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Crosscurrents

Blues legend Sugar Pie DeSanto still hits the high notes

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She began winning talent shows up and down Fillmore Street at 18, when she weighed just 85 pounds, wore size 3 shoes and went by her given name, Umpeylia Marsema Balinton. 

Her first hit, in 1959, rose to number 3 on the Billboard charts. She sang with greats like Etta James, opened for James Brown and took on a stage name, Sugar Pie DeSanto. Now at age 78, she lives in Oakland and still sings the blues.

A film about Sugar Pie DeSanto’s life called Bittersweet is in production, and she will perform this Sunday, July 13, at the Stern Grove Music Festival in San Francisco. 

SUGAR PIE DESANTO: You could be feeling down in the dumps, but a song can pick you up, maybe not for long, but you release the tension. You can sing it away. . . . That’s how I soothe my nerves. If something made me mad, or I don’t feel good, I just sing it away. It’s my life. It’s the power of a song, and it can take you anywhere you want to go.

Listen on the audio player above for the full interview. 

Hana Baba is host of Crosscurrents, KALW's weeknight newsmagazine that broadcasts on KALW Public Radio in the San Francisco Bay Area.