Sugar Pie DeSanto ‘A Little Bit of Soul: 1957-1962’ (Jasmine) 4/5

When ACE records released, ‘Go Go Power: the complete Chess singles 1961-1966’, a few years back, you could have been forgiven for thinking that would be all the Sugar Pie DeSanto sides you would ever require. Thankfully, this excellent new compilation proves all sceptics wrong and adds to the panoramic picture with the inclusion in full of a 1962 album that the singer recorded for Chess on their soul offshoot, Checker. In addition, it offers the substantial bonus of a series of 45s on independent labels that preceded her tenure with Chess. Moreover, there is precious little duplication either since there are only four songs that overlap and thus the new set represents a fine accompaniment to the existing and already excellent ACE overview.
Of great interest to fans of gritty R & B is cult bay Area producer Bob Geddins for the self-titled album from 1962. Where this differs crucially from the singles is that Sugar Pie’s wonderfully vibrant vocal delivery was, on the album format, given full reign to cover a diversity of styles and these included gospel, blues and jazz, as well as R & B idioms. There is a definite hint of the influence of Dinah Washington on some songs here and the former was at the zenith of her commercial popularity at the time, something that a young Sugar Pie DeSanto could not fail to have observed, and possibly hoped to replicate in turn. Certainly, the intimate jazz-tinged guitar and saxophone work wonders on, ‘Maybe you’ll be there’, and on the standard, ‘It’s not for me to stay’. Fans of Donny Osmond will recall his hit single from the 1970s, ‘The twelfth of never’, but how many are aware that Johnny Mathis had the first hit with that song in 1957 and DeSanto transforms the piece into a slow moving gospel number. One of this writer’s favourite numbers from the album is the gentle mid-tempo groove of, ‘I still care’, which actually has a strong Chicago blues feel even though it was not actually recorded in the Windy City. In fact, another song, ‘I don’t feel sorry’, comes across as a proto-Motown sound, albeit with a country-soul bent. Of course, the driving uptempo R & B songs are what DeSanto is best known for and she could certainly belt them out as and when required. An album track that should have been released as a 45 is the low down grit of, ‘Tell me what’s the matter’, which is a contender for the strongest song on the CD as a whole along with the beautiful female harmonies to ‘Ask me’ and ‘Open your heart’. Arranger and conductor Riley Hampton is to be congratulated for his work here and on several numbers including the excellent, ‘Can’t let you go’, the lovely bass line and hi-hat drums are a prominent feature and only enhance the listening experience.

As for the early singles, they are notable in that they feature duets with her husband, Pee Wee Kingsley, aka Alvin Parker. DeSanto would make duets a trademark of her repertoire and, while the early singles lack the same quality of instrumental support or studio sound of the later Chess period, they nonetheless are an indication of what was to come and for fans of the singer, it is extremely useful to have them all in one place to compare and contrast. A very worthy re-issue, then, from one of R & B’s most tenacious and individual singers. The photos by the way are most likely taken from a live date at the Jigsaw Club in Manchester circa 1966 and are testimony to the athletic and expressive prowess of the singer.

Tim Stenhouse