Adventures in Feministory: Sugar Pie DeSanto
Born Umpeylia Marsema Balinton ("Peliya" to her family) in 1935, the artist known as Sugar Pie DeSanto still gets the crowd jumping today with her R&B vocal stylings and dynamic stage shows.
Though her life began in Brooklyn, Peliya's (remember, she wasn't Sugar Pie yet) family moved to San Francisco when she was young. It was there that she not only discovered her love for singing and dancing, but she fell in with her neighbor Jamesetta Hawkins, a member of the girl gang the Lucky 20's (why isn't this a movie already?). Hawkins did jail time for her gang activity, but when she got out she formed a singing group with Peliya's sister. Soon after, Hawkins was discovered by bandleader Johnny Otis and re-christened Etta James. Peliya herself, not content to let her badass neighbor have all the fun, started entering talent contests in San Francisco, and won so often, they told her to stop entering. At another talent contest in L.A., Otis saw her again and offered to record her. He made good on his offer, and gave her a stage name, too: Little Miss Sugar Pie DeSanto. (This guy was all about renaming people, apparently.)
DeSanto recorded songs throughout the '50s and '60s, first for Check Records and then for the similarly named but more famous Chess Records. Her better-known singles from that period include "I Want to Know" (recorded with then-husband Pee Wee Kingsley—do you think they bonded over their cute nicknames?), "Slip-in Mules," and "Soulful Dress."
DeSanto's had a successful career as a songwriter as well, and has written songs for James Brown (whom she toured with during the '60s), Billy Stewart, Little Milton, the Dells, Bobby McClure, Minnie Riperton, Jesse James, the Whispers, and Fontella Bass, among others. She also co-wrote several songs with Shena DeMell while at Chess, including the duet she performed with Etta James, "In the Basement," about their time in the Lucky 20's. (Seriously Hollywood, make a movie about the Lucky 20's! You've already got your theme song!)
Though her songs were popular, DeSanto was (and still is!) famous for her stage shows. Back flips, martial arts moves, and wild dancing come with the territory for this African-America-Filipino powerhouse, and she hasn't slowed down yet. Here's a video of her performing at the 2008 Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Awards, where she was honored for her R&B career (dancing starts at around 3:00):
How awesome is that backwards somersault? Almost as awesome as DeSanto herself, who is still performing her notable music. Those of you in the L.A. area can see her next month! Something tells me you won't regret it.
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