An Interview with the Legendary Sheila E

An Interview with the Legendary Sheila E

We sat down with the iconic artist—and Prince's right hand woman—while she was in Australia.
December 19, 2016, 5:17am

Photo by Ben Thomson.

It's not everyday you get to speak to one of your heroes. Sheila Escovedo, known the world around as Sheila E, is the percussive powerhouse that can be heard on any number of classic recordings from George Duke's "Brazilian Love Affair," to Michael Jackson's "Off the Wall," to her own classic solo records "The Glamorous Life" and "Romance 1600." She is also well known for her longstanding collaboration and friendship with the late icon Prince, starting in the early 80s and continuing well into the 2010s. We sat down with the iconic artist while she was in the country this month.

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Hi Sheila! In your early years, were you on kit or percussion first?

Mostly percussion. When I was nine I started playing violin, and I played kit for maybe a couple of months when I was fourteen and that was it, and I didn't play again 'til I was maybe seventeen. I played kit on maybe like one or two songs with George Duke or whatever, just sitting in but I didn't play a kit for a long period of time until I did Sign O'The Times.

Which percussion instruments do you play? bongo, congas…

Yeah, timbales, shakers, Shekeres, lots of hand percussion.

Did you ever get into Bata drumming? 

Early on I did except that when I saw it coming about in the Bay Area in the 70s, they wouldn't really allow women to play Bata drums. It's a spiritual thing.

Like Santeria [the Afro-Carribean religion]? 

Yeah, so there's things that they don't want you to be a part of, there's a whole ritual that happens and then you need a priest and other things to get certified to wear the beads and the whole thing. So I didn't really play 'em. I mean I played 'em but not with people who did the whole ritual.

What was your first gig that you remember?

It wasn't the first professional gig, but the first gig I played was when I was five, playing with my Dad. He had a band called the Escovedo Brothers with him and my uncle Coke and my uncle Phil. I remember going to the show and everything, it was in Oakland.

So he was kinda showing off his talented daughter?

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Absolutely, haha. He said I could play but I don't remember being that good at five years old.

Your father and uncle must have been an indispensable early influence for you…

Yeah! I mean definitely my Dad for sure and the family because they would rehearse around the house everyday. My Dad would practise everyday to LPs, that's how he practised, and then there would be jam sessions then there would maybe be band rehearsals depending on who was available. There was music in our house like ten hours a day.

Was your initial training in Latin American rhythms?

No… when I was growing up, first of all just listening to percussion I didn't take any lessons, I just watched my Dad play, so no-one sat me down, I didn't take it in school or anything… So during that time my Dad played all of his records from latin jazz to all the Bay Area sounds from the Grateful Dead, to Santana and Sly and the Family Stone… Creedence Clearwater Revival.

The big sound at the time on radio was Motown so we were just listening to Motown and James Brown like crazy. Being in the Bay Area, it's all music.

Who were some of your first influences as a player? Some of your favourite music?

Early on it was Motown… It was my Dad's music, Tito Puente, Miles Davis, Nancy Wilson, Mongo Santamaria. Anything that we could go buy on an LP coz if we heard on the radio we'd try to buy it. A lot of those bands would come into town and we'd try to go see them play. Again, the good thing was that my Dad bringing all types of music in the household. The first girl I ever saw playing drums on television was Karen Carpenter, so I thought I play drums how come I don't have a television show?

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You've worked alongside some the greatest artists of all time, what can you tell us about the following artists: George Duke?

He was pretty amazing, he reminded me of my Dad because he played all types of music. Being in George's band allowed me to grow as an artist.

Marvin Gaye?

You know you grow up listening to artists and you're a fan and then all of a sudden you're in their band. Just watching him sing and play piano by himself without us—it was a 24 piece orchestra—you sit there and you start listening and watching as a fan and a couple of times I got nudged because they thought I'd miss my cue. He was an amazing guy.

Gloria Estefan?

We met in '84 and we became friends instantly. They came in with a sound that was kinda cool it was latin but it was commercial, so that radio would play it.

Stevie Wonder?

Someone that I've known for a very long time. Stevie is ridiculous. He can do anything. Even if he sang in the highest key possible, he'd go three octaves past where you thought was too high. We're buds but he still blows me away.

Describe your first meeting with Prince Rogers Nelson? Were you already aware of his work?

My Dad was recording with Santana in San Francisco and they were saying that there was a kid next door who was writing his own music and playing all the instruments himself. We didn't meet then but he came out to the Bay Area when his first record had just come out and I went to go see him play and that's when we first met.

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I just wanna say "Erotic City" is still probably my favourite Prince song and possibly the funkiest song of all time… Its simplicity is key!

People don't understand how important it is for funk to be funky, the only way to do that is to allow space to happen. Space is the most important part of music, it's the space that allows the song to breathe that's so important.

Did you feature on drums on any studio recordings after this point or was he still effectively a one man band on recordings?

I played drums on so many things I can't even tell you! We started recording in '83 for real and I've done sessions from '83 until around 2011. It's a blur!

Do you think you infused latin rhythms into Prince's consciousness? The live arrangement of "I Would Die 4 U" comes to mind. Do you think it was your influence that caused parts of the live show to go in that direction? Was Prince aware of that kind of music beforehand?

Oh, I changed him musically. In the late 70s when we met, he had never really heard of any latin jazz or ever heard it live so to come and watch me play with my Dad's band in a 15 piece latin jazz band he couldn't believe it. He would say "How do you guys to do that? you're going from break to break and you're not even calling anything out!" But we'd been doing it a long time, all we had to do was raise an eyebrow.

When The Glamorous Life hit, did having that kind of mainstream public visibility totally change your life at that point?

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Oh yeah because now you've done a video, so to do a video and stuff like that opened up the door and there were many places we couldn't reach and the way to reach people then was television. I was out on tour for maybe two months in the States and then for two months we stayed in Europe and promoted The Glamorous Life album. We worked really hard, half the band wanted to quit because we were so exhausted. We were doing sometimes 10-12 hours of just interviews and I made sure it wasn't just about me. I had the band be made up and to wear their clothes because people have to believe this is who we are on and off stage.

Congratulations on your performance at the BET awards. That really topped them all for me. Watching you alongside Mayte, Jerome Benton & all those incredible NPG singers was something else. It harked back to the '87 Sign O' The Times era, especially in it's seamlessness. That must have been a very difficult performance. How did you prepare like for something like that, both emotionally and musically?

You don't… You just gotta go do it.

As a fan, I've been in a real state of mourning ever since April. It still doesn't feel real. As a friend and ex-partner of Prince's, how have you been dealing with this process of mourning since his passing? I imagine playing his music live in concert is unbelievably healing…

Sometimes… Other times it's just painful…

What can you tell us about your latest record "Boy Meets Girl"?

That was written a little after Prince passed away. Michael Gabriel, he's my godson and he's in my band and we wrote it together. It was one in the morning it just happened and about an hour later and I was trying to do the vocal but emotionally I couldn't get through it. Four days later I was trying to finish it and then we put it out and we just gifted it so anybody, even here in Australia you can go on SheilaE.com and get it for free. We're trying to finish the album now, we are doing new songs and it should be coming out next year.

Thank you so much for your time Sheila!

Thank you!