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Sugar Pie DeSanto: After 50 Years, 'Go Going' Strong

Sugar Pie DeSanto was born in Brooklyn in October 1935, and was christened Umpeleya Marsema Balinton. Her father was Filipino, her mother African-American. Her mother had been a concert pianist, but DeSanto says her father couldn't carry a tune in a bucket. He moved the family to San Francisco when Peliya, as they called her, was 4, and soon enough, the young girl discovered dancing and singing and made a fast friend with a neighbor named Jamesetta Hawkins, who was a member of a girl gang called the Lucky 20's.

Hawkins wound up in jail for her gang activities, and when she got out, she formed a singing group with one of Peliya's younger sisters. Peliya looked on in envy as Hawkins was discovered by bandleader Johnny Otis and re-christened Etta James. She started entering talent contests in San Francisco, and won so often, they told her to stop entering. At another talent contest in L.A., Otis saw her again and offered to record her. He made good on his offer, and gave her a stage name, too: Little Miss Sugar Pie.

DeSanto continued to record throughout the late '50s, often with her husband Pee Wee Kingsley, and they finally found success with a song called "I Want to Know" on an Oakland-based label, Check. Shortly thereafter, their marriage fell apart, and DeSanto went to Chicago, where Chess Records had offered her $10,000 to record for them. She signed in 1962, but didn't see any success until 1964.

Taking No Mess

Riding on the back of Tommy Tucker's "High-Heeled Sneakers," "Slip-in Mules" described how sneakers hurt De Santo's feet, but not to worry: She'd be the hit of the dance anyway. Then the hits kept coming: "Use What You Got" and another song about clothing.

"Soulful Dress" is probably Sugar Pie DeSanto's best-known song these days, not least because Texas singer Marcia Ball has had it in her set for years, but it also established DeSanto's persona: an assertive young woman who took no mess. With this and its successor "I Don't Wanna Fuss" hitting the charts, DeSanto went off to tour Europe, and they're still talking about her shows -- wild dancing and standing back flips included -- and her using martial arts on a hefty guy who invaded the stage in England.

Back in Chicago, she met Shena DeMell, an unsuccessful songwriter who was the girlfriend of one of Chess' most successful ones, Billy Davis. In no time, the two women had written a strong song -- too strong for one woman to sing, but just strong enough for two, if the other was Etta James.

That hit the Top 10, so the duo did another one, called "In the Basement," which evoked the years when they ran with the Lucky 20's.

But "In the Basement" didn't do as well, and Sugar Pie DeSanto went back to writing some more with Shena DeMell. Her next record, Go Go Power, was a result of that collaboration.

Go Go Power didn't chart, and it was DeSanto's last record for Chess.

Sugar Pie DeSanto kept on writing songs and recorded for a few more labels without much success; she eventually moved back to the Bay Area, settling in Oakland. She's been married twice to Jim Moore, her current husband, who's 17 years younger than her; he also manages her as she continues to perform -- not only in clubs in California, but in blues and jazz festivals all over the world. In September 2008, she was given a Pioneer Award by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. When it was time for her to perform, she kicked off her shoes and did a back flip.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Ed Ward is the rock-and-roll historian on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.