Sheila E Sampling Life’s Cornucopia 

Bay Area-born percussionist, songwriter, and performer Sheila Escovedo, known better by her stage name Sheila E., is living proof of the value of diversity when it comes to one’s upbringing and creative output. The versatile, prolific artist has collaborated with just about every big name under the sun, from Prince and Tito Puente to Hans Zimmer, Carlos Santana, and Beyoncé and she says, she owes this fact to growing up with every style of music being played in her home from a young age. Indeed, Sheila says, music was swirling around her even before she left her mother’s womb. She learned Latin Jazz at a young age before even studying classical violin. Later, she became more than proficient in rock music. She has salsa and gospel albums in the works, set to drop later this year, and she’s a legendary icon amongst just about everyone who’s held a beat or hummed a melody. But what this amounts to most, is that Sheila understands how to fit in with any song. It’s all about space, she says, and figuring out what not to play as much as choosing which notes or beats to strike.  

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“The most important part of a song is the space,” Sheila tells American Songwriter. “If you learn when not to play and let the space be what it is and find those little nuggets, then you’ll be okay.”  

Not only did Sheila grow up in a musical family, but her father and uncles were professional musicians. And Puente is her godfather. In this way, she absorbed sounds and rhythms. Like musical osmosis. Her father, Pete Escovedo, would practice at the house and host jam sessions during the week. And while Sheila doesn’t necessarily remember the first time she held drumsticks, she does remember occasions when, as her father was taking a break, she would play his conga drums with her hands. At the time, she was only three years old. But just two years later, Sheila performed for the first time in front of a real live audience.  

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“I remember it like it was yesterday,” she says. “As far as getting ready to perform, for some reason. I loved fashion at an early age. I remember wanting to get dressed up. I got a new dress. I remember my mom putting on black patent leather shoes with the white, frilly socks at my ankles.” 

She got ready for the gig at her grandmother’s house. Her cousins kept asking why they couldn’t go. But they weren’t old enough and they weren’t performing, so this wasn’t for them. It was for Sheila. She was the star. She recalls walking to the venue, up the stairs, and hearing her father’s music playing from the street. She remembers the huge windows. Holding her mother’s hand as the music got louder and louder. She remembers, inside the venue, her father announcing her and the audience parting for her like Moses and the Red Sea.  

“To me, being five years old, it seemed like there were thousands and thousands of people there,” she says. 

Her mother lifted her up, her dad brought her to the stage. And then… that’s all she remembers. It’s as if her mind went blank. Afterward, her father told her she did a great job, but she has no memory today of that very first gig. All she remembers is getting ready for it. But no matter. Her career as a percussionist had begun. A little later in life, Sheila became an athlete at school. She was preparing to head to the Olympics, in fact. A speedy track star, she was also on an undefeated soccer team that went years without a single loss. She broke running records. She still played music, but she didn’t take it too seriously. At 14 years old, though, she joined a band to play drums. While she’d played percussion, that’s a whole different matter than playing the drum kit. Yet, she went for the job. Though she’d never played drums before, she took on the challenge. The band played a lot of Santana covers, which she knew well, and even renditions of songs that her father and uncles played. She secured the gig by learning a few tips beforehand from a relative who showed her how to set up and break down the kit. A few months later, the band got a new drummer because he had his own sound system and Sheila moved to percussion.  

Sheila E (Photo by Rob Shanahan)

“That’s when things started changing,” she says. “All of a sudden, all the things I’d listened to, all the things I’d been hearing from my dad growing up, it just started coming out.”  

Sheila got the bug, officially. Now, track and soccer were secondary. A few months later she played another show with her dad’s band, which was signed to a record label, and was touring with big names like Stevie Wonder and the Temptations. One of her father’s percussion players couldn’t make a show and Sheila begged him to let her sit in. She got her wish and knew right then what her life’s path was meant to be. This was something different, she says. After that gig, she and her father hugged, kissed, and cried backstage. She knew what she was supposed to do. Two weeks later, she went on tour with her father and she’s “never looked back.” She went from the race track to cutting tracks. And looking back on those days, Sheila says she has the Bay Area to thank for her abilities.  

“Oh my God,” she says, “I always say that Oakland was the best city to be born in and grow up in, musically.” 

She remembers different pockets of players from Oakland to San Francisco, Berkley, San Jose, and more—The Mission District. She remembers heading to parks to play often, in drum circles. Everyone played music. Sounds emanated from the clubs onto the streets. It was a fertile time for the region—Journey, The Pointer Sisters, Sly and the Family Stone, Bonnie Raitt, the Grateful Dead, and the list of local standouts went on. Sheila is the product of this region, and she couldn’t be more thankful for her education. 

“That influence was huge,” Sheila says. “If it wasn’t for that, I don’t know if I would be the musician or the artist that I am today.”  

Acclaimed singer Lynn Mabry, who has worked with Sheila for decades, first met the percussionist when she was just 16 years old. They met through Sheila’s now-late uncle and Mabry, who later sang backup for the Talking Heads (on their famed concert film, Stop Making Sense), and went on to manage Sheila. Mabry calls her “a visionary and consummate entertainer.”  

“Sheila never took a lesson to learn percussion and drumming,” Mabry says. “It was all a gift from God. Because of that, her talent is exceptional. She has worked with some of the best in the business because she’s organically one of the best. Her ability to adapt to different genres is also a gift, from pop and Latin jazz to classical and country music, she does it all. And effortlessly.”  

