Music remains a family affair for percussionist-drummer Sheila E

[27 June 2008]

By Jon Bream

Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

Sheila E was coming to Minnesota for a wedding recently so she decided to bring her family band along - not to play at her godson’s reception but to do a rare club engagement.

“We are gigging a lot lately,” Sheila said of the E Family that features her father, Latin jazz legend Pete Escovedo, 72, and her two brothers, Juan and Peter Michael.

“It’s almost like coming into our living room,” Sheila, 49, said recently from her Los Angeles office. “We don’t rehearse because we just play by ear. That’s what’s so cool because it’s very spontaneous.”

The E Family played some tunes from its forthcoming debut album, “Love’s All Around.” But the band didn’t bring any of the special guests from the recording such as Joss Stone, Gloria Estefan, Earth, Wind & Fire, Alejandro Escovedo (Sheila’s uncle) or Prince.

Sheila is well known to Prince fans. She met him in 1978 when he was recording his debut album in Sausalito, Calif. In 1984, she recorded the first of her three albums that he produced and then drummed in his band from 1987-89 for the “Sign o’ the Times” and “Lovesexy” albums and tours.

Unlike most of Prince’s other former bandmates, he still turns to her from time to time. She joined him onstage last year in Minneapolis for all three of the shows in his 7/7/07 celebration and again this April at the Coachella Festival.

“Musically, we have a bond, we understand each other,” she said. “There’s times we get out of the way and sometimes we get in each other’s way. But I think the respect that we have for each other works.”

Sheila Escovedo grew up with musical instruments all over the house. Latin percussion giant Tito Puente was her godfather and her dad, Pete Escovedo, was a big-time percussionist, who played with Santana, Cal Tjader, Woody Herman, Puente and his own band, Azteca.

Three of his four children became percussionists.

“That’s Pop’s fault,” laughed Sheila, who took violin lessons for five years as a child in San Francisco. “We grew up listening to him play around the house. He practiced to records all the time. And if his band wasn’t rehearsing, they’d have jam sessions in our living room all the time. So pretty much the percussion instruments - timbales, congas, bongos hand toys - were set out in the house as part of the furniture most of the time.”

One night, when Sheila was 15, one of the percussionists in Azteca was sick. She asked her father if she could sit in. At one point during the set, he turned to her to take a solo. She didn’t know what to do but she just closed her eyes and played.

“It was an overwhelming experience because I’d never been able to express myself in that way,” she recalled. “To be onstage with 16 musicians in a band signed to CBS in front of 3,000 people, for me, it was as if there was an out of body experience. If this is what heaven was supposed to feel like, then I wanted to feel like this every day. When I was done, I opened my eyes and the people were roaring and a standing ovation. I don’t remember the solo. I looked at Pops and he looked at me and his mouth had just dropped open.

“When we got offstage, he said, ‘I can’t deny you what you already know. I don’t even know how you know all the things you just did tonight.’ I said, ‘I didn’t know either. What happened?’”

Then and there, Sheila knew that she was going to give up on her dream of being an Olympic sprinter and accept percussionist as her calling.

Over the years, the percussionist/drummer has compiled a staggering resume, having worked with Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Herbie Hancock, Celine Dion, Poison, Mariah Carey, Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston, LeAnn Rimes, Gloria Estefan and Ringo Starr (being the only artist to be invited on three of his All-Starr tours). Sheila also was the bandleader on Magic Johnson’s talk show in 1998 and a judge last fall on Fox’s “The Next Great American Band.”

These days, Sheila is part of a band called C.O.E.D. (Chronicles of Every Diva) with former Prince players Kat Dyson and Rhonda Smith. And she is very active in several charities, especially her Elevate Hope Foundation to help abused children with therapy through music and the arts. Her Web site ( devotes a section to her foundation, explaining how she was abused as a child by a babysitter.

Her Web site also focuses on some lighter subjects, including Sheila’s obsession with shoes. There is a gallery of photos of some favorite high-heels. How can she play drums with those five-inch heels?

“When my back went out in 1990 - in Minneapolis I think it was - that was it; I had to stop playing in heels as far as the drum set,” she said. “Playing timbales in heels, it doesn’t bother me. I like to stand tall and play standing up like that.”

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