James Brown was known as the Godfather of Soul, but his other nickname was "the hardest-working man in show business." Sugar Pie DeSanto is known as the female James Brown because of the way she works a stage, even at 73.
"What an honor, you know, to be the lady James Brown," Sugar Pie said in a recent phone interview. "Because I was cuttin' up and I still cut up - if you know what I mean. I was getting down, all right? And with God's help I will still be getting down 'til I don't want to sing anymore. Wait 'til I'm 85 and they push me on-stage in a wheelchair - 'And here she is!' - and I bet I'll be mastering that wheelchair, having it spinning and everything!"
In the early '60s, Brown saw Sugar Pie at the Apollo Theatre in New York, on a bill with Ike & Tina Turner. Sugar Pie was touring in support of her single that she co-wrote with producer Bob Geddins, "I Want to Know," which had reached number five on the Billboard charts. Brown was so impressed that he asked Sugar Pie to join his revue, and she toured with him for two years.
"It was nice touring with James Brown, but the only thing about it, we were in kind of competition," she said. "Because I was a hard worker, you know, and I kind of put that competition on him. He never said anything, but you could sorta feel it. So finally I thought if I could wow a show like that I could do it on my own."
She also works hard at staying in shape, and that's how she gets her energy for the stage shows: "I go to a gym. After my husband was killed, I got this place, and we have a gym right here."
Sugar Pie lost her husband, her cat, all her memorabilia - everything - in a house fire in 2006. "That's why I started over.," she said. "Trying to keep myself together and do my exercise, eat as well as I can. Trying to stay more to salad to keep my physique. I was up to 120 pounds - that's too much for me. The fat was hanging from under my arms, and I thought, 'Oh my god!' So I'm down now to about 105 and that's enough for me. Because I move so much on stage, I don't need all that fat shakin' around."
In 1955, when she was 19, Umpeylia Balinton was discovered at a talent show in San Francisco by Oakland bandleader Johnny Otis ("the Godfather of R&B"), who offered her a recording contract. "And of course Johnny Otis named me Little Sugar Pie. He said, 'We can't go around here calling you Umpeylia.' I said, 'I know you won't because that does not sound too good for a singer - Umpeylia.' He said, 'You're so little and cute.' Because in those days the mics were so big and so tall I couldn't reach it."
She was named after her grandmother. "Umpeylia Balinton. What a name, huh?" she said. "But I never use my name, only with my family and real personal people. My father's language was Tagalog, from the Phillipines, and in his language Umpeylia means 'bitter melon' or 'sour fruit.' That's where I got all that pretty hair from - my daddy. It's gray now, but it's still pretty and long.
"The famous basketball player Don Barksdale that used to play with the Boston Celtics, he gave me DeSanto, because he was my manager at one time in music. I don't know where he got that from - I guess he just thought of the Filipino side of me or the Spanish. I was Little Sugar Pie, and he said, 'I'll give you DeSanto.' And I've worn it ever since."
Sugar Pie got into music early. "We were always singing at home," she said. "My mother was a concert pianist, and I would learn songs from her. Not the soul stuff, though - ballads and standards. So I've been singing since I was six or seven years old. I've been writing ever since I was a young lady. And then my family's very talented. I had one of my sisters sing with Etta [James, a cousin] in the Peaches."
For seven years in the '60s, she worked for Chess Records in Chicago as a performer and songwriter. That was during the time that Muddy Waters, Etta James, and a young Buddy Guy were all with the label. In 1964, Sugar Pie was the only female artist on the American Folk Blues Festival that toured Europe and featured Chess artists.
At that time, Sugar Pie was an R&B star. "But I was with Chess records and they figured me for blues, as well," she said. "Matter of fact, when it comes down, I can do some blues standards, too. Most of the guys on that tour was out of Chess. Like Howlin' Wolf and Sunnyland Slim. I didn't do none of my records. I did 'You Got Me Running' and another one. Willie Dixon had a trio that played behind me. And I was the only woman, so I had a heck of a good time!"
Except for one thing: "All those old men. I don't like real real old men. When my husband died, he was 52 and I was 71. I don't like an old man - I just don't. They make me feel old. I prefer a younger man whose mind is moving, more than 'Oh my back hurts tonight.' Or 'Let's go dancing'; 'No I can't, I got a cramp in my leg.' Oh my. I can't deal with it. I just don't like old men. What I look like with a man who's 70? Oh come on!"
You should write a song about that, I suggest. "Oh I will. I'm working on one right now called 'Old Men.' But they're good for some people. ... Old men is cool - they're cool for the right woman. But not for me."
Not until 1997 was Sugar Pie's first full CD released, Classic Sugar Pie. And just this year, another CD has been released. "It's called Sugar Pie DeSanto: Go-Go Power," she said. "And it's all these tunes, it's all the singles I made for Chess in the early '60s and they put them all on one CD. It's real nice."
Some of those Chess singles she made with Etta James. "It was my writing and then we recorded together," DeSanto said. "So that's when we did '[In the] Basement' and 'Do I Make Myself Clear' and 'Somewhere Down the Line' - all those I wrote. We don't see each other often because she does the L.A. area; we may see each other every blue moon, but we're still tight. That's still my girl.
"And do you know that Go-Go Power - I just got the Billboard from my manager and it's number 15 already! This is the first time in years I hit the Billboard. It's powerful. I'm getting excited! I might get another hit after all these years - who knows?"