But one might wonder how Sheila was able to go from the living room to the live room so easily. She began her career in earnest in the mid-1970s as a player in The George Duke Band before going solo (and later working with countless legends). But how did she do all this? For Sheila, the answer is simple: family. She was raised with a family as big as an audience. Her mother grew up with nine siblings and her father, 13. She says by now the family has stopped counting, but she can remember 76 first cousins and now 500 extended family members. So, every reunion was like a show. She was part of the entertainment. Once a family party started, Sheila would either help perform, or at least mimic someone on the stereo like the Jackson 5 or James Brown, or Sammy Davis Jr. She learned on the job—even at home. That, combined with her many influences, from classical violin to rousing Latin jazz, she was set. From there, she started recording. The proverbial train pushed forward.  

“I was very nervous,” Sheila says, remembering back to those early days in the recording studio. “I remember during those times growing up playing, it wasn’t like they’d overdub like they do now. Everything was live. If I made a mistake, everyone would have to do it all over again. I didn’t want to be the one to make a mistake!”  

But she gained composure as she went along. She realized everyone had this type of worry and everyone was nevertheless encouraging. It became all about finding the right collective take, the one that felt most comfortable, not the most perfect. Sheila made her recording debut with Alphonso Johnson in 1976 and by her early 20s, she had performed with George Duke, Lionel Richie, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, and Herbie Hancock. She says she was discovered by “one of the greatest drummers in the world”: Billy Cobham, who flipped when he saw Sheila and her father in a San Francisco club. He helped put her first recordings together. And in 1977, she and her dad released the album Solo Two. In 1984, Sheila released her debut solo album, The Glamorous Life. And a star was born. That record peaked at No. 7 on the U.S. R&B charts and included her biggest hit, the album’s titular single. 

Sheila met Prince in 1977 after a performance with her father. Of course, the Purple One was immediately struck by her talent (and beauty). Sheila later provided vocals on some of his hits, including “Let’s Go Crazy,” and she would later open for him on his Purple Rain Tour. The two met because Prince was in the Bay Area to record one of his early albums, wanting to get the kinds of sounds that Sly and the Family Stone and Santana were achieving. He immersed himself in the locale, eventually stumbling upon Sheila on stage. At the time, Sheila says, she had no idea who he was. But he was, coincidentally, recording in the studio next to where her father was toiling. Her father told Sheila about Prince, and she was immediately interested to meet him and say hello.  

“No,” her father told her, “You’re not coming. We’re there working!” 

Of course, what young woman’s father wouldn’t be protective when it came to the possibility of her meeting Prince? As legend would have it, though, after Prince saw Sheila for the first time, he was smitten, telling her he wanted to marry her and that she would one day be in his band. They struck up a pleasant friendship and exchanged phone numbers. When he came back down to the Bay on future occasions, she would pick him up and show him around the area, from clubs to introducing him to local musicians. He’d never heard of Latin jazz music, but thanks to Sheila, he had a new education. 

“That was special,” Sheila says. 

Since those early years, Sheila has put out eight solo albums and earned Grammy nominations along with a number of hit singles. More recently, in 2014, she put out a biography, Beat of My Own Drummer, for which she investigated her life and all of its ups and downs. It’s funny, she says, many of the stories she remembered and talked about with her bandmates included details that differed from their accounts. It’s almost like that very first performance at five years old when she blanked out. What she remembers (or doesn’t) is not always how something occurred, factually. But that’s what happens when you’re standing on stage dolled up, in heels, playing drums and percussion for hours on end. You get in the zone. Details don’t matter nearly as much as keeping time and people’s feet flying. 

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Today, the 64-year-old artist endures her fair share of challenges as she maintains her illustrious career, from bumps and bruises, incurred during rambunctious gigs, not healing as fast as they used to, to wondering what the future of music and music sales are, or might be. But one bonus of getting older is being able to share in her many accomplishments with her family, including her first music teacher, her father. In fact, the two recently received a big honor, a co-Lifetime Achievement Latin Grammy Award in 2021. It was unexpected, Sheila says, but very welcomed. Not only was it uplifting to get an award, but to share it with her father (and, by extension, her parents and the whole family), that’s the cherry on the metaphorical sundae. 

“You can’t get any better than that,” Sheila shares. “I don’t care what comes after this, you can’t top that. A Lifetime Achievement Award with my father—the reason why I am who I am is because of my parents.”

Looking ahead now, Sheila has a number of projects that will come to fruition in 2023. She has a new Sheila E. and the E-Train record, on which she’s playing the drum kit, which dropped in late 2022, after yet another recent tour. And on top of that, she has a salsa album and a gospel album that will come out this spring. It’s a lot for an artist who has already done so much. But, outside of being happy to wake up every morning, these works remain at the top of her list of recent successes. 

“It’s a blessing,” she says. “Staying creative is part of the process.”

Sheila says she always has an eye on reinvention—to wit, she even won a Country Music Television (CMT) reality show, Gone Country, in 2009. She’s also done some acting work and voiceover work. She says she’d love to star in an action movie or even a comedy, of all things. Of course, she wants to make more music and continue to tour, as well. Part of being a legend is never being complacent and, of course, Sheila has that on lockdown. If making music is all about making space for the right notes, then she has taken that lesson to her entire life, as well. It’s all about making the best choices and leaving the rest by the wayside. To do so, today, she relies on faith as much as instinct and a deep belief that she’s part of a plan and a higher power. At that, she remains a pro. 

“Being in that space of music, it’s the closest thing I have besides praise and worship and meditating on God’s word—that’s as close as I get to God,” she says. “He’s given me that gift. There’s nothing like it. It is my life.”

Photos by Rob Shanahan

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