Sugar Pie DeSanto (born Umpeylia Marsema Balinton) was a ton of dynamite in a tiny 4′ 11″ frame… and still is, at the time of this recording. Let’s have a listen to this super-fun classic track, recorded with the great Etta James in 1966.
“In The Basement (Part 1)” (Billy Davis, Raynard Miner & Carl Smith) Copyright 1966 Chevis Music Inc BMI
Welcome to the party, friends! This is the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast, coming to you on the Pantheon Podcast Network. I’m your Master of Ceremonies, Brad Page, and on this episode we’re tossing out all the pretensions and going to the place where we can dance to any music we choose– “In The Basement” with Sugar Pie DeSanto
Umpeylia Marsema Balinton was born in Brooklyn New York in 1935, to a Filipino father and an African-American mother. Her mom had been a concert pianist, so she had music in her blood. Her family moved to San Francisco when she was four. She was close friends with Jamesetta Hawkins, who was discovered by Johnny Otis and renamed Etta James. Umpeylia won a number of talent contests in San Francisco and LA, and eventually Johnny Otis turned his sights to her, signing her in 1955 and changing her name to Sugar Pie DeSanto.
Sugar Pie stood only 4 feet 11 inches tall, but she packed an explosive amount of talent in that small frame. She had a giant voice and boundless energy, doing backflips on stage. Her first hit came in 1960 with “I Want To Know”, which reached number 4 on Billboard’s R&B chart.
Sugar Pie moved to Chicago and signed with Chess Records, where she recorded more singles. Her biggest hit with Chess was a track called “Soulful Dress” in 1964.
In 1966, she reunited with her friend Etta James for a duet called “Do I Make Myself Clear”:
After the success of that single, Sugar Pie and Etta James went back into the studio in ’66 to cut another song together: “In The Basement”.
“In The Basement” didn’t turn out to be a big hit, but I think it’s one of the all-time great dance party songs– right up there with “Dancing In The Street”. “In The Basement” was written and produced by Billy Davis, Raynard Miner and Carl Smith. The song kicks off with a snare drum hit, then a classic bass guitar riff, doubled on the piano:
You can tell the party’s already started with the crowd noise in the background. After two bars of the intro riff, there’s a short one-beat pause then the intro riff transitions into the main riff. It is a bit of a different riff, and that’s where the guitar joins in.
This is where the first verse comes in, and to set the stage, here’s what Etta James said about the recording of this track:
“I flew up to Chicago where I recorded with my old friend from San Francisco, nutty wild-ass Sugar Pie DeSanto. I dug singing “Into The Basement”, a song that took us back to when we were kids; cutting up, smearing on lipstick, kissing on boys, being bad gang girls with our homemade tattoos and floppy jeans. With happy voices chattering in the background, the record is an all-night-long party, with funky music blaring.”
That pretty much says it all. Here’s the first verse:
“Where can you go when the money gets low? In the basement.” Kids with no money, no transportation, too young for the clubs… what do you do? You get together in a friend’s basement where you can turn up the music and have a space of your own.
Now, granted, we were suburban white kids, far from the inner city where I grew up, but we did basically the same thing; hanging out in the basement, playing tunes. A couple times a year, we’d set up our guitars and drums in a friend’s basement and play a show for a dozen of our closest friends. Those moments of escape, freedom and promise… pretty universal experience for most American teenagers, I think.
"Where can you dance to any music you choose, you got the comforts of home and a nightclub, too. There's no cover charge or fee, and the food and drinks are free, down in the basement."
That’s the second verse.
I love the scream and the backing vocals here.
Let’s bring up the vocals on this last verse
“In The Basement” by Sugar Pie DeSanto and Etta James.
Sugar Pie, like so many artists, never made it to the big-time commercially. She’s had to eke out a career over 50 years now, but she kept on going. In 2008, she received the Pioneer Award by the Rhythm And Blues Foundation. At the ceremony, she performed “I Want To Know”, her first hit. And in the middle of the song, she got down on the floor and did a backward somersault.
At the time of this recording, Sugar Pie DeSanto is 85 years old, still going strong. She’s overcome a lot in her life: drugs, alcohol, and tragedy– she was married five times, twice to the same man, Jesse Davis, who died in a fire at their apartment in 2006. Sugar Pie said “He saved my life, but he couldn’t save his own”.
If you’d like to hear more of Sugar Pie DeSanto, there’s a great compilation CD called “Go Go Power: The Complete Chess Singles” that I highly recommend.
Thank you for being a part of this episode. The “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast will be back again soon! Find us on Facebook, where you can write a review or leave a comment; you can find all of our previous episodes on our website, lovethatsongpodcast.com.
This show is part of the Pantheon Network of podcasts, where you’ll find discussions and conversations on all the great bands and artists. Thanks again for listening, and let’s keep the party going with “In The Basement” by Sugar Pie de Santo.