Sugar Pie DeSanto ...she's sassy, classy and four feet eleven inches of pure dynamite. She is entertainment royalty. In her early sixties, Sugar is still giving the audience everything she has and that includes backflippling on the stage! Her music can be sweet or "in your face." She sings from the heart. Performing since her teens, there is so much that could be said about Sugar Pie DeSanto. In this interview, she says it in her own words. Enjoy!
What is your real name?
Umpeylia Marsema Balinton.
What an interesting name.
Well, it’s Filipino. You know my father is Filipino and my mother’s black. You know, so I am named after my father’s mother. In Filipino, Umpeylia means “bitter melon and sour fruit”.
When were you born?
I was born in 1935.
What was it like for your parents being in an interracial relationship during that time period?
Hah! It was a little bit rough. But that was out here in San Francisco. He brought me here when I was five years old. I was born in the Philippines. My daddy took [my mother] back to the Philippines from Philadelphia.
Did she it like it there?
NO! No way.
Is that why you and your family came back to the states?
Yeah. They had five kids there. The five older kids were born in the Philippines and the five younger were born here in San Francisco.
Is the rest of your family musically inclined?
Oh yeah. My mother was a concert pianist at the age of five. She taught me how to sing and hold my breath and all that stuff. She was something! You know she could never read music. She couldn’t read a note. She played in Philadelphia and some out here. She could play anything. She played blues, jazz, anything. She could hear a tune one time and play it all the way through.
Did she play a lot for the family?
Yes, she is the one who taught me. I would sing and she would play the piano at home.
Did your other brothers and sisters get involved?
All my family is talented. All my brothers and sisters can sing and play instruments. I have one brother who lives in Denver. He is a heck of a jazz singer. His name is Mario. Another brother that I am playing with now, he’s the baby of the family, he has a big nine piece band. We do some things together if I am not traveling. His name is Domingo Balinton. He’s a base player. De Santo is just my stage name.
Where did you come up with “Sugar Pie DeSanto”?
Johnnie Otis named me that. He [discovered] me in the early fifties. You know while I was in San Francisco. I was playing in this theatre and winning all the contest and everything. He picked me up from there and took me to Los Angeles. I cut my first records in the early fifties. One of them was called “Boom Diddy Wa Wa Baby.” Johnnie Otis and me became friends and he told me ‘we need a name for you.’ I just started laughing when he came up with that one (she laughs)
Is that because you were just so sweet?
Haha! I think is because I was so little. (laughing together)
Yeah, you are 4’11” aren’t you?
Yeah, I am a little woman. And you see at that time I didn’t weigh but about 85 pounds. And I wore about a size three shoe. I have a very small family.
What was it like doing your first recording?
It was real nice. Only thing, the microphone didn’t go up and down like they do today you know. Johnnie got me two Coca Cola boxes and two telephone books and stood me on them so I could reach the mike. Man, the mike was bigger than my face. It was one trip.
How did the band react to this young little woman with that big voice?
Oh they was very cool. We had a good time. Everyone was really cool. We had people with us like Mel Walker and Three Tons of Joy, Little Esther and Etta James. You know everybody was around [Johnnie Otis] and we were like one big happy family. Man, those were just some good times.
Were there any differences between performing and recording now and in the 50’s and 60’s?
Oh yeah, there are a whole lot of differences between then and now. It was a little more prejudice back then. Lots of times we would have problems like going down south. Because I am light skin and had long hair, they would let me eat in the front and send the band around to the back. Then I would just go around to the back with them. I believed if they can’t come in then I can’t either. I am ‘soul’ just like them and they would say ‘no you not, you got some white in you.’ I was much lighter then. My hair was coal black and they didn’t think I was black lots of times. Me and the band didn’t pay any real attention to it. The south just wasn’t too cool.
Coming from California, that southern brand of racism must have been a very different thing to you. How did you first react when you were confronted with it?
I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was just something you heard on the radio or see on the news. I thought it was all crap. But when I saw it for myself - ‘colored toilets’ and all of that. I thought what in the world is this? I got into trouble a number of times because I would cuss those people out. I am not to be pissed off. I am not the one! (laughing). I’m like that today. I have a pretty bad temper. I don’t bother people, but I am not to be bothered. I like for people to do what they got to do, mind their own business and stay out of mine. I am loner. I don’t have bunches of girlfriends and all that. I am very dedicated to my music.
