Sheila E. was just five years old when she took to the stage for the first time to accompany her father, the famed Latin percussionist Pete Escovedo and his band at a ballroom gig in New York City. “The cymbals vibrated through my body and the timbales shook my bones,” she writes in her 2014 memoir The Beat of My Own Drum, which chronicles the darkest and brightest moments of her life. “Like my father, I didn’t read music. I just played by the instinct deep in my gut. I played from my heart.”
Given her talent and lineage, it was all but inevitable that the future star would carry on in the family tradition. Her two brothers, Juan and Peter Michael Escovedo, also got their start playing in their father’s band. Her uncle Coke Escovedo, also a percussionist, performed with artists like Cal Tjader, Malo, and Santana.
Another of her uncles, Alejandro Escovedo, went off in an entirely different direction, playing in punk bands like The Nuns and The Zeros, then moving on to alt-country terrain with his old band the True Believers, and solo works like The Crossing, a 2018 concept album that documents the immigrant experience.
Yet, of all the Escovedo clan, it was Sheila E. who would go on to become a household name. After honing her jazz chops with George Duke, with whom she played for the better part of a decade, she hooked up with Prince at the height of his ’80s chart success. She joined his band just in time to be featured on 1984’s Purple Rain, not only as percussionist, but also as the featured vocalist singing lines like “We can funk until the dawn” on “Erotic City.” (Actually, while Sheila E. Has always insisted the four-letter word was, in fact, “funk,” some FCC-fearing radio programming directors heard it differently, resulting in the subsequent release of an edited version.)
That same year, Warner Bros released Sheila E.’s solo album The Glamorous Life. Its title track, which was written and co-produced by Prince, reached the Top 10, earned two Grammy nominations, and established her as a bandleader in her own right.
In the years since, Sheila E. has continued to release singles and albums on her own, while working as a percussionist with an impressive list of artists that includes the pop star Beyonce, and soundtrack composer Hans Zimmer. Her last album, 2017’s Iconic Message 4 America, found the artist singing about today’s sociopolitical conditions on original tracks like “National Anthem,” as well as covers of Sly & The Family Stone’s “Everyday People,” and The Pointer Sisters’ “Yes We Can, Can.”
OffBeat recently caught up with Sheila E. to talk about her upcoming appearance at the Essence Festival, her unique musical trajectory, and her personal experience with conquering childhood demons.
You’ve got a lot of musical history to draw upon when it comes to putting together a set. What can we expect to hear during your Essence Festival performance?
There’ll be old songs and new songs. I have a couple of singles that are coming out as well, so we’ll be playing those. And, of course, songs that Prince and I have written together or performed, which is always a part of what I do, because we worked together our entire lives. So, yeah, it’s a lot of up energy, a lot of fun. We bring people from the audience onstage. It’s gonna be exciting.
Tell me about the new songs.
One of the singles is called “Bailar,” which is the dance song that we bring everyone up on. And then the other is “No Line,” which also features Snoop [Dogg]. That’ll be the single that comes out first.
In your autobiography, you talk about getting onstage with your father as a little kid, and realizing that all you really had to do was let them start playing, find a gap, and join in. In the years since, have you ever found yourself in situations where you’ve fallen back on that same strategy?
My whole life. [Laughs] I still play like that, pretty much. You’ve gotta find your place. About a month ago, I was in the studio with Hans Zimmer—I do a lot of his movies—and this time there were, I think, seven of us playing, all drummers. And they know that I don’t read. Hans doesn’t read music, either. We’d always play by ear and make it up as we go. But this time, they had charts for all the parts. So it’s an interesting place to be, you know, when you’ve got all these A-list drummers, and you’re one of the ones who doesn’t read. But by the second time through, I had it down, just by listening and trying to fit in. You know, I don’t like being put in that position, but you rise to the occasion, and everything worked fine.
I’ve read that you had to fight for “The Glamorous Life” to be your album’s first single. Why was that?
Yeah, it’s pretty interesting. “Glamorous Life” was the last song to get put on the album, and Prince and I definitely thought it should be the single. But Warner Bros. kept saying, “No, we gotta do ‘Belle of St Mark’ because it’s really pop.” So we had to get them to understand that “The Glamorous Life” was really pop, too, but it also had a lot more percussion. And there had never been a female timbale player or drummer who fronted her own band, and that was something that needed to be shown to the world, that I’m not going to just be a singer and dancer. So we did a little showcase at Warners, and they agreed. They got the picture.
Have you stayed in touch with any of the Minneapolis musicians you worked with in your Prince days? I see that Morris Day & The Time are also on the Essence Festival bill.
Yeah, Morris and I have been playing a lot of shows on the same bill this year and last year.
Were you on any of The Time’s albums?
Yeah, we were all together early on, back in the early ’80s. We were all writing for each other. I would write for one of Prince’s acts, and then Morris would write for someone else. And we were also in the studio all the time, so we were constantly playing on each other’s songs. A lot of times, in those days, we didn’t always get credit for us being on the record. It wasn’t as important as being the songwriter.
When you look back on your most recent album Iconic, does it seem strange to you that you’re writing about some of the same issues that Woody Guthrie wrote about in songs like “Deportee” nearly 60 years ago?
Yes. I would not have thought that we’d find ourselves going backwards, but I feel that’s what we’re doing. You’ve got all this police brutality, with African-American men especially, and all this hatred that’s been released in this world like I’ve never seen in my lifetime—and the things that have been said about Hispanic people. My grandfather was born in Mexico, but he came across here and worked hard, and raised a family. And, you know, he was an amazing man. He wasn’t a drug dealer. He wasn’t a rapist. He’s not a murderer. And now we have this guy that says these awful things about people that he doesn’t even know.
We’ve also got this law now that Alabama has passed about a woman’s right to be able to have an abortion or not. It’s insane. Whether I’m pro-choice or not, my body doesn’t belong to a white man sitting across a table. And to think about these kids who have lost their families coming here, some of whom have died in our hands. Every time we hear another story like these, it’s almost becoming the norm. Everyone is in attack mode. So, you know, thank God for the people that are trying to change things. And also, thank God for music that brings people together.
When fans come up and talk to you about your book, what do they say to you?
I think the biggest thing that they talk about is when I was raped at five years old. Because there are so many others who have been through similar situations, and have never told anyone, and not moved on in their lives. And my sharing this with hundreds of thousands of people has given them hope to want to change their life—and to tell someone—so that they can actually live the life that they’re supposed to be living without guilt and shame, and to know that it wasn’t their fault, and that they can get through this.
One more question: Your maternal grandparents were both Louisiana Creoles. Do you feel a connection to the music of that heritage, and do you ever get a chance to play it?
Absolutely. I throw it into my show every chance that I get. And I still have a lot of family in New Orleans. And yeah, being Creole, I’m proud of it. I love my heritage. And the music. And, especially, the food.
Sheila E. And her band will be playing the 25th Anniversary Essence Festival, which runs from July 5-7 with a lineup that includes Missy Elliott, Frankie Beverly & Maze, Pharrell, H.E.R., Mary J. Blige, Big Freedia, Water Seed, Jermaine Dupri, MC Lyte, and many more.