One of life’s constants for Sheila E. comes down to a simple phrase: follow the beat. And her impeccable inner rhythm is the pulse behind a trailblazing career that still knows no bounds.
World-class drummer and percussionist whose credits read like chapters in a music history book: Ringo Starr. Marvin Gaye, Prince, Beyoncé, Herbie Hancock, Diana Ross, Lionel Richie, Gloria Estefan and George Duke. Grammy & Emmy Award-nominated singer/songwriter behind the seminal hits “The Glamorous Life” and “A Love Bizarre.” A fearless multi-instrumentalist equally proficient on guitar and bass. Actress. Mentor. Philanthropist.
These career checkpoints all converged in 2014 with two new Sheila E. projects. The release of her first album in 13 years, the aptly titled Icon (Stiletto Flats, March 25, 2014), then the indefatigable multi-talent added author to her list of accomplishments with Simon & Schuster’s 2014 publication of her autobiography, “The Beat of My Own Drum.” (Sept 2,2014)
“The idea to record another solo album was actually spawned while I was writing the autobiography,” recalls Sheila E. “I realized that some of the things I was writing about should be a song. That’s when I also began looking back at songs I’d written several years earlier and forgotten about, but whose themes needed to be talked about in the book. Both fed each other.”
As the musical half of Sheila E.’s storied life and career, Icon pulsates from start to finish with colorful fusions of the Latin, jazz, R&B, pop, funk and rock influences that shaped her unique style. The 13-track set opens with the soaring “Butterfly,” the first of four interludes that subtly yet powerfully illuminate the versatile talent behind the music. “’Butterfly’ reflects part of the journey in my book,” explains Sheila E., nicknamed butterfly by family friend Carlos Santana. “It’s who I am as a person. I always wanted to fly, to be the first female astronaut on the moon. It’s me running track, running free. That’s how I play.”
The album takes off from there, with all songs produced live and in one or two takes. “I’m used to playing live,” says Sheila E., who also executive produced the project. “Why would I punch in my soul on a computer?” She unleashes that soul on the set’s first full track “Mona Lisa,” an energetic cut drawn from her Latin roots. Also joining Sheila E. on her musical reverie are two singular storytellers in their own right: singer/songwriter Ledisi and pioneering rapper MC Lyte. The latter’s signature edgy flow spices up the saucy, dues paying-themed “Nasty Thang,” which outlines the drama and glamour life in music. Ledisi adds a poignant touch to “Girl Like Me,” an honest yet empowering message about surviving abuse. An abuse survivor herself, Sheila E. originally penned the song to perform with her 2007 female band C.O.E.D. (Chronicles of Every Diva). That soul-searching continues on the mid-tempo “Who I Am Now.”
Rounding out the set—which includes three songs written by guitarist Bobby G—is a new version of the funky tour de force “Leader of the Band.” Initially recorded in 2008, the song features Sheila and the E Family Band (father Pete and brothers Peter Michael and Juan) as well her former mentor, Prince, on piano. “I love playing this song,” says Sheila E., “so I re-recorded it and left some of Prince on there. It’s about how I was influenced by my pops [the legendary Pete Escovedo] and [songwriter/producer/musician] George Duke. That a female can be in charge and bring it just as hard.”
Icon ends as it begins with another moving interlude, “Now Is the Hour.” A duet featuring Sheila E. and her beloved “moms,” Escovedo matriarch Juanita, the clip is from a ‘50s-era standard that dates back to Sheiia E.’s childhood.
Family, faith and music were guiding forces for Sheila E. growing up in the Bay Area. In addition to percussionist dad Pete, the Oakland, Calif. native counts former Santana member/Azteca founder Coke Escovedo and The Dragons frontman Mario Escovedo as uncles. Fellow Latin star Tito Puente was her godfather. In addition to being weaned on Latin jazz and Motown, Sheila E. was exposed to a diverse array of Bay Area acts. Those influences ranged from the rock of Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead to the R&B/pop of the Pointer Sisters and the funk of Sly & the Family Stone. “I used to sit on the corner outside of the local community center with Twinkies and 7-Up listening to Sly and Larry Graham rehearse,” remembers Sheila E. “The sounds of the Bay Area molded me.”
