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The Legend of Sugar Pie DeSanto
"Little Miss Dynamite" she was called. Only four feet eleven inches tall and seldom weighing over one hundred pounds, with a voice so powerful and a stage presence so explosive she brought down the house every night as hardest-working-man-in-show-business James Brown's opening act. As a result she became "The Lady James Brown," hardest working woman in show business. The Godfather of Soul complained he had to work really hard to keep up with her. And she continues to display that explosive stage presence as she approaches the ripe young age of eighty!
She also opened for Mr. Excitement Jackie Wilson and had the audience standing on tables even before she came out just so they could get a glimpse of how high she took off performing (this made Jackie jump off the stage even higher, and higher).
In the 1960s, she toured with the American Folk-Blues Festival featuring giants of the blues music movement (literally and figuratively) Willie Dixon, Howlin' Wolf and other greats, wowing European fans and influencing the careers of future stars of rock n' roll. This, while she was signed to the illustrious Chess Records where she sang powerful duets with childhood friend Etta James. She also sang Slip in Mules (No High Heel Sneakers), the response to Tommy Tucker's hit, Hi-Heel Sneakers and wrote songs for Fontella Bass, Minnie Riperton, Billy Stewart and other famous peers. Overall, she has contributed over a hundred songs to American music and had hits over several decades of her career.
Sugar Pie's cover of Rock Me Baby (by B.B. King) and Baby Do What You Want Me To Do (by Jimmy Reed) at the 1964 American Folk Blues Festival are YouTube sensations. Then she killed it at the 2008 R&B Foundation Awards.
Soul Patrol's Bob Davis was first to tell how Amy Winehouse won five Grammys after doing what Sugar Pie did in the 1960s. Digging deeper finds Madonna causing a scandal at the MTV Awards in 1984 doing what Sugar Pie did in 1967 in the South! Sugar Pie wasn't a bad girl or a material girl, she was simply unafraid.
Who is this diva?
We will tell you more in the documentary film BitterSweet. Born Umpeylia Marsema Balinton, she was named after her Filipino grandmother, who was named after the ampalaya, a bitter vegetable that's a favorite among Filipinos. Bittersweet, her life is. You will learn about her beginnings: daughter of a Filipino immigrant father and an African-American mother, a family of 11 or so children, that included Etta James at some point, in a small house in San Francisco, member of a girl gang (the 7 of Diamonds), sneaking into music clubs, joining music contests and winning too often, and finally being discovered and renamed by the great Johnny Otis --- from Umpeylia to Little Miss Sugar Pie. You will discover the driving force behind her music, the connection each song has to her life, and how her mother encouraged her even though her father disapproved. She will tell us about the Fillmore renaissance of jazz & blues and the musicians that shaped the Northern California style (of blues), the Chicago music scene and Chess Records (and what went on there), the American Folk Blues Festival tour, more on Etta, and performing with James Brown, Tina Turner, Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding and other greats. You will also hear about her unique experiences in the South as an African Asian woman working the "chitlin' circuit" with her husband Pee Wee Kingsley, and finally coming home (and why) to San Francisco. She wrote most of her songs belonging to various popular music genres (blues, rock 'n roll, R&B, soul, etc). She became the "Queen of the West Coast Blues" after 60 years in the business. And when her Chess Records hits were finally compiled in 2009, Sugar Pie finally got an NPR feature.
This documentary film-in-the-making, BitterSweet - From Ampalaya to Sugar Pie, is our way to honor her contributions, to remember and rediscover her music and relive the way she lit up the stage. This is the recognition she never received, but truly deserves.
For her storyteller, Sugar Pie has chosen Kanakan Balintagos (aka Auraeus Solito), an independent filmmaker acclaimed in Cannes, Sundance, Berlin, Toronto and other major international film festivals, and included among the top emerging and most-talented filmmakers in the world. Auraeus directed the international hit The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros; winner in Berlin, selected at Sundance and nominated for an Independent Spirit Award (for Best Foreign Film).
Kanakan Balintagos (aka Auraeus Solito), Sugar Pie and Jim Moore
Jong de Castro produced the gorgeous Cannes-selected film Busong, a documentary-like feature film and winner of several international awards including the FIPRESCI Prize at the Eurasia International Film Festival and the "Best of Stories" Merata Mita Award at National Geographic's All Roads Film Festival.
Benjamin Pimentel is a journalist and the author of the novel The Guerrillas of Powell Street, which won the 2007 National Book Award for fiction in Manila and was adapted for the stage by the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 2008. He co-produced Toxic Sunset: On The Trail Of Hazardous Waste from Subic and Clark, which won the Golden Gate Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival.
Jim Moore knows the blues. Jim previously managed Big Mama Thornton and personally knows many of the originators of popular blues music. Jim has been Sugar Pie's manager for over 40 years and was successful in obtaining for her the rights to some of her own songs. He is the owner of Jasman Records and eRoom Music Publishing, and the author of a manuscript, Throw Away People, on the post-WWII evolution of African-American Blues music specific to Northern California.
Meet Team BitterSweet, watch our video: On the Go Go! Road To Sugar Pie DeSanto.
Help us make this film and be the first to find out all that Sugar Pie and those around her will reveal. Visit our website, learn more and find out how to get involved:
You can also donate to our Indiegogo crowdfunding (closes on July 3, 2014, hurry!):
Watch this message from Sugar Pie herself. Share this film's information to everyone interested in independent films, in Sugar Pie DeSanto and rediscovering her music. The more people that know about the film, the better! More supporters will make this film a reality. It will be a very special film, and when it comes out you can say, "I'm part of that!"
Thank you! This is for Sugar Pie!
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