There’s a song I heard recently that I haven’t been able to shake from my head. It’s a doozy of a song, soulful and funky, called “In The Basement” and it’s sung by Sugar Pie DeSanto and Etta James.
It’s a great duet and was recorded whilst both singers were recording stars of Chess Records in Chicago nearly fifty years ago.
Etta James I knew of course. I think we can assume even the most foggy-minded amongst us – a politician or high court judge, for example – will have at least a dim awareness of her work.
But who, I wondered, was Sugar Pie DeSanto?
It turns out the lady is still singing today – I hope she won’t mind my pointing out she will be eighty years old this year – and she has quite a history. This story – and the peak of her recording career – has been collected on a CD called “Go Go Power – The Complete Chess Singles 1961-1966”.
Growing up in the Fillmore area of San Francisco in the 1950s, Umpeylia Marsema Balinton was hanging out in a gang called the Lucky 20s with her friend Jamesetta Hawkins.
Peylia and Jamesetta sometimes got into trouble and Jamesetta Hawkins spent time in a junior detention centre. But they were both keen singers, and Hawkins formed a singing group called the Creolettes, which featured Peylia’s sister. In 1954, when Hawkins was just 15, The Creolettes auditioned for bandleader Johnny Otis.
Otis was so impressed, he offered to record them in Los Angeles the next day. When he asked Hawkins how old she was, she lied and said “18”. He then sent her home to get permission from her mother, who was in jail at the time. Hawkins forged the signature, Otis rechristened her group Etta James and the Peaches and the following year Etta James topped the R&B charts with “Roll With Me Henry”.
Not to be outdone, in 1955 Peylia entered a talent contest in Los Angeles. Johnny Otis saw her and offered to record her too. Just like he did with Etta James, Otis did a rechristening act and Sugar Pie DeSanto was born.
Success didn’t come overnight, but in July 1960 a single, “I Want To Know” reached #4 on the Billboard R&B chart. Offers of live work came flooding in, and a year later DeSanto was opening for James Brown for a year long tour. In 1962, she was signed by Chess Records for $10,000. Sugar Pie went on to have six hit singles on the Cashbox R&B chart.
It wasn’t just the USA that liked some Sugar Pie. DeSanto made quite an impression on the UK via sixties TV proto-pop show Ready Steady Go! in 1964.
With her hair in curlers, the four feet eleven inch high singer sang “I Don’t Wanna Fuss” whilst rolling around on the floor*. Her tour – on the American Folk Blues Festival package alongside Howling Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and Lightnin’ Hopkins – was a great success, not least because of DeSanto’s performances which included wild dancing and back flips. The photos from the tour certainly show quite a character and performer. But then that’s what you might expect from someone who opened for James Brown for a year.
However, it wasn’t until 1965 that Billy Davis at Chess Records had the bright idea of bringing Etta James and Sugar Pie DeSanto – two old friends – back together. They cut three sides, two co-written by DeSanto and her writing partner. “In The Basement” was the highlight of those sessions.
Take a listen, and put on your dancing shoes…
Perhaps Etta James summed things up best herself in this quote:
“I recorded with my old friend from San Francisco, nutty wildass Sugar Pie DeSanto. I dug singing “In The Basement” a song that took us back to when we were kids cutting up, smearing on lipstick, kissing on boys, being bad gang girls with our homemade tattoos and floppy jeans. With happy voices chattering in the background, the record is an all night-long party with funky music blaring.”
* If anyone can trace YouTube footage of her performance, please let me know.
Stars of Soul and Rhythm and Blues by Lee Hildebrand
Sugar Pie DeSanto “Go Go Power – The Complete Chess Singles 1961-1966 sleeve notes by Mick Patrick
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