What You May Not Know About Sheila E. If her Prince-assisted '80s hits are all you know of Sheila Escovedo, you're missing half the story. NPR's Arun Rath speaks with the drummer, singer and bandleader and dives in to her early history.
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The Full Escovedo: What You May Not Know About Sheila E.

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The Full Escovedo: What You May Not Know About Sheila E.

The Full Escovedo: What You May Not Know About Sheila E.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A LOVE BIZARRE")

SHEILA ESCOVEDO: If that's what we are, we all want a love bizarre.

RATH: This is how most people know Shelia E - from the hit records she recorded back in the '80s, with a telltale influence of Prince. But if that's all you know about Shelia E., you're missing half the story. Do you know about her debut jazz album when she was a teenager, even before Prince got his start? How about the fact she played percussion for Marvin Gay and Santana and Michael Jackson and that she still leading a Latin jazz band? Shelia E. packed as much history as she could into a new memoir, it's called, "The Beat of My Own Drum." The first chapter starts with the time her conga playing father, Pete Escovedo, brought her on stage for the first time at a little club in Oakland. She was five years old.

ESCOVEDO: I just member walking up the stairs of the club and I could hear the music getting closer and closer as we got closer to the front door and my dad introduced me and the people kind of just parted, you know, there was like a line right up to the stage and my dad picked me up and sat me - or actually stood me on a stool because the congas were a little bit too high. I don't remember playing but my dad said I played good.

RATH: Now I want to play you a little piece of music for you. Take a listen to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BITTERSWEET")

RATH: 1977.

ESCOVEDO: Wooo, that's a long time ago.

RATH: Can you tell our listeners what we're listening to?

ESCOVEDO: I know it's Billy playing and my dad and I but I don't know if it's Billy's record or the "Solo Two" record.

RATH: This is the "Solo Two" record. This is you playing with your dad and you're talking about talking to Billy Cobham.

ESCOVEDO: Wow. Yeah.

RATH: The Great Jazz drummer.

ESCOVEDO: Yeah.

RATH: Who kind of discovered you and your dad playing.

ESCOVEDO: Yeah he came to San Francisco and ended up in a club that we were playing in and he was like, oh wow, I was just coming to hang out, met us and he was excited about, you know, hey maybe we could do a record together - a father and daughter. And I could come back and we could produce and blah blah blah. And we was like like, yeah OK and we thought he's not going to come back. And a few months later he came back and we did the record and we couldn't believe it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BITTERSWEET")

RATH: And this is a part of your work that I feel like a lot of people - and maybe even a lot of your fans aren't aware of that but you were - Shelia Escovedo, you were a star before Prince was a star.

ESCOVEDO: Yeah.

RATH: You know, before you were Sheila E. you were out there, you has your own sound.

ESCOVEDO: Yeah, that's what's been so great and celebrating now 40 years in the business was that being a musician at an early age at 15 and being able to play with such great artists, you know, at an early age from Billy Cobham to George Duke, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis. I mean, it's been an honor to be able to not only listen and play with them but just to know them and learn from them.

RATH: And while we're dropping names I got to mention one other fun discovering in this book and that's Michael Jackson from "Off The Wall." You play on "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough."

ESCOVEDO: Yeah. That bottle sound, that very distinct bottle sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T STOP 'TIL YOU GET ENOUGH")

ESCOVEDO: I remember Quincy saying, you know...

RATH: Quincy Jones.

ESCOVEDO: Yeah, Quincy Jones there's a sound that Michael wants on the record can you kind of emulate it so I got two bottles - and put in it and I just pitch them to the key of the song and then played that as percussion. So, when you hear, dun, dun, dun, dun dun dun dund, that kind of thing, those are the bottles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T STOP 'TIL YOU GET ENOUGH")

MICHAEL JACKSON: Keep on with, the force don't stop. Don't stop 'til you get enough. Keep on with, the force don't stop. Don't stop 'til you get enough.

RATH: I'm speaking with percussionist and band leader Shelia E. about her new memoir. It's called, "The Beat Of My Own Drum." So, like we were saying you were established, you were Sheila Escovedo. Now one thing that was deftly new with Shelia E. as opposed to what you'd done before - you never really sang before. And you write that it was Prince that convinced you to sing. How did he do that?

ESCOVEDO: Well, somewhat. It was the one song he just called me and he tricked me because he said, I have a session, come to the studio. I met him but I looked in the studio and the live room and there were no drums or Timbales -percussion. And I said what am I doing, he says you're going to sing and I'm like no, no, no. Because I can do that singing and playing. I can sing and play but when you take away my Timbales I though well what do I do with my hands? I need to hit something, you know. That took a second and then I went, OK, I'm a do it. So he said OK here's a song, I want you to sing on - which was "Erotic City."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EROTIC CITY")

ESCOVEDO: (Singing) If we cannot make babies, Maybe we can make some time, Erotic City come alive.

RATH: And he also helped convince you to come a bandleader, do your own album.

ESCOVEDO: Well, yes and no. He didn't convince me, I've always been a bandleader. I started a couple of bands that I had early on in my years.

RATH: And from your own account you're a pretty strict bandleader.

ESCOVEDO: Very much so yeah. He learned a lot from me on that and I'll tell you that. He came to one of my rehearsals and realized how much work we had put into rehearsing and he went back and called an emergency rehearsal with his band to say, I'm not getting my butt kicked by Shelia E. on this tour. So, he went back and revamped his whole show. I mean everyone talks about the boot camp that I started and it was more of rehearsing 12 hour days, which we did every day. And I would have maybe a day off. It was strict because this is my first time being out there as a solo artist and I was - it's like we've got to do this right. So, it was brutal.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GLAMOROUS LIFE")

ESCOVEDO: (Singing) She wants to leave. The glamourous life. She don't need a man's touch. She wants to leave. The glamourous life. Without love it ain't much.

RATH: Now something I had no idea about, maybe nobody did, you write about in this book is that there was a very serious physical toll that your style of drum playing took on your body.

ESCOVEDO: There's a lot of injuries that happened. And I - and because I talk about to the kids it's very important to practice, you know, every single day, blah, blah, blah, I never practiced. There's no warm-up, you warm up my hands, warm up my feet, my voice, I never did any of that. So, those injuries came from playing, being a woman I wanted to make sure I stayed looking like a woman and definitely playing in high heels was not a smart thing to do.

RATH: Energetic style you have of playing. I imagine that's got to be tough.

ESCOVEDO: Yeah so, my back went out, I was partially paralyzed for a couple of weeks. After a while when you're reaching to hit a cymbal and you're playing awkward it the way that you sit, something's going to give and it did.

RATH: There must be a lot of women now - young women, who are playing drums and percussion that saw you when they were little girls. Have you heard from them?

ESCOVEDO: Yes.

RATH: It must be nice.

ESCOVEDO: Very nice. Very nice. They come to me and say that, you know if it wasn't for you I would not be playing right now and there are older women that are older than me that come up to me and say I always wanted to play but, you know, in school they didn't have it or it wasn't accepted or my parents didn't, you know, didn't want me to do it or what and I said it is never too late to play. I grabbed her hand, she was 80 something years old, I pulled her on stage and I had her sit down and play congas with the band. We played live and she had never experienced anything like that before, she'll never forget it. It makes you happy, you know, it's like a plant being watered every day and for me it's like if I don't get my food, my water, my nourishment musically some kind way creatively, I feel like I'm going to die.

RATH: That's Sheila E. Her new memoir is called, "The Beat Of My Own Drum." Shelia E., love your playing, love speaking with you. Thank you so much.

ESCOVEDO: You're welcome. Thank you very much.

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