Sugar Pie DeSanto

Pub date November 3, 2009

It’s a sunny afternoon, but the lights are low and moody at Duke’s R&B in Oakland. Sugar Pie DeSanto sits at a table with her manager, James C. Moore of Jasman Records. Her 74th birthday is four days in the rear-view mirror. A fresher, harsher anniversary has her deep in thought. “Gotta be gung-ho,” she says. “If you aren’t, then you’re a deadbeat — and I hate a deadbeat.”

Legends of the “Old Fillmore” float around San Francisco like boozy ghosts, shaming the city’s golf shirt rewrite of itself. It’s as if all that was hip, clean, and gut-bucket funky about San Francisco has been expunged — consigned to work in the garage, where oily coveralls hide the gabardine suits, and a hat-in-hand shuffle has replaced the high-step. Fortunately for us, some forces from the golden age of San Francisco hip are too tough and resilient to back down, back up, or backstep. We have Sugar Pie DeSanto to remind us how marvelous we were — and can be.

Born Umpeylia Marsema Balinton, the “Queen of the West Coast Blues” was raised in the Fillmore District, where she was part of a girl gang called the Lucky 20s, along with her cousin, Etta James. After she won a talent contest in L.A., R&B frontman Johnny Otis signed her to a recording contract in 1954. Because of her doll-like stature, he labeled her “Little Miss Sugar Pie.”

Though a little under five feet and all of 90 pounds, the woman soon to score hits as Sugar Pie DeSanto was one of the “cussing-est” performers backstage, and a mean hoofer to boot. Her backflips at the Apollo and scissor-kicks on the stages of London are the stuff of myth. Recordings from her stint as a songwriter and performer for the famous Chess Records in Chicago still scorch today. The evidence is all over this year’s wig-flopping, witchy Go Go Power: The Complete Chess Singles 1961-1966 (Kent), a slip-in mule kick to the ass of contemporary R&B.

Sugar Pie DeSanto ain’t slowing down. In fact, she’s throwing down — with a quartet of albums in the last decade and a notoriously wild live show. When she sings “Hello San Francisco,” it’s possible to feel the spirit — and the potential — of the city where she grew up. Almost exactly three years to the day that a fire claimed her belongings, her written story, and most painfully, her husband Jesse Davis, she’s at Duke’s Place, decked out in beautiful blue, holding a piano-key purse, and deep in thought. “Thank you Jesus,” she says wryly, upon being called over to take some photos. A few seconds later, she smiles, and lights up the whole damn joint.