Tuesday, August 25, 2009
STRAIGHTEN IT OUT WITH YO MAN
Born Umpeylia Marsema Balinton, Sugar Die DeSanto was given her stage name as well as her recording debut by rhythm and blues ubermensch Johnny Otis. He dubbed her "Little Miss Sugar Pie" in 1955, and not because she had a sweet tooth or liked to bake. "While we were in the studio he named me Sugar Pie," DeSanto recalled in an interview, "Because I was so little. I wore a size three shoe and I weighed about 85 pounds. I was very tiny." She's a half-pint in size, true, but in talent or voice assuredly not. Although typecast as a blues singer, she also takes care of business on the soul end of things and is a convincing jazz vocal stylist as well. That would be enough to gain most singers a reasonable slice of glory, but DeSanto also happens to be a hilarious comedienne, a show-stopping dancer, and a superb and highly original songwriter whose compositions have been cut by Fontella Bass, Billy Stewart, Little Milton, Bobby McClure, Minnie Riperton, Jesse James, the Dells, and the Whispers.
Otis discovered her performing at the Ellis Theater, the venue which she feels was sort of a birthing ground for her musical style. Otis dropped by one of the venue's regular talent shows only to observe DeSanto walking off with first prize. He promptly offered her a contract to come to Los Angeles to cut her first record ever. From the late '50s onward she performed regularly at rhythm & blues havens such as the Apollo in New York, the Regal in Chicago, and the Howard in Washington, D.C. At the Apollo she made quite an impression on the so-called "Godfather of Soul," James Brown, leading to her becoming his opening act for two years.
In 1964, DeSanto was the only female performer on a touring American Folk Blues Festival bill with a lineup that would make a blues fan soak the concert program with drool, including Willie Dixon, Sleepy John Estes, Clifton James, Sunnyland Slim, Hubert Sumlin, Lightnin' Hopkins, and Sonny Boy Williamson II, also known as Rice Miller. She has written some 100 songs and prefers to perform her own material. DeSanto's on-stage workout has always totally bypassed her record releases in terms of creativity and intensity, and her advancing age isn't stopping her from continuing to expand her talent base: she recently branched out into country & western.