Six decades after humble beginnings that led to gigs with James Brown and recording with childhood friend Etta James, singer Sugar Pie DeSanto is as lively as ever as she approaches 80 years old. Her life and work is celebrated at an upcoming event, the Filipina Diasporic Kitchen's Afropino!, at One Fam Community Event Center in West Oakland's 7th Street district.
“When I was a young girl my mother played concert piano, and I just always had it in me to do this. I always wanted to be on the stage. That's what I loved to do,” says DeSanto, by phone from her home in Oakland. “Back in those days, we didn't have the blues because we're not southern people.”
After her early exposure to classical piano, DeSanto, born Umpeylia Marsema Balinton, began entering and winning talent contests around San Francisco in the 1950s. One such contest in 1954 impressed musician and record producer Johnny Otis so much that he asked to record her, and christened her with the name Little Miss Sugar Pie.
A few years later, in 1959, DeSanto was offered the chance of a lifetime: performing as the opening act for James Brown for two consecutive years.
“It was quite an experience. He was a good boss and he was a nice person—unless you messed up his music. Then you'd hear from him,” laughs DeSanto. “Other than that, he was all about his music. Period. He never missed a note. Working with him was an honor and we got along real good.”
DeSanto performed her hit singles “I Want to Know,” “Soulful Dress,” “Slip-in Mules” and many others from her Chess Records recordings in venues like New York's Apollo Theater, the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia, the Howard in Washington and the Regal Theater in Chicago. She was often referred to as the “Female James Brown,” yet as a woman in the 1950s and 1960s male-dominated music scene, DeSanto had her work cut out for her.
“It was kind of hard during that time. We wasn't put out then the way we are put out today, you know, like Whitney Houston and all those kinds of people,” she says. “In those days [women] were kind of, let's say, left behind. We were kind of the background women, even if you had good records, no matter who you were.”
DeSanto continues to have a mighty stage presence, even though she stands at 4 feet 11 inches. She's feisty, confident and energetic; characteristics which surely propelled her through the early years playing with Brown and being the only female act at the 1964 American Folk Blues Festival. Her stage act includes comedic stories, soulful R&B tunes and, until a recent neck surgery, some wild dancing and acrobatics.
“Its not all about the record, you have to portray you. And not only that, but this is what kills me: when an entertainer goes out there, stands there like a stick, holding the microphone for two hours. No movement, no nothing,” she says. “Oh my God, I almost die because I want to see feeling there. How can you stand there like a stick? I don't understand how they do that. Even today, I can't do that. I have to move.”
True to her word, DeSanto kicked off her shoes and somersaulted across the stage—in a dress—when honored with a Pioneer Award by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in 2008. She recognizes how far the music industry has come in terms of celebrating women and other marginalized artists, yet she still prefers music and the aesthetic of performers reminiscent of what she calls “the olden days.”
“I go for the old music with the good stories. It's just different with music today. It's just not the same and you don't really hear a lot of good records [with] a lot of good stories,” she says. “And in my day—and even now—my kind of entertaining, we were dressy and looking our best. I ain't about to go on TV with raggedy jeans and a raggedy shirt. If you really went by the laws and rules of being a top entertainer you'll find out it takes a lot of work. It takes a lot.”
These days, nearly a decade after a tragic fire killed her husband and destroyed her Oakland apartment, DeSanto is recovering from neck surgery, putting her wild stage performances temporarily on hold. She has, however, begun recording a new album with her label, Oakland-based Jasman Records, which she hopes to complete later this year. In the meantime, The Filipina Diasporic Kitchen honors her with a night of food, music, videos, storytelling and art at this month's Afropino!, a monthly pop-up event.
“I've always been a Sugar Pie DeSanto fan,” says event organizer and caterer, Anita De Asis. But for De Asis, the event is more than just a celebration of DeSanto—it's a gathering with a taste of cultural resistance and political perspective. “Afropino night is also part of a larger effort,” she adds, “to push back on gentrification, on displacement and on the erasure of history.”
De Asis continues: “The context of the moment we are in, with the banner 'Black Lives Matter' being a demand and a rallying call, claiming and creating space to celebrate blackness is of the essence, as well as showing that there is a history, a legacy of powerful and beautiful and deep solidarity and love between blacks and Filipinos.”
With DeSanto's six decades of success as a courageous and strong woman of African-American and Filipino descent, celebrating her career at this event—which will have lumpia, pinakbet, mongo bean dishes and other traditional Filipino food to nosh on—is the perfect way to kick off the monthly pop-up series and the brand new year.
“The pop-ups in this series will be about much more than just good food,” says De Asis. “They are about art, culture, history and solidarity, too.”
Though DeSanto plans to attend the event, fans will have to wait until later this spring to experience her timeless songs and stage acrobatics.
“I'm not tired of it, I love it, but 79 is no joke, okay? So I'm hanging in there best I can,” says DeSanto. “I'm looking forward to returning. If its God's will, I will return.”