If you ever want to know how to turn a pair of electric drills into a percussion instrument – along with jars and saucepans – Sheila E can teach you. Her online lessons, part of the MasterClass brand, have just launched and she shakes and bashes household items with as much energy as she ever did when playing a drum solo on a Prince tour.
It’s how she started, she points out. Her father, the renowned Latin and jazz percussionist Pete Escovedo, may have had treasured instruments at home, but his children learned on pots and pans. Can she resist, even now, passing the back of a chair without breaking out a drum lick? She laughs. “Sometimes I have to catch myself. If there are people around, I apologise. I say: ‘It’s not noise, it’s music.’ I find it a joy to try to bring something into a space and make it sound great.”
Sheila Escovedo became Sheila E in the 80s. Drummers don’t tend to become household names very often, especially if they are women, but Escovedo has had a remarkable life and career. Prince fans will know her as his drummer and a musical collaborator (and one-time lover), and she was a solo star for a period in the mid 80s. She has toured with Herbie Hancock, Marvin Gaye and Lionel Richie, and has played drums for artists including Mariah Carey and Stevie Wonder.
She has not had a quiet time during the pandemic. It’s true that her US tour was cancelled because of Covid, but she has done online concerts and also released new music. As someone who has been performing since the age of five (she is now 62), not being able to put on a show has been the biggest adjustment. “It’s not fun,” she says with a small laugh, on the phone from her home in Los Angeles. But, much as she worries about the effect of the pandemic on the music industry and its artists, Escovedo isn’t, she says, someone who stays down for long. “I try to put myself – mentally, physically and spiritually – in a place of positivity.”
Most recently, Escovedo was brought in as musical director of the Grammy’s Prince tribute special in April. It featured Foo Fighters, Mavis Staples, HER and John Legend performing Prince songs. Escovedo played throughout much of it and it looked as if nobody was loving it more than her, although she says it was also emotional. “There were times when I got on the drums to play The Cross with Gary Clark Jr,” she says, “and I actually had a moment of crying a little bit because the only time I played that song was with Prince. That happened a couple of times.” She says she still feels angry about Prince’s death in 2016, the result of an accidental overdose of painkillers when he was just 57. “I’m mad that he’s not here,” she says. “I’m angry at him, and I’m thinking: ‘What could I have done?’”
She and Prince met in the late 70s, their paths crossing until they spoke backstage after one of his gigs. Prince started coming to her home, and jamming with the Escovedo family (Sheila’s two younger brothers also played drums). “I’ve never seen him be so happy and excited, like: ‘You are so lucky to be able to play your music [together]; how do you guys know what you’re going to play?’” She introduced him to a lot of Latin music and artists, she says. “He was inspired by the people he hung around and that’s what was so cool, he didn’t hang around the same type of people all the time. The point of growing as an artist and as a person is opening yourself up to other things.” The two of them, she says, worked “together most of our lives. Since I met him, we started jamming and never stopped until a couple of years before he passed.” She has said they recorded hundreds of unreleased songs together. “There was so much music,” she says. “There were years and years and years of being in the studio with him all the time.”
Prince and Escovedo were friends at first, although for years he tried to turn their relationship into something more. When she was on tour with Lionel Richie, Prince would send flowers to each of her hotel rooms. Was it difficult to resist him? She laughs. “I came from a time of trying to stay away from sleeping with people that you work with,” she says (she wrote in her 2014 autobiography that she had been burned from a mid-70s affair with Carlos Santana, without knowing the guitarist was married). “But then we couldn’t resist each other.”
They were together for several years, and she says Prince secretly proposed to her on stage, mouthing “marry me” during one concert. Why didn’t they get married? “I don’t know,” she says, sounding for the first time a little weary of talking about him (she is, of course, always asked about him). “We just grew apart.” There had been musical differences – Escovedo didn’t particularly like the overtly sexy direction Prince was taking. “I loved everything that we did together but [we were] at a place [where] it didn’t feel right to either of us.”
She also was not the only woman in his life. “I guess there are some women that don’t care if there’s the other woman. I do care. We shouldn’t be sharing each other. My parents were high-school sweethearts, been married now 64 years. I mean, that’s the point of being together.”
When Escovedo released a single, Lemon Cake, inspired by Prince in April, Appollonia Kotero, another of Prince’s glamorous female collaborators, wrote a scathing Facebook post, accusing Escovedo of profiting off his name. “I’m not going to respond,” says Escovedo, “because I didn’t read it. People told me she wrote something bad. I’m not going to bash anybody. I don’t have anything bad to say about her, I love her.”