So it’s no surprise that after such a music-immersive childhood, the gifted drummer/percussionist began amassing an impressive string of credits playing not only with her dad but also with pioneering talents like George Duke, Marvin Gaye, Lionel Richie and Herbie Hancock. Following a Bay Area gig in the late ‘70s, Sheila E. met mentor Prince backstage. Their Purple Rain recording sessions—including her vocals on the 1984 classic “Erotic City”—morphed into launching her solo career that same year. Debut album The Glamorous Life spun off the Grammy Award-nominated top 10 hit of the same name plus a second top 40 single “The Belle of St. Mark. Between her ‘80s tenure as drummer, songwriter and musical director for Prince’s backup band, Sheila E. released two more solo albums (Romance 1600 and Shelia E.) and scored another classic hit with “A Love Bizarre.”
Sheila E.’s fierce, dynamic verve onstage has made her a major concert draw since the ‘90s. Along the way, she has acted in several films (“Krush Groove,” “The Adventures of Ford Fairlane,” “Chasing Papi”) and launched various music projects (C.O.E.D., E Family Band). While continuing to play with Prince on select gigs, she has added to her arsenal of credits such names as Ringo Starr (as a member of the Ringo Starr All Star Band), Gloria Estefan and Beyoncé as well as performing on the 2012 Academy Awards with pop hitmaker Pharrell Williams and composer Hans Zimmer. Sheila E. was also among the roster of stars chosen to perform at the Kennedy Center Honors whose 2013 honorees included artists Herbie Hancock, Billy Joel and Carlos Santana.
Away from the spotlight, music doubles as a source of healing and giving back for Sheila E. In tandem with the city of Oakland, she and her Elevate Hope organization staged the first annual “Elevate Oakland” benefit concert on Feb. 1, 2014. A host of Bay Area artists and other acclaimed musicians performed at the city-donated Fox Theatre. The goal: to raise funds to improve student academic achievement and attendance through music and arts programming. But this wasn’t Sheila E.’s first time giving back. Between gigs, she has also criss-crossed the country, speaking at schools and colleges, shelters, church organizations, music classes and clinics about music’s effect on her life and career. “Sharing music in any way I can is my ministry,” she says.
And that was part of the inspiration for penning the autobiography “The Beat of My Own Drum.” Playing a perceived male instrument and working in a male-dominated industry exacted a personal price—several years ago Sheila E. publicly acknowledged she was an abuse survivor.
“The book was the beginning of the healing,” says Sheila E. “I’d talked about working in a male-dominated industry in my ministry and addressed it in some of the song lyrics I’d written. But it was challenging to sit down and write about it in detail for the book. No one in my household told me I couldn’t play drums because I was a girl. It wasn’t until I was outside of the house and playing sessions. But through pain comes realization, understanding and the opportunity to help others overcome those challenges.”
After ringing in 2014 in concert with Sergio Mendes on New Year’s Eve at Disney Hall, Sheila E. was ready for her Icon debut. With no Google or YouTube artist script to follow back then, she says her career drive was propelled by one thing: “I just did it because I loved it. And that’s what Icon represented. I started all this as Sheila Escovedo then became this persona named Sheila E. Now Sheila E. and Sheila Escovedo are the same person, still making music that comes from the heart.”
In 2015 Sheila E. will add to her business resume with the opening of The E. Spot Lounge in Studio City California. The 10,000 sq ft venue with stage, lounge, and restaurant facilities, will bring quality food and entertainment to the popular area. The year will also bring forth the growth of Sheila E.’s entertainment company Stiletto Flats Inc. with the release of new artists and artistic projects.