TERRY GROSS, host:
The early 1960s was a great time for female rhythm and blues singers, with talents like Etta James, Betty Everett, Koko Taylor and Irma Thomas, to name a few. One of the most unusual was an athletic young woman who stood four feet 11 inches and was half Filipina, called Sugar Pie DeSanto.
Rock historian Ed Ward has her story.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. SUGAR PIE DESANTO (Singer): (Singing) I see you looking, darling. You dig what you see? I know what you think. There ain't much of me. I ain't got big hips. Tiny little waist, and I ain't 38 no place. But I got every - everything I need. Yes, it's gonna keep my man satisfied now. 'Cause if you know how to use what you've got, it doesn't matter about your size.
ED WARD: Sugar Pie DeSanto was born in Brooklyn in October 1935 and was christened Umpeleya Marsema Balinton. Her father was Filipino, her mother African-American. Her mother had been a concert pianist, but Sugar Pie says her father couldn't carry a tune in a bucket. He moved the family to San Francisco when Peliya, as they called her, was four, and soon enough the young girl discovered dancing and singing and made a fast friend with a neighbor named Jamesetta Hawkins, who was a member of a girl gang called the Lucky 20's.
Jamesetta wound up in jail for her gang activities, and when she got out, she formed a singing group with one of Peliya's younger sisters. Peliya looked on in envy as Jamesetta was discovered by bandleader Johnny Otis and re-christened Etta James.
She started entering talent contests in San Francisco and won so often, they told her to stop entering. At another talent contest in L.A., Otis saw her again and offered to record her. He made good on his offer, and gave her a stage name too: Little Miss Sugar Pie.
She continued to record throughout the late '50s, often with her husband Pee Wee Kingsley, and they finally found success with a song called "I Want to Know" on an Oakland-based label, Check. Shortly thereafter, their marriage fell apart, and Sugar Pie went to Chicago, where Chess Records had offered her $10,000 to record for them. She signed in 1962, but didn't see any success until 1964.
(Soundbite of song "Slip-in Mules")
Ms. DESANTO: (Singing) Baby, my red dress in the cleaner, but my shift'll steal the show. Baby, my red dress in the cleaner, child. But my shift will steal the show. Yes, it's fitting, child. It's fitting, and it ain't the back that's cut too low. Ain't wearing my high-heel sneakers.
WARD: Riding on the back of Tommy Tucker's "High-Heeled Sneakers," "Slip-in Mules" told how sneakers hurt De Santo's feet, but not to worry: She'd be the hit of the dance anyway. Then the hits kept coming: "Use What You Got" and another song about clothing.
(Soundbite of song "Soulful Dress")
Ms. DESANTO: (Singing) I'm going to put on my dress and get those bits up both the sides. Get that tight thin waist and that low neckline. Lord, I'm going to the party. Gonna have some fun. Gonna shake and shout until the morning come. If you want to keep your man, you better get sharp as you can. I'll be at my best when I put on my soulful dress. I'm gonna...
WARD: "Soulful Dress" is probably Sugar Pie's best-known song these days, not least because Texas songstress Marcia Ball has had it in her set for years, but it also established Sugar Pie's persona: an assertive young woman who took no mess. With this and its successor, "I Don't Wanna Fuss," hitting the charts, Sugar Pie went off to tour Europe, and they're still talking about her shows -wild dancing and standing back flips included - and her using martial arts on a hefty guy who invaded the stage in England.
Back in Chicago, she met Shena DeMell, an unsuccessful songwriter who was the girlfriend of one of Chess's most successful ones, Billy Davis. In no time, the two women had written a strong song - too strong for one woman to sing, but just strong enough for two, if the other was Etta James.
(Soundbite of song)
Ms. DESANTO AND ETTA JAMES: (Singing) I don't want to believe the bad things about you. Oh no now. 'Cause if they are true, I'd have to get along without you. Oh, oh now. I said the word is out on you. It's all about the things you do. Moving and a grooving, using and fooling, chasing around every skirt in town. If it's true, you'll be on your way. Do I make myself clear? Do I make myself clear? I said you...
WARD: That hit the Top 10, so the duo did another one, which evoked the years when they ran with the Lucky 20s.
(Soundbite of song "In the Basement")
Ms. DESANTO AND ETTA JAMES: (Singing) Oh, now tell me where can you party, child, all night long? In the basement, down in the basement, yeah. Oh where can you go when your money gets low? In the basement, whoa down in the basement. And if a storm is taking place, you can jam and still be safe in the basement. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
WARD: But it didn't do as well, and Sugar Pie DeSanto went back to writing some more with Shena DeMell. Her next record was a result of that collaboration.
(Soundbite of song "Go Go Power")
Ms. DESANTO: (Singing) I've got that go go power. I'm gonna kick off my shoes and dance. I've got that go go power, now. I'm gonna kick off my shoes and dance. Going to get up from my seat, child, and I feel that heat. Dance in my stocking feet. Ooh and I go, go, go, go, go. Yes, Lord, till the break of dawn.
WARD: "Go Go Power" didn't chart, and it was Sugar Pie's last record for Chess. Sugar Pie kept on writing songs and recorded for a few more labels without much success and eventually moved back to the Bay Area, settling in Oakland. She's been married twice to Jim Moore, her current husband, who's 17 years younger than her. He also manages her as she continues to perform - not only in clubs in California, but in blues and jazz festivals all over the world.
In September 2008, she was given a Pioneer Award by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. When it was time for her to perform, she kicked off her shoes and did a back flip.
GROSS: Ed Ward lives in the south of France. He reviewed Sugar Pie Desanto, "Go Go Power: The Complete Chess Singles, 1961-1966."