Watching Sheila E., 63, perform, you would assume she’d had intensive musical training. But her formative experiences actually came as a young girl, sitting across from her father, legendary percussionist Pete Escovedo, as he rehearsed. For hours she’d watch him play Latin jazz pieces on the timbales, and then later mimic his movements, teaching herself how to play the drums and timbales, resulting in her highly idiosyncratic but technically assured style.
“You could say I play upside down,” Sheila E. says, laughing. “I have no formal musical training except following my dad like a mirror image. So I play with my left hand what he played with his right, and so forth. It’s a little unusual, but it works.”
Born in Oakland, California, Sheila’s multicultural upbringing — the family of her mother, Juanita Gardere, which hails from New Orleans, one of the world’s great music cities, is of French/African descent, and her father is Mexican-American — armed her with a broad tapestry of influences. So while Sheila, the oldest of four musical children, can play salsa like an Afro-Caribbean master, she feels equally comfortable touring with Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band or performing funk, Latin jazz and soul with her own group.
“We went together to New York once, because [legendary bandleader] Ray Barretto wanted to see her play,” recalls Escovedo. “Everyone was stunned when she started jamming. I think she’s at her best on the congas, but the truth is, she can play anything she wants.”
In the late ’70s, Sheila made a name for herself as a young percussionist with fusion keyboardist George Duke. She then developed a musical and romantic partnership with Prince, who produced her seminal solo records of the ’80s, including radio hits “The Glamorous Life” and “A Love Bizarre.”
Sheila was one of the opening acts during Prince’s Purple Rain tour in 1984, and her performances were so dynamic that Prince was forced to change his own sets just to keep up with his girlfriend’s reckless energy. “Ain’t no way Sheila’s gonna have a funkier band than me,” Prince warned his musicians, a story she recalls in her 2014 memoir, The Beat of My Own Drum.
Prince was a sympathetic mentor, helping Sheila become a more assured composer and frontwoman by supporting the launch of her solo career. He co-produced her first three albums, two of them on his Paisley Park label, co-writing many songs with her.
She looks regal on her music videos from that era — standing behind her timbales at the front of the stage, singing with panache about beds of flowers and strawberry minds. The aesthetic of those hits has aged particularly well, blending hints of psychedelia with sophisticated R&B and echoes of the swaying, syncopated Latin beats that Sheila grew up with.
Today she’s as busy as ever. Listening to new music and discovering new artists is an important part of Sheila’s artistic process. The members of her band have a WhatsApp group devoted strictly to sharing new tracks. “At the same time, I often type ‘who are the new young artists’ on Google,” she says. “There’s so much great music out there that it can become overwhelming. Every day you could find 20 or 30 great artists that you’ve never heard before.”
Sheila has kept herself busy during the current pandemic by recording a percussion tutorial for the MasterClass series and working on four different albums at the same time.
“Staying home means that we’re able to put out more music,” she says. She recently released a couple of singles and music videos on digital platforms, and she plans to return to live performances next year.
Her latest album, Iconic: Message 4 America, is a sprawling collection of songs featuring guest spots by Ringo Starr, Freddie Stone and George Clinton. The collection’s overarching message is the need for social harmony and universal love. This same concept anchors her AARP playlist.
“Once in a while, you have to take the time and find some balance in your life,” she says. “I recommend doing something that makes you feel good — cooking, drawing, writing, listening to music, just sitting down and putting back what’s missing from your life. Because of the chaos involved in everything that’s happening outside, it’s essential to create your own moment of peace.”
How to add playlist directly to your smartphone
Every playlist on Spotify has its own unique code, similar to a QR code. Called Spotify Codes, these bars make it easy to add a playlist to your Spotify app on your smartphone. To use, open Spotify, click on the Search field in the middle bottom of the screen. Click in the Search field and when you see the camera icon on the top right, click on that. Aim your camera at the code and it will bring up the playlist. To save the playlist, click on the heart.