Time travelers

Then is now for four different Bay Area musical trail-blazers

"I thought it would be funny to do a total stereo split, as if the past and the present were trying to have a conversation with each other," says Scott Ryser, describing "East West," a track on the compilation History of the Units: The Early Years, 1977-1983 (Community Library). "I like the idea that these radically different sounds can share a 'present' time together."

That idea is the motivation behind this article's collection of short profiles. Recently singled out for a rave by Pitchfork, Ryser's synth-punk group the Units is one of four innovative or fierce Bay Area musical forces currently experiencing a contemporary renaissance. Sugar Pie DeSanto's soul, the Pyramids' free jazz, and San Francisco Express's fusion have also inspired reissues or archival compilations. The message is loud and clear: old is new and radical in this era of free-floating sound. (Johnny Ray Huston)

SUGAR PIE DESANTO It's no surprise that New Yorkers called Sugar Pie DeSanto the female James Brown. Like a woman possessed, she pantomimed her petite frame across the stage almost comedically, gyrating to the doo-wop, soul, and R&B that dominated Chicago's famed Chess record label. In fact, De Santo sang with Soul Brother No. 1 in the early 1960s, and her presence made a competitive impression upon the hardest-working man in showbiz. "James was cool with Sugar," De Santo says over the phone, her voice husky and distinctive. "He was a fanatic about his music."

Now in her 70s, the San Francisco-born Oakland resident has seen much during her 57 years in the music industry. DeSanto's list of contemporaries includes Tina Turner, Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson, Jackie Wilson, and Etta James. She may not perform live quite as often as she once did, but she's as risqué now as ever. The new compilation Go Go Power: The Complete Chess Singles 1961-1966 (Ace/Kent) is a great starting point if you aren't familiar with her work. The package includes a dynamic photo of her scissor-locking an unassuming Londoner with her thighs during a performance. Lyrically, "Use What You Got" deals with notions of natural beauty, superficiality and what it was like to grow up African American and Filipino in SF's Fillmore District. "There was a lot of jealousy," DeSanto remembers. "I had long Filipino hair. It [being multi-racial] wasn't as common or as easy as it is today. Girls would talk crap in the neighborhood."

With 100 original songs under her belt, DeSanto still receives residuals for compositions penned for Fontella Bass and Minnie Ripperton. A producer at Chess heard a similarity between DeSanto and James, and a few of their subsequent duets are included on Go Go Power. "We recorded in the studio together [in Chicago]," says DeSanto. "We didn't go on the road together." Today, the Queen of the West Coast Blues likes to ride her bike. She's looking forward to performing at Oakland's Jack London Square on September 12th. (Andre Torrez)

THE PYRAMIDS Bad seeds can accidentally generate something good — you can thank an exploitative imposter for contributing to a new surge of interest in the free jazz of the Pyramids. According to the group's Idris Ackamoor, "someone masquerading as a Pyramid" gave the blessing for the respected Japanese label EM to reissue the group's 1976 album Birth Speed Merging on CD. Shortly after Ackamoor discovered this ruse, EM embarked on a more expansive — and legit — collection of his music, Music of Idris Ackamoor, 1971-2004.

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