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Sugar Pie DeSanto, Filipino African American blues legend

/ 01:23 AM March 16, 2014

SAN FRANCISCO, California — Her parents — her dad was a Filipino immigrant, her mom an African American — named her Umpeylia Balinton.

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That wouldn’t have worked as a stage name at music clubs and blues festivals where she eventually became famous and adored.

So Umpeylia, derived from “ampalaya,” which was also her Filipino grandmother’s name, became Sugar Pie DeSanto.

Sugar Pie DeSanto. Screengrab from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XZIzF2uC9MM

She’s a pioneer in the blues world, an incredibly dynamic performer who shared the limelight with the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon and Etta James.

You can see what an amazing performer she is in a black-and-white clip from a 1964 blues festival in England.

Etta James was her close friend, so close in fact that it’s been reported incorrectly that they were cousins. That’s not surprising since Etta James spent a great deal of time with Sugar Pie’s family when they were growing up in San Francisco in the 1950s. They were practically sisters.

In fact, they even began exploring the music world together, although Etta James would eventually become more well known than her childhood friend.

To be sure, Sugar Pie had her own following, revered as singer and artist.

In 2008, she was honored with a Pioneer award by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. She was 73 then. But watch her bring the house down in another clip of the ceremony in Philadelphia in which Bonnie Raitt introduced her.

“I’ve been in this business 56 years and this has never happened to me,” she said.

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The award followed a painful chapter in her life. I first heard about her eight years ago from news of a tragedy in Oakland not far from where I live.

In October 2006, Sugar Pie’s apartment burned down. She survived, but her husband, Jesse Davis, did not.

Her name came up again last July.

I was then in Manila for the Cultural Center of the Philippine production of my play, “Pramoedya,” about the Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer who was imprisoned by the Suharto dictatorship in the ‘70s but who did not let years of abuse and oppression stop him from writing powerful novels about his people.

I certainly would not have associated Sugar Pie with a famous Indonesian writer. But somehow that connection was made through film director Auraeus Solito, now known as Kanakan Balintagos.

Kanakan saw the play and said he felt for Pramoedya even though he didn’t know much about the Indonesian novelist. And that was how the Sugar Pie connection came up.

He asked me to join a project: to tell the story of a great artist, whose tale deserves to be known by a broader audience. For while Sugar Pie is a legend in American music, many people, including Filipinos, are not familiar with her story.

A team led by producer Jong De Castro and Kanakan, together with Sugar Pie’s longtime manager and friend, Jim Moore, wanted to change that through a documentary film on her life and career.

The film is to be called “Bittersweet,” a play on Umpeliya Balinton, aka Sugar Pie DeSanto’s names.

We hope to turn this into a community effort, so I ask you to check out the site for the project at sugarpiedocumentary.com

I’ll have more to say on this in the coming months and years. Meanwhile, check out another clip from a Filipino African American blues legend.

Here’s a second clip:

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On Twitter @boyingpimentel

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TAGS: blues, documentary film, Etta James, Music, Sugar Pie DeSanto
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