Sunday, 14 July 2024

CyberSoulMan: Blues Travel Log


I finally got the Queen of the West Coast Blues, Sugar Pie DeSanto, checked into her room at The Lodge in Bettendorf, Iowa at about 10 a.m. July 3. We were a bit jet lagged and slightly sleep deprived, but not worried about it.

Sugar’s manager, Jim Moore, scheduled a radio interview for the noon hour, so I scrambled to my room, jumped on the bed and power napped until about just past 11 a.m. I then rose in search of some un-flight food.

The Lodge is a finely appointed Eastern Europe-themed hotel. En route to the hotel restaurant, I passed a real sleigh, originally from Bavaria, in the latter part of the 19th century that was designed for King Ludwig II by Franz Seitz. Wow, I bet there’s a blues song or two inside that velvet history, I thought. Someone should pimp that ride!

The restaurant was a surprise also. I though I’d invaded some sort of Midwestern banquet or something. I quickly picked my jaw up off the floor, rushed through a great sandwich and gave Sugar Pie a wake up call in time for the radio interview.

Like clockwork, as soon as she was fully awake, Mike Sanders, the radio producer called. He and his wife were in the lobby of the hotel. Sugar Pie advised me to send them up and after all the introductions are made, I left them to handle their business. Sugar Pie asked me to check on the status of her Band Director, Willie Henderson.

Willie Henderson is another soul-poppin’ legend. I actually met him in 2008 at the Chicago Blues Festival. I first became aware of him though in 1970 when he had a hit entitled “Funky Chicken” albeit a different tune than the Rufus Thomas track with the same title. Henderson produced many of the hits of creator of the sound of Southern soul, Tyrone Davis. He also produced hits for Mr. Excitement, Jackie Wilson, as well as the Chi-Lites, Barbara Acklin and others. He is a top notch arranger and band leader.

Willie Henderson and his seven piece band arrived at The Lodge before noon. By 2:30 p.m., we were all assembled in a basement room of the hotel for an intensive rehearsal. Though it was essentially the same band that Sugar Pie used in Chicago last year, it was really interesting to watch Sugar Pie, the cagey veteran, explain exactly how she wanted each song. Every subtle nuance was charted.

In one testy exchange, Henderson handed the horn section parts written in bass clef. When one player complained, Henderson snapped, “You’re an arranger, fix it.” (Transpose it to treble clef.)

They rehearsed more than an hour. The Hotel and the Mississippi Valley Blues Association made sure all the right equipment was there; sound board, mics, monitors, drum kit, piano etc. Toward the end of rehearsal, the band was really hittin’ it. Various musicians from other bands, blues aficionados and hotel guests crept in for a peek at who was putting down the great sound.

Finally, sometime after 3 p.m. Sugar Pie and Willie were satisfied that everything was in order. We coordinated the time we were to leave for the gig and everyone went their separate ways for a few hours.

I checked and double checked my list of things to do; check on Sugar at the appointed time, double check transportation to the gig (and to the airport the following morning), recount CD inventory, grab a snack, nap, shower and boom it’s time to get moving again.

This year the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival celebrated its 25th anniversary. More than 30 acts were presented on two different stages. RiverRoad Lifetime achievement awards were given to Sugar Pie DeSanto on Friday night and Magic Slim on Saturday night. The program of the event explains it thusly:

“The purpose of the RiverRoad Award (as attested by the MVBS logo of a guitar with a river running through it) is to honor those who have devoted their lives to bringing what we call 'river' blues – music that runs deep with emotion, like a river of the soul – to anyone they meet on life’s highways. The MVBS Entertainment Committee chooses as recipients for the RiverRoad Award those bluesman or blueswomen who may not be readily familiar to audiences because they have not been recorded, recognized, or acclaimed as much as the 'stars,' but who are the true legends of the blues, the embodiment of the 'living history' of the blues. As we lose so many of those first and second-generation blues pioneers, it is important to honor those who are continuing the tradition.”

Before Sugar Pie DeSanto’s closing set of the Friday night festivities, Davenport mayor, Bill Gluba, presented Sugar Pie with a plaque and the key to the city of Davenport.

Undeterred, when the band hit at 9:30 p.m., Sugar Pie DeSanto kicked off her shoes and took the capacity crowd prisoner and give a smoldering, unbelievable 75 minute performance. To review it would require more space and time than I am can take at this moment. Be assured that the appreciative crowd danced as if no one was watching, shouted as if sanctified, demanded and received an encore from the Sugar and the band.

After her performance we went straight to the merchandise table where we sold her CD’s and Sugar Pie signed and took pictures for the adoring Blues throngs.

We were finally able to eat “dinner” at about midnight. We were transported back to the lodge where there was an after party goin’ on. Sugar Pie’s performance adrenaline took her to the party. Your CyberSoulMan went to bed. Sugar Pie called me the next morning five minutes before I was to call her as we embarked on the return home journey.

Sugar Pie DeSanto hasn’t had a charting hit in 43 years. Until now that is. Ace Records in conjunction with Island/Universal just re-released all of her Chess Records singles on a CD entitled “Sugar Pie DeSanto; Go Go Power, The Chess Singles.” When the CD was released on this past May 31, it shot immediately to No. 15 on the Billboard Blues Chart. Uncanny.

In the liner notes, the famed Chess Record producer Billy Davis sums up Sugar Pie’s talent in comparison to her record label mate of years ago, Etta James:

“Etta and Sugar Pie were opposites and had a lot in common too. They were both really livewires and loved to entertain. I even took them to do concerts in the Bahamas following those record dates. They set the place on fire. You just couldn’t stop Sugar Pie. Etta could out-sing Sugar Pie, but Sugar Pie could out-perform Etta. It’s too bad they couldn’t do more things together, but they were really on slightly different wavelengths.”

Yes, it is too bad that some enterprising promoter doesn’t book these two great blues divas together to recreate some of that livewire fire that still burns within them both. It’s certainly not too late.


Keep prayin’, keep thinkin’ those kind thoughts.


Upcoming cool events:

Blind Spot, Sunday Brunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. July 19, Blue Wing Saloon & Café, 9520 Main St., Upper Lake, telephone 707-275-2233.


Soul Doubt, Blues Monday, 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. July 20, Blue Wing Saloon & Café, 9520 Main St., Upper Lake, telephone 707-275-2233.

Open Mike Night, 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, July 23, Blue Wing Saloon & Café, 9520 Main St., Upper Lake, telephone 707-275-2233.

Twice As Good, 6:30 p.m. Friday, July 24. Library Park, 200 Park St., Lakeport.

Smokey Robinson in concert, 7:15 p.m. Saturday, July 31. Konocti Harbor Spa & Resort, 8727 Soda Bay Road, Kelseyville. Visit the resort online at .

The Four Tops in Concert, 9 p.m. Saturday, July 31, Cache Creek Casino Resort, 14455 Highway 16, Brooks, telephone 888-77-CACHE.

T. Watts is a writer, radio host and music critic. Visit his Web site at

Upcoming Calendar

07.16.2024 10:00 am - 1:00 pm
Farmers' Market at Library Park
07.17.2024 5:30 pm - 7:00 pm
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08.03.2024 10:00 am - 1:00 pm
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08.13.2024 10:00 am - 1:00 pm
Farmers' Market at Library Park

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