Your music is your ‘girlfriend’...
Right! And my boyfriend too. Because I am single now (laugh). I don’t trip on anything but my music.
Has your ‘tough’ attitude worked for your favor in the music industry, especially being a mostly male industry?
Oh yeah. That is what kept me going. I would just let them know what I really felt. You could hear them saying ‘Boy, Sugar don’t take no stuff....” (laughing) For years I had band members absolutely afraid of me. But I needed that control. But without a good band you are nothing. It takes a lot of ingenuity, time and giving all you got to make it work.
Tell me about your relationship with Etta James. I know that you have recorded together in the past and are from the same neighborhood.
We are cousins from my mother side. We all came up in the Filmore District together. I had another sister Francesca. She died during childbirth. Etta and she were really close. We all use to sit on the back porch and sing. That is why Etta and I sound a lot alike. We had to be about 13 years old. We all got that “sound” from just singing together in the back yard.
Were you and Etta “running partners”?
I was older, so she more or less ran with my sister Francesca. We all sung together and hung out, but the most hanging was done with my sister. They were real tight. Etta stayed with me and my family for awhile. My father invited her to stay with us for a while. I was just older, but we were all super tight. I haven’t heard from her in a while, but we will cross paths again.
We have to get you over here on the East Coast.
I know that’s right! I was in Baltimore at the Royal Theatre, but it has been many years.
Oh, that must have been when the Royal Theatre was the “place to be”!
That’s right. We use to book that Royal. Me and Tina Turner, Jackie Wilson and The Temptations.
Were you all playing the same bill?
Oh yeah! Smokey Robinson, Gladys Knight. You name them, I have been with them. We have all been there. My first hit was “I Want To Know” in 1959 and I entered the Apollo Theatre in 1960. I had that song and Tina Turner had “Your Just A Fool You Know Your In Love.” So we met up together at The Apollo. Five or six shows a day.
What was it like working with Tina Turner, Jackie Wilson and all of them?
I don’t really want to say what it was like because I stole the show all the time. (laughs). She [Tina Turner] got mad at me and wouldn’t speak to me for a couple of weeks. Then finally she came to my dressing room and said ‘How do you get the show all the time?” I told her because I give the people what they want!
And what do you give them?
Honey, I give them everything! I be dancing and doing back flips. Hah! I will do back flips now.
You are still back-flippling?
Yeah (laughing) I go to the gym twice a week. I take water aerobics and keep myself in shape. I don’t do no drugs or a whole lot of drinking. I just keep myself together. You can see people thinking ‘No she didn’t just flip!’ Well, yes she did! (laughing) I give the audience everything I got to give. I give them my real, true soul. It takes more than a youngster can give.
You have left that “fast life” of the music business alone?
A lot of my dear musician friends died from drugs. I have cried for years over close friends. I might have a small cocktail every now and then, but I do not touch that other stuff.
You have been so fortunate as to play all over the world. When was the first time you went to Europe?
That was in 1964. Man, it has been ages. All parts of German, Switzerland, Copenhagen...I have been all over the world. Some people try to call me a ‘local’ singer, but I am surely not that. I sung with James Brown for two years as his top singer and that gave me a lot of traveling too.
What was it like to work with James Brown?
He was great and super clean. That is why I couldn’t ever understand why he did what he did. I never even knew James to take a drink. He was so clean cut. I enjoyed my two years with him. It must have been 1964 or 65... (laughing) When you were born.
We hear so many stories about Chess records and the Chess brothers. Some of the stories are not so good. What was your experience like working with them?
Well, they were alright.
Do you think they got a bad rap?
Well (thinking). For some things ...yeah...I hate to say it, but they would take from you in a minute. They had this black producer Billy Davis who produced all the blacks on the label. I never got any of my royalties till lately.
Really? What did you have to go through to get them?
