Albany's Ivy Room -- a proletarian palace of wood paneling and vintage charm -- prides itself on warmth and intimacy, but you never realize quite how warm and intimate until you're confronted with the sight of a seventy-year-old blues singer's underwear. Didn't see that one coming. And yet, there's Sugar Pie DeSanto, all four-foot-somethin' of her, clad in a poofy red dress, her back to the crowd, slowly raising one leg straight back and straight up, higher, higher, until she could probably technically be arrested. The crowd whoops heartily. This is the intended effect.
"Singing. Dancing. Clowning. I'm quite a comedian, as you know," Sugar Pie explains a few days later. "I do it all. I think it should be well rounded. Do everything. Everything that you think you can do. ... I'm just an entertainer. It's what I feel. I do what I feel. Long as it's not too way out there."
Flashing the crowd, evidently, does not fall in the "too way out there" category. Nor does dancing on the Ivy's bar, an activity Sugar Pie alone can enjoy, as her head doesn't quite hit the ceiling. (The bartenders don't mind, perhaps because they're too busy blowing bubbles.) Sugar Pie also pulls a random, befuddled dude onstage for a slow dance, suddenly jumping in his arms and straddling his waist, as though the joint is either flooding or hosting a pornographer convention.
"My thing is, I've always felt that I would feel bad if I didn't get across," she explains. "That's my thing. And I'll do anything to get across. I would die if I wasn't accepted."
Sugar Pie DeSanto will never die.
She started out in the late '40s as Umpeylia Marsema Balinton (a rare instance of one's given name eclipsing one's stage name), dominating SF talent shows with boisterously belted ballads and standards. That's where R&B bandleader extraordinaire Johnny Otis found her, christened her Sugar Pie, and lured her to Los Angeles, where she cut a hit single, the joyously mournful "I Want to Know." This in turn led to a stint as an opening act for none other than James Brown -- which, after you've witnessed Sugar live, explains everything. Her bawdy mix of menace, exuberance, and goofiness could have no other point of origin.
But Sugar Pie insists it wasn't an apprenticeship -- it was a full-on rivalry. "During them days, he was really gettin' down," she recalls. "Only thing: Our competition was gettin' kinda tight. Oh yeah. If he did the splits, so could I. If he rolled, I can too. If he'd jump off the chair, I'd jump off the piano."
After two years of showstopping one-upmanship, she sat James down in Denver and announced she was striking out on her own. For the past forty years or so -- Jesus -- she's cut a few big-shot R&B hits (most notably the raucous Etta James duet "In the Basement"), toured with almighty heavyweights (a mid-'60s blues tour through Europe that included Willie Dixon and Lightnin' Hopkins), built a rep as a crack songwriter in her own right, and slowly refined her singing, dancing, and clowning live act to perfection. She's entrenched in Oakland now, with her fourth disc for hometown imprint Jasman Records, Refined Sugar, due out in March.
All this history doesn't much compel her to wistful, philosophical statements, though: Ask her what she knows now that she didn't know then, and you get "What I know is, I want another hit."
Fair enough. Refined Sugar has some viciously impassioned balladry and the infectious singalong cut "Somebody Scream," but DeSanto can only truly do herself justice in person, a rowdy, full-contact experience wherein she excitedly directs her five-dude backing band like a sexed-up air-traffic controller. They respond to her every bidding. "They know," Sugar Pie declares. "They know when to cut that shit up. They know when to cut it, and when to put it on. I just have to wave a finger." The boys respond in kind, punching up the tempo on "In the Basement" to further mutate an R&B classic into a perfect Animal House frat party jam.
Her crowds are thus enraptured, be they veteran fans or dumbstruck neophytes who instantly realize this ain't no standard-issue Stare at Your Shoes affair. "Do things to get 'em to react," Sugar Pie counsels. "You have to be the one to take them along with you. If they're standin' there and they're lookin' at you and you're dead as a stick, why should I go crazy?" Thus, the bar-stomping and unmentionables-flashing. All Sugar Pie crowds are contractually obligated to participate in a Sugar! We love you girl! chant, and everyone does, and no one unwillingly. "You can just about feel your own crowd," she explains. "What they're like. After the first number, you can tell -- 'Oh, these people wanna get down.' Well, let's get down."
It's probably no coincidence that some of classic soul, blues, and R&B's most bombastic performers often enjoy the greatest longevity -- James Brown himself descends on Bimbo's 365 Club in SF later this month, $125 a head, but hey. Sugar Pie, too, has now lasted five times as long as faux-showmen who expended one-tenth the nightly effort, and the only entity she even briefly sold her soul to was Chess Records. "God bless me," she says. "My secret is no drugs, no alcohol. I just clean my act up, brother. That's how I do it." And she'll get as dirty as she has to just to let you know it.
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