Time and Music and Love: Sugar Pie DeSanto’s Refined Sugar and Classic Sugar Pie

By Daniel Garrett

Sugar Pie DeSanto
Refined Sugar
Jasman Records, 2005

Classic Sugar Pie
Jasman Records, 1999

Sugar Pie DeSanto is a singer and songwriter with a respectable history: she has written many songs, and she has known and performed with artists such as Howlin Wolf and James Brown, and she has received the 2003 California Music Award for her work in the blues genre. It is strange to have just met someone and to have the sense of the force of time’s power on her: I heard a Sugar Pie DeSanto song on a Putumayo blues anthology and liked the sound of her voice—and I wanted to hear more, but that was an old recording, and listening to her more recent work it is obvious that she does not sound the same at all. Her voice has been roughened by time, and while she sounds honest, funny, and even passionate, one cannot dismiss the fact of her age, which means that one’s sense of the experience she sings of is quite distinct: what could have happened to her, or to anyone, has happened—and what has not happened is now not likely to ever happen. That lessens the drama. That increases the sense of memory and wisdom. I cannot pretend that I find her present voice as likable as the voice she had in the past, but this is not a voice I can ignore.

On the album Refined Sugar, an entertaining and mostly satisfying collection, produced by James C. Moore Sr., Sugar Pie DeSanto rides the fast soulfully jazzy rhythm of the song “Matter of Time” and the glossy music is in contrast to her voice. It is an interesting contrast. Sugar Pie DeSanto and James Moore Sr. co-wrote eight of the collection’s fourteen songs; and Moore has seen consistently that DeSanto has the support of beautiful music, of beautiful arrangements (other singers must envy that). “In a matter of time, you blew my mind, walked away with someone new,” sings DeSanto, before declaring her need to get away from her own pain, and the desire for someone new, a desire for joy that may precede a new chapter in the annals of pain. “I love the blues child—don’t you like the blues too?” says DeSanto in the spoken intro to the Jimmy McCracklin song “Blues Hall of Fame,” an assertion of self-worth that unfortunately ends with an improvised plea for the listener’s help in establishing her status (artists and their audiences do need each other—but an audience can establish an artist’s status, not her worth: only the quality of the work establishes an artist’s worth).

The collection Refined Sugar has the quick-beat, party song “Somebody Scream,” and the reflective and slow-beat “Life Goes On,” a song of the acceptance of disappointment, though there the narrator, the singer, is still wondering: “Maybe someday you’ll tell me why, why you had to hurt me,” a wondering that suggests an incomplete acceptance. (“Life Goes On” is credited to L. Williams and C. Morris as writers.) A phone’s ringing begins “Nobody’s Home,” a song about a woman’s changed luck and how those who had neglected and mistreated her try to gain entrance into her life again; to which, she says, “Nobody’s home. Leave me a message ‘cause right now, I’m gone.” DeSanto caresses the line “the pain of love has no end it seems” in the ballad “How Many Times,” and the caresses yield a transcendent tenderness.

“Gimme A Penny” is an old-fashion blues with tinkling piano and moaning guitar, and “Black Rat” (a song Koko Taylor recently performed on her own Old School) has a very fast rhythm—which adds emphasis to the mockery in the song rather than adds force to the threat, while wise words are offered in “Darkness to the Light,” a song written by Lonnie Hewitt and Paul Smith: “Seeing is believing that the world is truly real” and “Don’t you cry, deny or hide yourself” and “Loving is accepting both the pleasure and the pain, for living’s like the seasons” and “I am with you on your flight, from the darkness to the light.”

There is something strange in this collection: “Get Back,” with get spelled “git,” a song with an interesting rhythm, great saxophone, and oddly a voice that sounds nothing like the current Sugar Pie DeSanto. I do not see a mention of this, an explanation for this, in the liner notes, but I suspect that this is a much earlier recording.

Even on the album Classic Sugar Pie, released almost a decade before Refined Sugar, the singer does not sound as unaffected by time as she does on Refined Sugar’s “Get Back.” With arrangements by Wardell Quezergue, the collection Classic Sugar Pie opens with “Bread and Butter,” which has a blues beat, and musical stylings that make this a soul piece, and lyrics that say when love’s right it is better than food or money, lyrics delivered in an honest tone. (Wardell Quezergue’s name is sometimes spelled Quezerque, with a second “q” instead of a “g,” which may be a result of an idiosyncratic typeface on an album cover years ago.) “I Still Care” is a song about a devotion that lasts despite passing time and disappointment. DeSanto declares men are a “natural mess,” insensitive and untrustworthy, in the song “Jump In My Chest,” which precedes “I Don’t Want to Fuss.” DeSanto as narrator asserts, I do not have big hips and I am not 38 anyplace, but you have to use what you got, and “I got everything I need that’s gonna keep my man satisfied.” The song “Don’t Worry About Me” is here, and so is “Mama Didn’t Raise No Fool,” in which the singer tells a cheating man, “You’re stubborn as a country mule.” The unspoken question is, Does one believe in the love life of older people? Does one believe in it as vital and interesting? When DeSanto, a singer of a certain age, sings of a man’s crazy charms and loving arms, and of the kind of love that if you resist it you’re going to miss it, one is inclined to wonder. What can an older woman, and an older singer tell us? Something about how to handle time, change, control and lack of control, disappointment, and dwindling possibility. The better songs, such as “I Still Care” suggest awareness of that. The song “Ask Me” is a slow-dance song, and “There’s Gonna Be Trouble” is about a man involved with two women and Classic Sugar Pie’s last song “Never Say Die” is about not giving up: I may say damn but I never say die.

The more recent Refined Sugar, a lively collection of fourteen songs, closes with “I Don’t Care,” a hit-the-road ballad with a nice chorus, and “I Need Help,” which features a terrific harmonica, and a rather sad song of uplift called “I Need to Live Again,” and “Odds,” which is full of castigation and advice, and the nearly indomitable Sugar Pie DeSanto bracingly states, “Time waits for no one. You standing on your last leg. Start living by the rules and you won’t have to beg.”

Daniel Garrett is a longtime New York resident, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, The Compulsive Reader, NatCreole.com, Offscreen, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. His commentary on Howlin Wolf, Koko Taylor, Keb Mo, Cassandra Wilson, Eric Bibb, and B.B. King appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader.