Born Peylia Marsema Balinton, Sugar Pie DeSanto launched her career in Oakland. Credit: Pete Rosos

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Oakland-based rhythm and blues singer Sugar Pie DeSanto has been selected to receive the prestigious Arhoolie Award for 2020. The award honors extraordinary individuals and organizations who preserve, practice, and support traditional art forms. DeSanto and three other awardees will be honored during a live-streamed ceremony on December 10, 2020.

When Arhoolie Foundation board member Larry Batiste gave her the news of the hefty award, Ms. DeSanto was characteristically nonplussed. “See, I didn’t come here yesterday. I’ve been acknowledged, voted on, rooted for, and talked about all my life. Been there, done that. So I didn’t fall out with excitement. But it’s a nice thing. I’m enthused and feel lucky to be chosen.”

The 2020 Arhoolie awards

The Arhoolie Foundation Awards show will be live-streamed on Thursday, Dec. 10, 5 p.m. PST with performances by Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder, Charlie Musselwhite, Los Texmaniacs, La Marisol with Max Baca, Beausoleil Trio, Ruthie Foster, and more.

The fiery octogenarian (DeSanto turned 85 this year) was born in Brooklyn, raised in San Francisco, and made her musical career touring America and Europe in the 1950s and 1960s, dazzling audiences with acrobatic dance moves. Physically diminutive at 4 feet 11 inches, DeSanto is a self-confessed “stage arsonist” who takes pride in her showmanship. “Honey, I’ll burn the stage down!” she said in a recent interview.

DeSanto performed often in West Oakland’s nightclubs during the neighborhood’s heyday as a music hotspot.

“I moved to Oakland with my first husband, guitarist Pee Wee Kingsley. We were both doing music and joined forces,” said DeSanto in an interview with The Oaklandside. “I worked the Sportsman, the Showcase, the Continental Club, Esther’s, and Slim Jenkins. Those were the hottest gigs.”

DeSanto’s first hit record was also recorded in Oakland. In 1959, along with her then-husband, Kingsley, DeSanto burst into record producer Bob Geddins’ Seventh Street recording studio and emphatically declared, “Bob, I think I got one!” That night they recorded “I Want To Know” on Geddins’ Veltone label. Geddins leased the single to Chicago’s Chess record label and it peaked at number four on Billboard’s national R&B chart in the fall of 1960. The song catapulted Sugar Pie into a seven-year contract with Chess. 

After her tenure with Chess, soul singer James Brown saw DeSanto perform at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater and hired her to open his stage show and revue. DeSanto would often leave the venue smoldering after jumping off a piano to roll and tumble across the stage. At one point, recalled DeSanto, taskmaster Brown complained, “Sugar, you’re making me work too hard. Stop jumpin’ off the piano.”

After touring with Brown, DeSanto returned to Oakland, where she has lived since 1973.

“I saw her when she opened for Jackie Wilson at the Sportsman Club in Oakland,” said James Moore, Sr., who became DeSanto’s manager in the 1970s. “Man, guys were standing on the tables to get a look when she hit the stage. When she came out of the dressing room, she was already four feet off the ground. She hit the stage flying. Of course, this made Jackie Wilson come out six feet in the air, hit the splits when he landed, and he just tore up the house. It was the greatest show I’ve ever seen.”

Arhoolie board member Batiste, who is also a member of the Grammy Awards San Francisco Chapter, nominated DeSanto for the award. “It was a huge honor for me to nominate Sugar Pie as she is a legend and true trailblazer,” said Batiste. “She broke down barriers domestically and internationally by being the only female on many U.S. and European tours. Ms. DeSanto has remained true to her traditional roots and unapologetic, soulful sound.”

The Arhoolie Foundation grew out of the East Bay Arhoolie Records label founded by Chris Strachwitz in 1959 to promote American roots music. In 1960, Strachwitz began a series of field recordings of Blues, Cajun, Zydeco, and Mexican Norteño music that formed the basis of the Arhoolie catalog, which contains over 50,000 individual tracks and was acquired by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings in 2016. Strachwitz was awarded the Grammy Trustees Award by the Recording Academy in recognition of his contributions.

“While it is important to us that we do represent the Bay Area at large, we are especially proud to honor Oakland’s Sugar Pie DeSanto, who fits squarely into the richness of the East Bay, where Arhoolie is,” said Arhoolie Foundation Executive Director Chris Machado. 

In addition to Ms. DeSanto, the other award winners are Norteño accordion player Flaco Jiménez, Derrick Tabb’s Roots of Music, and master Creole/Cajun fiddler Courtney Granger.

DeSanto continues to work as a musician, and like other artists, she said she’s concerned about how the pandemic is affecting the industry. “These days, with the COVID-19 all the musicians are off,” she said. “Ain’t that some mess?”

Despite recent health concerns, DeSanto appeared in two films this year: “Fat Boy: The Billy Stewart Story,” and the soon to be released “Blues Heaven.” DeSanto’s music is also included on the soundtrack of “Women Is Losers,” a film directed by Lissette Feliciano and scheduled for release next year. Jasman Records is also releasing a vinyl album, “Sugar’s Suite,” of new Sugar Pie material in 2021.

“I’m not as strong as I think I am. I’m not worried about it, though,” said DeSanto. “I’m just doin’ what God says for me to do. I’m still tryin’ to push but it’s hard. I ain’t fallin’ apart, but I’m damn near fallin’! I do want people to know that I always gave it all I had.”