He said, ‘You’re good enough to open my shows.’ And I said, ‘Uh-huh…and I’m good enough to give you a run for your money, too.'”
She toured as Brown’s support act from 1960-62 and, despite her tiny tootsies, Desanto’s stage antics kept Soul Brother Number One on his toes. If she leapt off a chair in her set, he jumped from the piano bench during his. She laughs at the memory: “There was always some competition there.”
Although her career slowed down in the ’70s and ’80s, and her classic back catalogue is currently out-of-print, Desanto has never stopped working. Her fans — including a new generation of rare R&B freaks such as those at the Luv N’ Haight label, which showcases her 1972 single “Straighten It Out With Yo Man” on Bay Area Funk 2 — remain faithful. So, too, have industry connections, a distinction she chalks up to the good nature that first coined her nickname. Sugar Pie is sweet, but not phony or obsequious.
“I’ve always been kind of straightforward,” she concludes. “People know me, right off the bat: ‘Sugar is real cool, but she don’t take no nonsense.’ If you want to do something with me, just come out and ask. And respect what I’m about. I didn’t take no foolishness back then, and I don’t take it now.”