By Lee Hildebrand
Veteran R&B singer-songwriter Sugar Pie DeSanto is in shock. Three weeks ago, the feisty 73-year old Oakland resident found herself back on a Billboard magazine chart for the first time in 43 years.
The Afro-Filipina vocalist’s last national hit, a duet with her old Fillmore District friend Etta James titled “In the Basement,” peaked at No. 37 on the trade publication’s R&B singles chart in 1966. That song and 23 others that DeSanto recorded for Chess Records in Chicago were reissued last month by Ace Records in London on “Go Go Power: The Complete Chess Singles 1961-1966.”
The CD entered Billboard’s blues album chart at No. 15 on May 30, which is quite unusual for an import with independent distribution in the U.S.
Born Umpeylia Balinton in Brooklyn and raised in the Fillmore, she was discovered in 1955 by bandleader Johnny Otis, who renamed the petite singer “Little Miss Sugar Pie.” Oakland basketball star, disc jockey and nightclub owner Don Barksdale added “DeSanto” to her stage name.
Her biggest hit was “I Want to Know,” recorded by Oakland producer Bob Geddins in his studio at 11th and Clay. It reached No. 4 on Billboard’s R&B singles chart in 1960, leading Leonard Chess to sign her to his company and James Brown to hire her as the first female vocalist to be featured with his revue.
Although DeSanto spent six years as an artist and staff writer at Chess , where her compositions were recorded by the Dells, Little Milton, Minnie Riperton and others, she was not among the figures portrayed in “Cadillac Records,” the recent motion picture about the Chicago firm.
“I think Beyonce is very pretty and she is a pretty good actress, but I don’t think that her vocal thing fit Etta James,” DeSanto said of the film. “Her thing was too light, because Etta never sung that light in her lifetime. They needed someone with a gruffer, heavier voice to portray Etta. Actually, they could have gotten me, but they didn’t.”
Things have been looking up of late for DeSanto, who barely escaped a 2006 Telegraph Avenue apartment fire that took the life of her husband Jesse. Last September, she was given a Pioneer Award by the Rhythm & Blues Foundation in Philadelphia. Others honored at the ceremony included Chaka Khan, Teena Marie, Bill Withers, the Whispers, Kool & the Gang, and the late Donny Hathaway.
During a typically acrobatic performance of “I Want to Know,” she caught the attention of Aretha Franklin, who was in attendance. Three months later, DeSanto reprised the song at the Queen of Soul’s private Christmas party in Detroit.
“After the show, she said, ‘Girl, you stole the show!’ DeSanto said of Franklin. “We hugged each other, and that was it. She told my manager (Oakland record producer James C. Moore), ‘I’ve got to have Sugar.’ Next thing I now, I was on my way to Detroit.”