“Queen of the West Coast Blues”, Sugar Pie DeSanto was raised in the historic Fillmore district of San Francisco, California. Born Umpeylia Marsema Balinton, Ms. DeSanto’s mother was a concert pianist. Though Sugar Pie taught herself to play piano by ear, her mother taught her how to sing.
Legendary band leader Johnny Otis signed the young Miss Ballinton to a recording contract after witnessing her win a local talent contest in 1954. Her first single “Boom Diddy Wawa, Baby was released in 1955 under the Otis inspired moniker of “Little Miss Sugar Pie”.
Ms. DeSanto gradually ventured out into the West Coast R&B scene. She met guitarist Pee Wee Kingsly at a gig in Stockton, California. He eventually became her husband and band director.
In 1959, Sugar Pie and Kingsley walked into the studios of Bob Geddins, remembered fondly as the “Godfather of the Oakland Blues”. She confidently announced to Geddins, “Bob, I think I got one!”
Godfather Geddins concurred. The single was purchased by Chess Records after it became a regional hit. Chess offered Sugar Pie a nice contract and she spent the next seven years in the Windy City writing hit tunes for Little Milton, Fontella Bass, Billy Stewart, The Dells, Minnie Ripperton and many others including her cousin Etta James. Sugar Pie and Etta duetted on two recordings for Chess, Do I Make Myself Clear and In The Basement Pts. I & II.
In 1964 Sugar Pie DeSanto was the only female on the American Folk Blues Festival that toured Europe. The legendary tour featured such Kings of the Blues as Willie Dixon, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Lightnin' Hopkins, Hubert Sumlin and Sunnyland Slim. For proof of Sugar Pie's dynamic stage presence check out her historic American Folk Blues performance which is still available on DVD.
Toward the end of her tenure at Chess, Sugar Pie hooked up with James Brown and toured with him for two years. As his opening act, it was her job to heat the crowd up for the hardest working man in show business. If the truth be known, Sugar Pie set the performance bar high for brother James. It can be safely said that the heights to which James Brown rose, were to in part to Ms. DeSanto's white hot stage antics. To this day, performers are wary of following her to the stage.
After two years on the road, at the end of her association with Chess, Sugar Pie returned to the West Coast and contracted with Jim Moore, head of Jasman Records and former manager of Big Mama Thornton.
Sugar Pie DeSanto's association with Jasman Records has been very successful. Her Jasman catalog consists of four CD's that continue to sell. She has toured in Europe recently and was the darling of Italy's Porreta Soul Festival in 2006 and 2008. Also in 2008, Ms. DeSanto killed them at the Chicago and Monterrey Blues Festival. In September, she was chosen to receive a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation along with some very exclusive company including The Whispers, Bill Withers, Chaka Khan, Teena Marie, Kool & The Gang, Al Bell and Donnie Hathaway.
At her performance at the Pioneer Award Festivities Sugar Pie had Aretha Franklin and the whole crowd dancing in the aisles! Queen of Soul Aretha invited Sugar Pie to perform at Ms. Franklin's private Christmas party in Detroit to close out a very successful 2008.
At 72, Sugar Pie shows no signs of slowing down. With a new CD in production scheduled for a 2009 release, and well over 100 songs written throughout her career, Sugar Pie DeSanto is truly the Grand Dame of entertainment. Though she has been categorically typecast as a Blues singer, Ms. DeSanto expertly swings her way around Pop, Soul and Jazz. She is a peerless dancer, choreographer, show stopping actress and comedienne. When it is indeed all said and done, Sugar Pie is one of the greatest entertainers performing on earth.