Local Current Blog

Sheila E. shares her memories working with Prince

Sheila E. portrait by Nate Ryan/MPR
Sheila E. portrait by Nate Ryan/MPR

Over the course of his career, Prince worked with many talented musicians, but one of the closest relationships he had with any of his musicians was with Sheila E. An iconic drummer, singer songwriter and performer Sheila E., short for Escovedo, has had an incredible career with Prince and on her own.

Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, E. grew up surrounded by the prominent Latin, jazz and R&B musicians of her time. Before she met Prince, she had already made a name for herself performing with Santana and Herbie Hancock. After meeting Prince at one of his shows in the area, he invited her to join him on the ‘Purple Rain’ tour. E. moved to Minneapolis, changing her name from Sheila Escovedo to Sheila E.

“I changed it so people could remember. That was one of the transitions. The other was, for me, knowing that I wanted to always be a solo artist and do my own music. It was more so of how would I play percussion and still maintain the foundation of who I am as an artist and bring my music, the Latin element, to anything that I played, whether it be R&B, funk, soul, gospel, whatever it may be, and maintain that integrity of who I am as an artist,” E. said. “I remember talking to Warner Bros. at the time, and we were telling them that I’m an artist. I play timbales. They’re like ‘What are timbales?’ So it was letting people know this is a percussion instrument. I’ll be fronting my band, singing and playing, and will dance and do everything. So it was hard for people to, at that time, realize or understand what that meant, because there was no one that they could look at to say hey, let me look up, or I know Sheila reminds me of so-and-so. There wasn’t another Sheila E.”

While she was working with Prince the two would often return to the Bay Area. There E. would introduce him to the musicians she grew up around and played with. Many of the musicians Prince met in California were self taught. He admired their musicianship and versatility they had. The music they played was a part of their lives and Prince knew he wanted to bring those musicians to Minneapolis.

“A lot of our musicians come from church. A lot of us were self-taught. A lot of us didn’t read music, so we’re used to hearing music, learning it, interpreting it in our own way, and then it becoming a part of who we are – our own individual artists,” she said. “He was inspired by what we brought. The Bay Area sound is a part of the Minneapolis sound because of what we could do So every time I brought someone into my circle, which is a part of his circle as well, we were all one big family. There are branches that lead into other areas where it’s like musically he’s never played this before, so let’s incorporate that in his music. So he was inspired by the different artists that he had in his circle, which allowed him to play music differently; why he changed music so much, which was great. You could tell that different people that he was around at different times was inspired by the way that they played or wrote music.”

For E., the process of making music with Prince was different than what she was seeing in the larger music industry at the time, and she really enjoyed the freedom she had as a musician.
When the two worked on creating new music together they worked as equals. In the span of just a few years, the two recorded hundreds of songs together. Not everything made it out to the public, but it was important to them to spend time creating new sounds together.

“I was an influence and he was an influence,” she said. “We were inspired by just trying different things, and he loved that,” she said. “This room was full of my gear when we would record. I’d have so much percussion from Brazil, Africa, Latin percussion, and this room would be filled with drums and all kinds of instruments, but at the same time I would go into the kitchen at Paisley and make a shaker from something, or get my brush and maybe take the rivets from these berries right here and make a different sound, or use the wall – trash can, whatever. I would just create because you can. And that’s what was fun about it.”

But even though she really liked working with Prince, not everything went as planned, like the recording of hit song “Erotic City.” She knew the song would be a hit, but didn’t know what she was getting into at the time.

“He called me on the phone and said come to the studio – Sunset Sound. I live down the street from Sunset Sound, so he called me to come over. He said we’re going to record. So I show up, and just like we’re in the studio here, there was just one vocal mic, and I didn’t see any drums; no percussion or drums, so I was thinking they forgot to send my stuff. Or do we need to rent? What’s happening? He said, ‘No, let me play you this song. I want you to sing.’ I’m like no, I don’t want to sing. He’s like no, you’ll like this song. So he played the song and I was like dang, that’s a good song. Man, that’s funky. Oh, my goodness,” she said. “I was like okay. I looked at the lyrics and I’m listening to it. I was like that word right there, I’m not going to say that word. That word I’m not going to say. You can say it, but I’m not going to say it. So I say ‘funk – f-u-n-k, and you can say the other word.’ He’s like why don’t you want to – I’m not saying that world. So I put my foot down and I didn’t say the word, by the way. So I recorded the song and I was a little bit nervous even though – it’s not that because it was Prince – it’s not because we were doing a duet. It’s like I always got nervous singing in the studio. That was one of my least favorite things to do.”

After Prince’s death, E. says she’s seen many people who want to tell their story and make documentaries on Prince’s life, but she hopes they’ll stick to to truth when they create them.

“As long as they get the story straight and tell the truth and share who he was and always will be us – a great musician. He’s an incredible songwriter, but the musicianship for me – us being in the studio all the time and playing – the things he would come up with – just sharing those stories. There’s probably a right and a wrong way. It would be hard for me to say, ‘This is a great documentary.’ I think for me the parts that are – when people are telling a story that have no right to really say that – you don’t know him – I don’t know – and I hate to even talk about that because it’s just kind of weird. As long as they tell the truth and share his legacy of music, I think it’s great.”

Watch Sheila E.’s full interview with The Current’s Andrea Swensson below. And stream the Purple Hour here:

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Simone Cazares is a student at St. Catherine University. Originally from Miami, Fla., she survives Minnesota’s cruel winters by immersing herself in the Twin Cities music scene.