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Blues legend Sugar Pie DeSanto reflects on decades of being on stage



It is Friday, and that means it's time for StoryCorps. Sugar Pie DeSanto was tiny but had a fierce presence as a performer in the 1950s and '60s. She grew up with blues legend Etta James and toured with James Brown. Next week, she will be inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis, Tenn. DeSanto came to StoryCorps at the age of 86 with her longtime manager, Jim Moore.


SUGAR PIE DESANTO: I came upon blues when I was coming up as a young girl, where I would go to my schoolmate's house. And I said, what is that? She said, it's the blues. I said, what is the blues? 'Cause I didn't really know. My mother played piano - a concert pianist, you know, Beethoven and all that stuff - wasn't no blues in my house. And at Ellis Theatre in San Francisco, they had a talent show every week. I said, well, I think I'm going to try it out, you know? And I did and stole the show.


DESANTO: (Singing) Whoa. Lord, have mercy. Child, we're going to party in this place.

And who was sitting in the audience? The famous Johnny Otis. He said, girl, you bad. You really are quite the entertainer. He said, I would like to record you. I said, what - record me?


DESANTO: (Singing) I'm not tall like a model. I'm just so high.

I was so little. The microphone was as big as my head. I couldn't reach the mic 'cause I was too short. So they put me on Coca-Cola boxes for me to reach the mic to record. It was funny. And that's when Johnny said, you sound great. He said, but we can't release it under Peylia - my given name. He said, well, you so little, I think I'll call you Sugar Pie. And that's how I ended with the name Sugar Pie. He named me that.


DESANTO: (Singing) Yes, it′s fitting, child. It's fitting. And it ain't the back that's cut too low.

JIM MOORE: Can you describe your signature move?

DESANTO: Backflips and splits (laughter) and hanging upside down with my legs locked around a man. Thank you.

MOORE: Yeah.

DESANTO: They loved that.


DESANTO: (Singing) I'm going to be a party-popping, show-stopping, wig-flopping witch for a night.

MOORE: The founder of Earth, Wind & Fire - you guys were doing a studio gig. And somebody made a mistake, and you started cursing. And he said the words were so tough that the paint started peeling off the wall.

DESANTO: That was back in the day, brother.

MOORE: (Laughter).


DESANTO: (Singing) But when I get my check, I just ain't going to give a heck. I'm going to be a...

MOORE: How do you want to be remembered?

DESANTO: That I was one hell of an entertainer.


DESANTO: (Singing) I've got that go-go power.

MARTIN: That was Peylia Marsema Balinton, better known as Sugar Pie DeSanto, speaking with her manager, Jim Moore, who died six months ago. Their interviews are archived at the Library of Congress and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jey Born