Veteran R&B singer-songwriter Sugar Pie DeSanto wowed the crowd at the Poretta Soul Festival in Italy last month with renditions of her 1960s hits, “I Want to Know” and “Skip-In Mules” among other songs.
The Oakland resident, who turns 80 in October, is no stranger to performing overseas. The three-day event at Rufus Thomas Park in Poretta Teme, Italy marked her third time in the country.
DeSanto appeared two years ago in a Norwegian village named Hell. Fans who saw her in London and Hamburg in 1964 – on an American Folk Blues Festival tour that also included blues legends Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sonny Boy Williamson and Howlin’ Wolf – have not forgotten her show-stopping treatments of Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me to Do” and B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby.” (Videos of both can be found on YouTube.)
“They’re more receptive, and they honor the blues,” she said of European audiences last week while sitting with this writer in her Oakland apartment. “They love it, and they give you more respect than they do in the states.”
The petite (4’11”) vocalist was born Umpeyla Marsema Balinton in Brooklyn to a Filipino father and an African American mother. She was raised in San Francisco’s Fillmore District, where Johnny Otis discovered her in 1955.
Otis took her to Los Angeles, produced her first record and dubbed her “Little Miss Sugar Pie.” Don Barksdale, the pioneering African American basketball star who became an Oakland disc jockey and nightclub owner, later added “DeSanto” to her stage name.
When DeSanto’s recording of her original song “I Want to Know,” for Oakland producer Bob Geddins’ Veltone label, shot to No. 4 on Billboard magazine’s R&B chart in 1960, she hit the road as the first female vocalist to be featured with James Brown’s revue. She then signed with Chess Records in Chicago as both an artist and songwriter.
DeSanto’s biggest hit while at Chess was “In the Basement,” a 1966 duet with her old Fillmore District neighbor Etta James. Among the Chess artists who recorded her songs were Fontella Bass, Little Milton, Bobby McClure, Minnie Riperton, Billy Stewart and the Dells.
After seven years in Chicago, DeSanto moved back to San Francisco in 1968. Since 1972, she has been recording for Jasman Records, an Oakland label run by her longtime manager James C. Moore.
Her first single for the company, “Hello San Francisco” – a slow blues written by Geddins that chronicles her journey from the Bay Area to Chicago and back, received significant airplay locally on KDIA but, according to Moore, sold better in New Orleans. She subsequently made one LP and four CDs for Jasman.
DeSanto has lived in Uptown Oakland since 2006, after her husband Jesse Earl Davis died while trying to extinguish a fire at their home on Telegraph Avenue.