I’ve been feeling a bit nostalgic lately. Yesterday, I spent the afternoon listening to albums that were released in 1984, the year during which I met my wife. In all honesty, from January 1982 through around October of 1984, some of my very favorite music. As many of us remember, those years are most often associated with the great music of Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, The Police, The Go-Go’s, Men at Work, John Cougar Mellencamp, Tina Turner, Daryl Hall & John Oates, R.E.M., Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, just to scratch the surface. Those artists dominated the musical landscape in ways that are totally unimaginable today. These people were not just rock stars, they led all of pop culture and fashion. It was heady and exciting times.
Back in 1984, like everyone else, I was totally enthralled with all things Prince. To me, this was the natural culmination of everything the musician had be reaching for during the first six years of his career. As we all know, Prince had the number one album, single and movie at the same time. Additionally, he had three protege acts, all of whom had released albums and singles in the wake of his multimedia hit Purple Rain. We all remember two of those acts that were given roles in the film: The Time and Apollonia 6, formerly known as Vanity 6.
The third act almost got lost in the shuffle. First, this woman only had a quick moment in the film, a kind of “now you see me, now you don’t” part as Time lead singer Morris Day’s jilted lover, who was thrown into a garbage bin near the beginning of the movie. That musician was the beautiful and talented Sheila E., originally known as Sheila Escovedo. The daughter of Santana percussionist Pete Escovedo, the niece of singer/songwriter Alejandro Escovedo, and the goddaughter of percussionist extraordinaire Tito Puente, Sheila seemed destined to be a musician. Then, you couple her prodigious talent with her unparalleled beauty, and we had a pop star in the making.
By the time Sheila was in her early twenties, she had already toured with jazz great George Duke, soul man Lionel Richie and former Supreme Diana Ross. After she met Prince in 1978 at a concert, the pair struck up a friendship that led to a mutual admiration club and, according to her book, a close relationship as arguably one of Prince’s true loves, as she was a near equal as a musician. But, since Sheila had such a minor role in Purple Rain, it has been easy to overlook the beginning of her solo career as being under the watchful eye of Prince.
Sheila E.’s first three albums were all released under the guidance of Prince, with Prince writing or co-writing three of the six songs on her debut album, The Glamorous Life, as well as producing and playing on her first three albums, which the latter two albums being released on Prince’s recording label Paisley Park. Sheila also received much help from many of the musicians that were either members of The Time or part of Paisley Park’s stable of musicians.
As the opening act on Prince’s Purple Rain Tour, Sheila E. was able to parlay the exposure to land her sole Top 10 solo hit with the title song of her debut album, the impeccable “The Glamorous Life,” a song written by Prince. But, for some reason, maybe the overexposure of the Minneapolis Sound, Sheila E. was not able to score another Top 10 hit. For my money, Sheila’s musical peak with Prince was reached on her second album, Romance 1600 and specifically, a twelve-minute funk-dance workout duet with Prince himself, “A Love Bizarre.” The song hit the top spot on the Dance Chart and peaked at number two on the R&B Chart, but, for reasons unknown, stalled at a disappointing number eleven on the Hot 100 Chart. Of course, I have great memories of dancing to this very song at every club my wife and I visited in 1985, be it the truncated version for radio or the hot, long version from the album. Next to Prince’s other duet with Miss E., the B-side of “Let’s Go Crazy,” one of Prince’s most famous B-sides, “Erotic City,” as the purple one’s best dance anthems. To me, “A Love Bizarre” is one of the finest songs from Prince’s most famous era of music.
Now, what I loved about Sheila E.’s take on Prince’s sound was the addition of her Latin rhythms, which only enhanced Prince’s need to appeal across the multicultural spectrum. While his solo material aspired to this musical universality, it did not occur until Sheila E. added her spice to the formula. That’s why it was so musically satisfying to me when Prince added her to his band upon the demise of The Revolution. And, it’s also not a surprise that when Sheila E. became his touring drummer and touring band leader that Prince’s music completely to another whole level of sophistication as he arguably created his masterpiece Sign o’ the Times with Sheila E. as her drummer.
Although Sheila’s drumming pushed Prince’s music to new heights during her tenure in his band, that turn also slowed the progress of her solo career, to a degree that this exposure was unable to overcome. And, that was the public’s loss, quite honestly. Even though Sheila E.’s third album, 1987’s eponymous release, peaked at a respectable 56, the album had a relatively truncated stay on the chart and did not yield a Top 40 hit. Yet, she did have two Top 40 R&B hits, most significantly a number three hit with “Hold Me,” the last Top 10 R&B hit of her career.
Upon leaving Prince’s band after the Lovesexy Tour of 1988, Miss Escovedo released one more album on Warner Bros, the commercially disappointing Sex Cymbal. After that album, Sheila was free to follow her muse, releasing three albums during the new century, but none experiencing the heady days of her association with his Purple Badass. Today, she continues to tour, even participating in the concert to honor Prince after his untimely death. Additionally, Sheila E. has toured as part of Ringo Starr’s Touring All-Starrs. But, her recording career has taken a backseat in the intervening years.
Now 60, Sheila E. is still every bit as beautiful and talented as she was at her commercial peak. Unfortunately, I am worried that many of our youth have missed out on her talents, as music has become more reliant on recorded rhythms as opposed to those created by talented drummers (my apologies to the great ?uestlove of The Roots). Sheila E. is still one terrific percussionist and should be remembered as one of rock’s greatest, not just one of rock’s greatest female percussionists.
So, how about a Sheila E. compilation?