My manager (James Moore) had to get a lawyer. I am just now getting my residuals from all those years ago. I wrote so many songs for them. I wrote for Little Milton, Fontella Bass, Minnie Ripperton, Billy Stewart, Sam and Dave, Etta James and on and on. Honey you name them. I wrote for almost everybody on the record label. During the early years, like 1959 and 60, that is when I did most of my records. When I had the hit “I Want To Know” Chess records picked it up. They put ten grand in my account and flew me to Chicago to join with Chess. I felt I was running over with money. They bought me a brand new car and stuff. They were good to me. The only thing I didn’t like is that they kinda put me on the shelf to keep me from hurting Etta James because we sound so much alike. She was there before me though. She had several hit records going then. I ended up writing because they were recording me , but wasn’t putting me out. They were “shelfing” the material. I know MCA now just bought a lot of Chess’ old records and they are doing new CD’s on me. My manager (James Moore) worked out the deal for me. He looks out for me. He has always been there for me. We just completed a new CD called “Classic Sugar.” We recorded it down in New Orleans. It was a good time.
Is that available now?
Oh yes. On the Jasman Label. That’s my latest. The one before that is “Sugar is Salty”.
What singers do you view as influences?
Barbara Streisand is one of them. Nancy Wilson, Sarah Vaughn. Those kind of singers. You know, I sing the blues, but I can sing anything. I sing anything I want to sing.
Do you consider yourself a blues singer or a singer that sings the blues?
I am a singer that sings the blues. I don’t want to be dubbed as just a blues singer, but I have been dubbed that for so many years, but what the heck. I feel whatever you are as long as you do a good job is a good thing. The rest doesn’t matter.
And you can sing honey! That little tiny body and that big voice...
That is what amazes people (laughing). I ain’t big as a pin. In my younger days [my voice] was much higher. I still can belt it though. But I want to be known as an all around singer. You know, music is different. The musicians are cutting each other up you know to get a gig, but I have been very lucky and I can mostly gig when I want to.
Have you seen a change in the racial mix of your audiences?
With blues, I perform to mostly white audiences. I don’t know. It kind of shocks me because I don’t understand how we can forget from where we came. I think it is kind of bad. I think that all entertainers should respect where we came from. Most of my shows are mixed though and I like that, but when I do the real stomp down blues, that is mostly white. That is something. I have always loved the blues. It gives me a good feeling. But some of our lives [as black people] have been so ugly, who wants to remember some of that stuff? But that is what the blues is all about. When I stand up and sing the blues I am not all proper and all of that crap...I sing the blues like I do because I have had a hard life, with divorces and things....
How many times have you been married?
Four times. You better believe I know how to sing the blues (laughs). That is how I do all that good writing because I write about the life that I have lived and am still living. The deepest blues I write are from my heart and from my life. Like the one I have on “Sugar is Salty” called “Hello San Francisco.” That is the truth. I always write reality never that phony crap.
How long have you been single?
Fourteen years now. It don’t bother me (laughing).
What new blues women do you like?
Well, I wouldn’t call it exactly blues, but I like Whitney Houston. Of course I like Gladys [Knight], but she can be old and new. I like Patty [Labelle] and Toni Braxton. I think it is ashamed what happened to her. But like so many entertainers we get bad management. Oh yes, and I like that Erykah Badu, she is bad. She is gonna go far.
But what about the blues women?
You sing blues right? Well, lots of youngsters like yourself ain’t into the blues...
Haha! Keep calling me that (laughing) At 32, it’s nice to be referred to as a “youngster.”
Well folks your age are still into that hip hop stuff. You are young at it and just keep going no matter what. Don’t let no body stop you.
Sugar, you have some extremely devoted fans out there. What do you feel when someone approaches you with such admiration and respect?
It’s amazing. I am just so proud. I am just happy. I recently was on the front cover of BLOCK magazine (a Holland based blues mag) and four pages on the inside. I am so happy.
I am so proud of your accomplishments and I thank you for the personal support. You have done so much for music in American and beyond. You have opened the doors for my generation of singers and song writers. How do you want to be remembered?
I want to be remembered as the baddest elderly blues singer ever. The Queen of the Blues! (laughing). I just want to be remembered as one of the baddest blues broads in the world.
...more about Sugar Pie...