If that's a little raw for you, blame Barbara Reyes, who suggested I profile the awesome Sugar Pie DeSanto, and who herself, Poeta en San Francisco (or en Oakland) that she is, deserves her own profile this month. DeSanto is a bit of a fetish object in the Bay Area Fil Am community, for some obvious reasons: a) she's an awesome blues singer, b) she's Pinay, c) she's local to the Bay.
Born Umpeylia Marsema Balinton in Brooklyn in 1935, to an African American mother and a Filipino American father, DeSanto grew up with her cousin Etta James in San Francisco's Fillmore district. Her mother, a classical pianist, taught DeSanto and her 10 siblings to sing.
She was discovered at the age of 19 at a talent show in the Fillmore by Johnny Otis. It was he and another man, DJ Don Barksdale, who gave her her stage name -- typical at the time. (Makes Tina Turner's trading her half of her common property with Ike for exclusive use of her name make a lot more sense: the man gives you the name ... but you earn it.)
(Click here for a film of DeSanto talking about the music scene in the Fillmore during her youth.)
In 1955, DeSanto toured with the Johnny Otis Revue. Her biggest hit was from that year, and "I Want to Know" reached fourth place on Billboard's R&B chart in 1960. (Click here to hear it.) She would never chart as high again, nor become the superstar her cousin did. Around that time, James Brown discovered her at the Apollo and took her on tour with him for two years.
She spent most of the sixties with Chess Records in Chicago, mostly writing songs for them since they wanted to de-emphasize her so as not to interfere with her cousin's success. She did release a string of singles, many of these collaborations with James (click here to listen to "In the Basement"). During this time she developed her tough girl persona in singing as well as songwriting, a persona characteristic of many of the women artists at Chess. As this website rounds it up,
And though she only released one LP and sporadic singles
at Chess during her years based in Chicago, she toured with prominent
acts, and even was featured in a European touring festival of American
Folk Blues (from which I assume the above video is taken). Ultimately, however, she
never achieved the national success she deserved, and left Chicago and
Chess for her native San Francisco. She hooked up with James Moore and
recorded the regional hit "Hello San Francisco" for his Jasman label,
and became a staple on the Bay Area Blues circuit through the 70s, 80s
and 90s, earning the nickname The Blues Queen. And though she never
reached superstar status, her legacy of toughness, rawness and power
resonates in the female stars that followed her, from the toughness of
Denise Lasalle to the saltiness of Millie Jackson, and subsequently
Lil' Kim, Foxy Brown and the current crop of ruffneck divas.
DeSanto received a 1999 Bay Area Music Award. And in October 2006, "her husband Jesse Davis died attempting
to extinguish a fire that destroyed their apartment in Oakland, CA."
You can find a listing of her albums here.
I think DeSanto is less of a "hero" than a "role model", i.e. less a person who has done something almost superhuman, and more of someone who shares traits with us, and has made a go of an admirable life. She's a singer -- not merely someone who sings, but a singer throughout life, someone who has never abandoned performance despite her lack of the kind of superstardom that most people consider the only measure of success. She's a great role model for artists of all kinds, who must learn to quickly put away ideas of superheated stardom and acclimate quickly (especially in this economy) to aspire to master your art form, the ability to make a living at what you love, and the love and respect of your peers and fans.
Plus the music -- and her performance of it -- is just liquid joy. How can you listen to her and not wanna get up and dance?