By J. Doug Gill
It was a testament to both her talents and her legacy when the “Late Show with David Letterman” included the incomparable percussionist in this past June's “Drum Solo Week.”
There, spotlighted between Letterman's own Anton Fig and the celebrated Neil Peart was Sheila E., whose presence certified that she is indeed one of the modern era's most accomplished drummers.
“I am so incredibly blessed,” Sheila E. said, softly uttering the heartfelt words she would repeat throughout our conversation. “I still can't believe that I get to do what I do.”
Nearly everyone is familiar with the story of Sheila E.'s meteoric rise, even if Prince is often mistakenly identified as having 'discovered' the multi-talented musician. Yes, the Purple One convinced her to use only the 'E' in her moniker and lit the fuse under her shooting star, but Sheila Escovedo had already made her name––as a teenager––touring with the likes of Herbie Hancock, George Duke and Billy Cobham.
“But it was a show I played with my father a couple years before that began that really changed my life,” E. clarified, “because it showed me that not only did I want to do this, but that I was supposed to do this.”
Throughout the '80s and well into the '90s, Sheila E. solidified her status as pop royalty––not only through Billboard chart hits (“The Glamorous Life,” “A Love Bizarre”), an impressive touring resume and as an integral part of special events (such as the “We Are the World” sessions), but also as both a student and champion of the music industry.
“I love the industry,” she admitted over the phone from her manager's Los Angeles-area office. “Not just the music, the performing, but the entire industry. I love production, I love arranging and I love helping other artists. I love it all.”
And therein lies a major part of the Sheila E. story that many people don’t know.
In recent years, she has garnered a huge list of accomplishments: She served as musical director for Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez; produced and arranged for a Latin Grammy Awards and a Summer Olympics; and became the first female music director for a television program when she performed the duties for Magic Johnson's short-lived talk show.
E. has also made quite an impact as a philanthropist, as she and her business manager––Lynn Mabry––founded, funded and still administer the Elevate Hope Foundation, a charitable organization that aids abused and neglected children.
“Now you know why I feel so blessed in every aspect of my life,” E. shared. “To be in a position to help these kids is an unbelievable feeling. The music and arts therapy––especially for the kids who were abused––is so helpful.”
She credits her father, Pete Escovedo (himself a legendary musician), for her philanthropic leanings. When coupled with the musical influence he infused into his daughter, it's easy to see how dad––and her family––has had such a profound effect on her life. Which is the reason her latest musical effort––recording, performing and touring with her family (including her now 76-year-old father)––couldn't be more apropos.
“The family started playing together again because of the CD,” E. explained, referring to a 2008 recording that was to be called Love's All Around. “But sometimes things don't necessarily go as planned.”
Her offstage persona––while not a full 180 degrees––is significantly opposite the vigorous live performer with whom we're all familiar. That's not to imply that she's a wallflower, but her tone was measured and unvarying throughout our discussion, even when we broached subjects that weren't always pleasant––specifically, that scheduled release.
“I don't want to get into all the legal details,” she said, “but the label went out of business. And when they did they had my masters [recordings].”
It took E. “more than a year” to make contact with a representative of the label and even longer to get possession of her recordings.
“I eventually had to buy my masters back,” she said, “and spent a year in and out of negotiations that allowed me to do that.”
The album, the E Family's Now & Forever (available through StilettoFlats Music), is a 13-song collection that not only moves seamlessly through such disparate genres as Latin, Hip Hop, pop and jazz, but also features guest appearances from Duke, Earth Wind & Fire, Gloria Estefan and many others.
Three years can be a lifetime in the music business, especially given the fickle tastes of music consumers, but neither E. nor her brothers (Juan and Peter Michael Escovedo) felt the material needed reworking.
“None of us thought anything needed to be fixed or updated,” she said. “And, we just wanted to get the album out. It's a great summer record.”
The Escovedos have been touring in support of the release for quite some time, and audience reaction has confirmed there was no need to rework a single note.
“It took us a minute or two to sort some things out,” Sheila said laughing, as she said the E Family was going back on the road the morning after this interview. “You know, the kind of things all families face. But it's pretty awesome being with them and seeing what God has planned for us.”
E. is also scheduled to take part in the upcoming Dave Koz & Friends at Sea excursion to Alaska, which will mark the first time she has ever performed on a smooth jazz-themed cruise.
“I'm really looking forward to it,” she said excitedly, “especially since I've never done one before.”
Telling her that rumor had it she was going to participate in an on-board drum circle with many of her shipmates sparked a chuckle that quickly dissipated.
“Oh no…I'm not so sure that's going to happen now,” she said. “My father was supposed to join me in that circle, but now he's not cruising. He booked another gig for that time.”
Obviously dad's Energizer Bunny bloodline courses through E.'s veins. At 53, she shows absolutely no signs of slowing down.
“I don't exercise or work out as much as I used to––but I should,” she added emphatically. “The day after I'm jumping around onstage acting like I'm still 20, I'm usually in a lot of pain.”
But, like so many current directions in her life, E.'s family even plays a major role in her physical well-being. “My sister is a masseuse,” she added. And these days Sheila E. wouldn't have it any other way.
For more information on Sheila E., including her touring schedule, visit www.sheilae.com. To make a donation to her foundation, visit www.elevatehope.org.
Aug. 6, 8 p.m.
with Dave Koz—Hello Tomorrow tour
Murat Theatre at Old National Centre
502 N. New Jersey St.
with Dave Koz & Friends
2301 N Highland Ave.
Aug. 26-Sept. 2
Dave Koz & Friends at Sea–Alaska
Aboard Royal Caribbean’s Rhapsody of the Seas
Ports of call: Seattle, Washington; Juneau, Skagway and Tracy Arm Fjord, Alaska; and Victoria, British Columbia
www.davekozcruise.com, (800) 225-5759
1984 The Glamorous Life (Warner Bros.)
1985 Romance 1600 (Warner Bros.)
1987 Sheila E. (Warner Bros.)
1991 Sex Cymbal (Warner Bros.)
2000 Writes of Passage (Concord Records)
2001 Heaven (Concord Records)
2011 Now and Forever (with the E Family) (StilettoFlats Music)