The Untold Story of Sugar Pie DeSanto

Sugar Pie DeSanto still rocking it after all these years. (Photo by Nathan DeHart)

Sugar Pie DeSanto still rocking it after all these years. (Photo by Nathan DeHart)

She’s always dressed elegantly, always in style, always with an attitude that says, “I’m ready to perform. Just say the word.”

That’s pretty much the sense one gets hanging out with Sugar Pie DeSanto.

That was the sense I got one sunny afternoon outside the famous Lois the Pie Queen restaurant in Oakland, where she met with the group that’s working to tell her story.

“You don’t have teach me how to shuffle, honey,” she tells our video crew.

Laughter filled the street where we were shooting. It was a simple shoot for a promo video. But she stood out. In the restaurant, famous for soul food in that corner of the San Francisco Bay Area, Sugar Pie was the most impeccably dressed in a bunch hanging out, having fun. 

And, of course, she was in performance mode.

It was last summer when I was invited to join a team to retrace her incredible journey. We’re calling the film, “Bittersweet.”

It’s an inspiring story. Sugar Pie is a legend in the blues community, and the broader American music world.

But it’s also a sad tale, in a way.

For one thing, the memory of her incredible journey has been fading. Not too many Filipinos even know who she is, even though her name, before she became Sugar Pie DeSanto, would be a dead giveaway for a Pinay: Umpeylia Marsema Balinton.

Her father was a Filipino seaman from Manila. Her mother was an African American from Philadelphia. Umpeylia, derived from ampalaya, was her Filipino grandmother’s name. Sugar Pie never knew her; she has never been to her dad’s homeland.

But he loomed large in her life. Sugar Pie could spend hours talking about him, the Pinoy immigrant with a thick accent who raised his children based on strict Catholic rules. Her mother was a pianist and an artist. She took after her.

They were hard working parents who raised children in a poor San Francisco neighborhood during hard times made harder by prejudice against blacks, against Filipinos, and against immigrants and people of color.

Sugar Pie grew up in a tough world. Among her friends was a girl named Jamesetta Hawkins, who would later become famous as Etta James. In fact, they were childhood friends who eventually explored the music world together.

Etta James would become famous. Sugar Pie, while considered a pioneer in blues, would not enjoy the same kind of success. Which is ironic because she was, in many ways, an even more exciting and pioneering performer and artist.

Take the YouTube videos that drew most of us, led by producer Jong De Castro and director Kanakan Balintagos, to her. 

The black-and-white clips are from a big blues festival in England where Sugar Pie joined legends like Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon. The year was 1964. Blues was enjoying a revival. Rock ‘n’ roll was taking over the world, led by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

It is said that the blues had a child and they named it rock and roll. Sugar Pie’s manager and friend Jim Moore actually told me that.

By the time Sugar Pie traveled to England for the historic festival, the music had been dramatically transformed.

And if you look and listen closely, Sugar Pie’s influence, even though she did not became a household name as other artists did, is clear. As a blog post on the Sugar Pie documentary page says, it’s too bad she was born before MTV.

She would have fit perfectly in that world.

Sugar Pie DeSanto doesn’t just sing and dance. She takes over the stage, performing with unmatchable energy and passion. Think Mick Jagger, Tina Turner or even Miley Cyrus.

She’s nearly 80. But that’s still what performing means to her.

She said so herself when we were hanging out with her that afternoon in Oakland.

“I can’t keep still, honey. It’s all about giving the audience what they want. You can’t just stand there like a stick. You gotta move!”

(This project, led by producer Jong De Castro and filmmaker Kanakan Balintagos, was also meant to be a community endeavor. Check out how you can be part of this adventure by going to the Sugar Pie DeSanto documentary project site. )

Even better, go to the Indiegogo site to support this exciting project:

Sugar Pie DeSanto with director Kanakan Balintagos (Source:

Sugar Pie DeSanto with director Kanakan Balintagos (Source:

Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel

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