I always come back to classic soul, Motown, and R&B when I need to feel grounded, and lately life has pushed me deep into my collection of 60s party hits—which includes the 1966 single “In the Basement” by soul singers Etta James and Sugar Pie DeSanto. James earned her share of fame with hits such as “I’d Rather Go Blind” and her most recognizable tune, a rendition of “At Last” (first dance for the Obamas in 2008, remember?), but DeSanto hasn’t gotten the accolades she deserves from mainstream audiences.
I first heard “In the Basement” as a teenager, on a beat-up 45 that I’d found stuck in a pile of records in my grandparents’ basement (appropriately enough). I was immediately transfixed by DeSanto’s raspy alto as she shouted out the chorus alongside James. Later, when I started searching for more information about DeSanto, I found out that she has something in common with me: she’s multiracial, and one side of her family hails from the Philippines. A fellow hapa into basement stompers? This definitely solidified my fandom.
Sugar Pie DeSanto was born Umpeylia Marsema Balinton in Brooklyn in 1935, and her family moved to San Francisco’s Fillmore District when she was four years old. As a child, she lived near Etta James, her cousin and soon a friend. DeSanto received the nickname “Sugar Pie” from bandleader Johnny Otis while she was touring with his revue in the mid-50s, and she’s kept it through her long solo singing and songwriting career (she was once the highest-paid songwriter employed by Chess Records, and her songs have been recorded by the likes of Minnie Riperton, Billy Stewart, and Fontella Bass).
Today DeSanto is 85, and though she’s understandably less active, she released her most recent new music, the EP Sugar’s Suite, in 2018. She’s visited Chicago many times during her career (including for gigs at the Chicago Blues Festival), blessing us with her energetic, almost gymnastic onstage moves; she’s four foot eleven and learned a lot touring with James Brown in the 60s. When David Whiteis previewed her 1998 concert at Buddy Guy’s Legends, he called her an “electrifying performer.”
DeSanto recently appeared as a subject of the May 19 Project, a social-media and video campaign created to promote solidarity with and among Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities. It was launched by See Us Unite, a coalition of nonprofits working to stop anti-AAPI hate. It’s great to see DeSanto talking about the diverse and inclusive music scenes that fostered her sound, and her story is an exciting reminder of the new multicultural music that’s surely being created right now by young people in their basements. v
- Etta James and Sugar Pie DeSanto’s “In the Basement”
- Sugar Pie DeSanto’s May 19 Project video
- The 2018 EP Sugar’s Suite
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