Singer, songwriter, drummer
Sheila E. "is probably the hottest female drummer in the business," asserted Lynn Norment in Ebony. First coming to the musical spotlight in the early 1980s as funk/pop superstar Prince's duet partner on the hit single "Erotic City," Sheila E. soon struck solo success with her debut album, Glamorous Life. The title song proved popular enough to help earn the young drummer-vocalist a gold album, and her second long-playing effort, 1985's Romance 1600, also turned gold. As Pamela Bloom pointed out in High Fidelity, "Sheila demonstrates on Romance 1600 how equally at home she is in fusion, funk, pop, and salsa, as well as in the traditional r & b dance mix." The critic concluded: "Hers is an innate musicality that refuses to be waylaid and is propelled by an insatiable physical energy always on the prowl."
Sheila E. was born Sheila Escovedo on December 12, 1959 in Oakland, California, to a musical family. Her father, Pete Escovedo, was famed for his drum work with the rock group Santana and, later, the Latin band Azteca. Her brothers also became drummers. By the time Sheila was three, she was devoted to watching her father play the conga drums. She recalled to Bloom: "When my father practiced, I'd sit in front of him and copy him, mirror style. I was just mocking then, but later I'd come back and play by myself." Because of this mirroring, Sheila developed what Bloom labeled a "left-handed style" on the drums, which allows her to beat them faster and harder than most drummers.
Despite Sheila E.'s early enthusiasm for percussion, her father hoped instead that she would become a symphony performer, and began sending her to violin lessons when she was ten. A competent student, she nevertheless quit five years later because, as she confided to Bloom, "my friends thought it was square and so did I." Meanwhile, Sheila learned to play other instruments, including guitar and keyboards, as well as traps and timbales. She also widened her musical tastes, and, as she revealed to Bloom, she and her siblings "used to blast different music from every room in the house. That's probably why I can write [any type of music] I want." Yet she realized from an early age that female drummers were practically unheard of in the professional music business, and in her adolescence she believed she had a greater chance of becoming an Olympic athlete than a successful musician. Thus Sheila focused on sports, playing football with boys, and constantly challenging her peers to foot races.
Sheila continued to stick with drumming, however, and began to land professional gigs while still in her teens. Though her father was pleased with the extra financial help she provided the family, he gently scoffed at her ability, telling her she was too young to be a drummer. Eventually, however, he let Sheila replace an ailing percussionist in his band. She soloed in her first appearance with her father, and met with an overwhelming response from the audience. Sheila told Bloom: "When I heard that ovation, I had this feeling I had never had in my whole life … it felt like the ultimate." Soon after, she quit high school to concentrate on her musical career.
In addition to touring Europe and Asia with her father's band, Azteca, and cutting two albums as part of that group, Sheila E. also got work as a studio musician for artists such as Herbie Hancock, Lionel Richie, Diana Ross, and the late Marvin Gaye. In 1978 she was touring the United States with George Duke when she met Prince, the artist who would have a major impact on her career. Prince had just released his first album and, as Sheila recalled for Bloom, "I heard about this kid who was writing and producing his own stuff, and I was impressed. When I first saw him, I just thought he was this cute guy standing against the wall. But when we met, he was impressed, too, because he had heard about me. We've been friends ever since."
But Sheila E. did not work with Prince until 1984, when she sang a duet with him on the hit single "Erotic City." Bloom explained, "Sheila's viscous vocal timbre shadows Prince's pungent baritone—an odd combination that works." Sheila also worked for Prince on Apollonia's album Apollonia 6, and it was during this project that Prince advised her to go solo. He also taught her how to compose songs at a faster rate. The result was Sheila's debut solo album, The Glamorous Life, with a title track that became a hit single. Prince helped her gain even more exposure by having her provide the opening act for his Purple Rain tour. But despite rumors that the musical pair were lovers, Sheila told Norment that they were just "very good friends." She further added that she enjoyed working with Prince because "he can get the best out of you…. Sometimes he will suggest things and it will be like the icing on the cake."
Sheila E.'s subsequent albums have met with mixed success. Her second album, Romance 1600, included another duet with Prince, "Love Bizarre," which shot up the charts. Critical reaction to the tune ranged from that of Bloom, who called it "tedious" and the disc's "most ironic disappointment," to Davitt Sigerson in Rolling Stone, who claimed it made Romance 1600 "worth purchasing." As for the rest of the album, it led Bloom to praise Sheila E.'s "mastery of studio technique, by which she turns everything in sight—including her own barks, snorts, and trills—into a percussion instrument." Both Bloom and Sigerson singled out "Bedtime Story" as being "pretty," and, although Sigerson claimed that the instrumental "Merci for the Speed of a Mad Clown in Summer" was marred by the "interpolation" of "circus music," Bloom hailed it as "a [modern classical composer] Charles Ives delight." On the percussionist's third album, Sheila E., her father, mother, brothers, and sister sing or play on many of the songs. Though this effort did not yield any hits, "Soul Salsa" was singled out for praise by a People magazine reviewer, who declared that "Sheila is a hot property as a performer."
In 1989 Sheila E. released Latina Familia, following it with Sex Cymbal in 1991. Neither of these albums reached the charts. Sheila E. continued to record, releasing Writes of Passage in 1998. In 2002, 2003, and 2006, she toured with the Ringo All Star Band.
The Glamorous Life, Warner Bros., 1984.
Romance 1600, Paisley Park, 1985.
Sheila E., Paisley Park, 1987.
Latina Familia, Verve, 1989.
Sex Cymbal, Warner Bros., 1991.
Writes of Passage, Heaven Productions, 1998.
Heaven, Concord, 2001.
For the Record …
Born Sheila Escovedo on December 12, 1959, in Oakland, CA; daughter of Pete (a drummer) and Juanita Escovedo.
Drummer, vocalist; played with father, Pete Escovedo, in group Azteca, beginning c. 1973; also did studio work with artists including Herbie Hancock, Lionel Richie, Diana Ross, and Marvin Gaye; began working with Prince, c. 1984; solo recording artist and concert performer, 1985–; appeared in film Krush Groove, 1985; toured with Ringo Starr and His All-Star Band, 2000s.
Addresses: Agent—c/o Vic Firth, Boston/Dedham Commerce Park, 65 Sprague Street, Boston, MA 02136. Website—Sheila E. Official Website: http://www.sheilae.com.
Ebony, November 1987.
High Fidelity, January 1986.
People, April 13, 1987.
Rolling Stone, November 21, 1985.
"Sheila E.," Drummerworld, http:http://www.drummerworld.com/drummers/Sheila_E.html (July 4, 2006).
"Sheila E.," Vic Firth Official Website, http://www.vicfirth.com/artists/sheilae.html (July 4, 2006).