She likes to say that when she and Prince met, she was the more famous one. Escovedo grew up in Oakland, California. Although her father was a respected musician, it didn’t pay much (especially not once he had split gig money with his band) and the family would sometimes have to move when her parents could not pay the rent. She knew they were poor, but her parents created a welcoming home where musician friends, including legends such as Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri, would often drop in and jam through the night. But Escovedo also survived horrific experiences: she was raped, she says, by a babysitter when she was five, and endured years of being sexually assaulted by older cousins. It wasn’t until her 30s that she told anybody.
Music became her life. She would drum everywhere – on the back of the seats of the bus when she started being bused from her poor neighbourhood to school in a white suburb. Her first public performance was at the age of five, playing the congas at one of her father’s concerts, and she became a professional musician at 15, going on tour with him to Colombia. In 1977, she joined the George Duke Band.
She realised, once she started playing with musicians other than her father, that people found the idea of a female percussionist novel. Male band members would be surprised when she turned up to play a recording session. She thought it was funny at first, but the comments started to get her down. “My parents would encourage me to keep playing, learning, and going into the situation with confidence,” she says. “I got to the point where I was like: ‘You can’t tell me anything, I know I’m good, I’m going to play, let’s do this.’”
But the other issue was the regular sexual harassment. “I thought it was very disrespectful to hit on me: ‘Here’s the keys to my room, I’ll meet you later.’ I was offered so many things. ‘I’ll get you a record deal. I got this huge company, I’ll put your name on it. I’ll put your name on a hotel in Vegas. If you sleep with me.’”
How did she deal with it? “As women, sometimes you never know how you’re going to respond. It’s like: ‘Ugh, do I have to do this? Because I don’t want to disrespect him, he might not like me, I might not be invited again.’ We get to that place, and you have to be respected and say: ‘It’s not worth it to sleep to the top.’ You try to just brush it off, laugh about it, or say ‘No thank you’ and be kind of coy about it. But you’re uncomfortable, and for a lot of women, it is hard to turn around and walk away.” One time, a musician groped her and she hit him. “I made sure that didn’t happen any more. It was time for me to stand up and let my voice be heard.”
Prince helped mastermind Escovedo’s solo career, and produced her debut album, The Glamorous Life, in 1984; its title track became a hit. “That was a whirlwind,” says Escovedo. “I couldn’t go anywhere, I was getting mobbed when I walked into a mall. When I signed autographs the first time, two or three thousand people showed up at a little tiny store, and they had to shut the street down. This is what you dream of when you think you want to be an artist, but there is no handbook that tells you what you should do.” She became, she admits, difficult and demanding. Fame, she says, “allows you to speak to people … it’s not talking with someone, but talking to them. I got to the point of ‘You work for me’, not with me.” At one point, touring Europe, she says that half her band wanted to quit.
By the end of the 80s, Prince and Escovado had broken up and she became ill, her spine and muscles suffering from the physical labour of drumming (she is still in pain, and regularly has to see a physical therapist). After rediscovering her Christian faith, she finally confronted the effect the childhood abuse had on her. In the subsequent years, she enjoyed a lower-profile career, carrying out session work, joining Ringo Starr’s touring All Starr supergroup as drummer, and overseeing events such as a celebration of Latin music for the Obamas at the White House.
Escovedo continues to release her own music, often with a political edge. Earlier this year, she rereleased her song Funky National Anthem, in the wake of the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement. And she regularly posts support for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on social media. How does she feel about a potential Trump second term? “I don’t even see that,” she says, with a laugh at her own optimism. “I’m looking a different way. I’ve never seen a person be so disrespectful. He’s opened up a Pandora’s box, if you like, in a way that allows people to disrespect each other publicly. How does the president of the United States speak like this?”
She was horrified, as were so many others, by his comments on the campaign trail before the 2016 election, that Mexicans trying to come to the US were bringing drugs and crimes and were “rapists”. “It was horrible,” says Escovedo, whose father was born to Mexican parents (her mother has Creole heritage). “I needed to speak up through my music or put some music out that would speak about how I felt.” She released an album, Iconic – with guest appearances from friends including Starr, Bootsy Collins and the civil rights activist Angela Davis – of political covers, including Marvin Gaye’s Inner City Blues and the Pointer Sisters’s Yes We Can Can.
“These are songs that speak to the people and that are still relevant. At the time when Trump was talking about people of colour, I just thought I can’t believe this. To say that people from Mexico are rapists, drug dealers and murderers, it was unfathomable, I could not believe what I was hearing.”
Activism has come to the forefront of Escovedo’s life for now. “I think we have a better chance this time of really making a difference,” she says of the Black Lives Matter movement. “This is the time. There is so much injustice, there’s a lot of brokenness, things that need to be fixed and changed. This is the most important time to speak up, because we have the opportunity to change history.” She speaks, measured and rhythmic. “There’s a lot to be done.”