PHILADELPHIA — Three years ago, rhythm and blues singer Sugar Pie DeSanto, best known for the ‘60s hit “I Want to Know,” lost everything.
On Oct. 25, 2006, fire killed her husband, Jessie Davis, and destroyed her home.
After emergency housing from the Red Cross and club benefits in her honor, DeSanto turned to the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. For more than 20 years, the Philadelphia-based nonprofit has given cash assistance to down-and-out R&B artists.
“They saved my life,” DeSanto, 74, said in a telephone interview from her apartment at the Satellite Senior Homes in Oakland, Calif. “They helped me with everything I needed to survive.”
The foundation paid six months’ rent on her new apartment, DeSanto said, and made sure she had groceries.
Now, the fund that came to her rescue is out of money.
“As the recession hit,” said Rhythm and Blues Foundation executive director Patricia Wilson Aden, “we’ve been contacted by more artists, to the point where there are no more funds left. We’re hoping the public will respond.”
Wednesday night, the foundation hosted a disco Halloween party to raise awareness and money. Proceeds will benefit the foundation’s artist-assistance fund. And organizers said more fund-raisers would follow.
“These artists provided the sound track to our lives,” said board member and music mogul Kenny Gamble. “So many people grew up listening to their records, dancing to their music, even falling in love to that special song. This is our way to give something back to them.”
In 1988, after singer Ruth Brown sued Atlantic Records over royalties, a court settlement created the Rhythm and Blues Foundation to provide financial help to artists from the 1940s through the 1970s.
Early board members included Ray Charles, Dionne Warwick, and Bonnie Raitt. Gamble joined in 2002.
Since its founding, Aden said, the foundation has given $3 million in grants and awards, helping R&B artists pay back rent, hospital bills, medication costs, and burial expenses.
But in recent years, the nonprofit has struggled to raise money. And as donations have dried up, needs have grown.
According to the foundation’s most recent tax return, fiscal year 2008 ended with a loss of $35,309.
Through direct public support, dividends, and special events, between June 1, 2007, and May 31, 2008, the foundation raised $626,052, down $49,500 from the preceding fiscal year.
During that period, it provided $189,502 in “artist assistance,” up $61,295 from 2007.
Remaining revenues were spent on administrative and programming costs.
Artist assistance comes from three funds.
The foundation has $2.5 million set aside in two endowed grant accounts. But those funds are restricted to former artists from Universal or related labels, and Motown artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
The Doc Pomus Financial Assistance Program, a general fund for unaffiliated musicians, from whom Aden said “we have the greatest demand,” is currently empty. It is funded through public donations.
There are foundations, such as MusiCares, Aden said, that help artists from various genres, but “we consider R&B artists family, and we’re hoping to be able to take care of them ourselves.”
Drummer and vocalist Don Gardner, 78, is not one to ask for help.
But when the North Philadelphia native found himself needing extensive oral surgery, without dental insurance, he picked up the phone.
The foundation covered the costs of his multiple extractions and an implant so he could be fitted for dentures.
“If I hadn’t got it done, my system was being poisoned,” Gardner said, on a break from his job as facilities manager at the Philadelphia Clef Club. “But having it done, to me, that’s pretty cool. It was help I couldn’t get no place else.”
Gardner grew up performing at Mount Zion United Methodist Church, near 12th and Oxford Streets. In 1953, he formed his own group, the Sonotones. His ‘60s duet with Dee Dee Ford, “I Need Your Loving,” brought fame.
He played the “chitlin circuit,” African-American clubs in cities such as Buffalo, Baltimore, and Washington. He toured with James Brown and the Motown Revue, served as bandleader for Grover Washington, and was road manager for Curtis Mayfield.
“I was making more money than my father in those days,” said Gardner, who walks with a cane from his years on the drum stand. “But I didn’t do what he did with his money.”
In 1970, as venues dried up, Gardner gave away his drums and left the business.
He eventually started a small construction business. He receives a “stipend” for his Clef Club work, and modest royalties from his music.
“It gets tight,” he said of his income. “But God sends me something just in time.”
When Anita Long’s father died in June in the farm town of Sealy, Texas, where he was born, she wasn’t sure where she would find the money to bury him.
“I had reached my bottom,” said Long, who had moved from San Jose, Calif., to care for him.
A local official referred her to the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, which paid to bury her father, Huey Long.
Huey Long, once a shoe-shine man, was a self-taught guitarist and vocalist. His career spanned 80 years, through Dixieland, swing, and bebop.
He performed with the likes of Dizzy Gilespie, Sarah Vaughan, and Charlie Parker. And at 105, he was the last surviving member of the popular quartet the Ink Spots.
On the phone last week, his daughter remembered him as a man who loved deep conversation, who had a sharp sense of humor and a way with people.
He never drove a car, Long said. Music was his life.
“He was extremely frugal. Most of his life was just getting by.”
Long called the foundation’s help a “godsend.”
“I don’t know what I would have done,” she said, her voice trembling from tears. “For him to be buried with dignity ... People loved him, and they loved that music.”