In the glorious canon of Chess Records, other better-known names sometimes overshadow the wonderful work of New York-born soul songbird Sugar Pie DeSanto. But the lady born Umpeylia Balinton made some outstanding records for the label and, happily, is still performing live in her 83rd year, based in her longtime home of Oakland, California.
We’re remembering 5 September 1960 when, before she arrived on Chess, Sugar Pie made her US R&B chart debut with the typically slinky ‘I Want To Know.’ De Santo had come to prominence in the mid-1950s singing with the Johnny Otis Revue and then with James Brown. To both frontmen, she proved that what she lacked in stature, at under five feet tall, she more than made up for with her exciting, soulful delivery.
The vocalist recorded in her own right from the late 1950s, and ‘I Want To Know’ was made for the Oakland-based Veltone label, also appearing on Veltone. It was one of several collaborations with her husband Pee Wee Kingsley, and even if the marriage didn’t last, the song did. It hit Billboard’s Hot R&B Sides at a confident No. 10, as Brook Benton continued at No. 1 with ‘Kiddio.’
The track climbed to No. 4 in a nine-week stay, and De Santo went on to sign for Chess in 1962. She didn’t enjoy substantial success for them until two years later, when ‘Slip-In Mules,’ her smart answer record to Tommy Tucker’s hit ‘High Heel Sneakers,’ went to No. 10 R&B. She followed it with another of her great trademark 45s, ‘Soulful Dress.’
In 1966, Sugar Pie made another lasting contribution to soul history with ‘In The Basement,’ her delightful duet with the lady whose success at Chess had preceded her, Etta James. Future releases fared less well for De Santo, who recorded for other labels after leaving Chess and settled in the Bay Area. She has continued to delight audiences with her live shows and, in 2008, was given the Pioneer Award by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation.
‘I Want To Know’ is on Sugar Pie Desanto’s In The Basement: The Chess Recordings, which can be bought here.