“I used to play until my hands would bleed… It got to the point where I had to warm up on a concrete wall, or a surface that was very strong, so that I could numb my hands before I went on stage because it was that painful.”
Her hands are bloody, her back is sore, her schedule is gruelling: it’s the life Sheila E. can’t live without.
It’s taken millions of beats, but Sheila E. (born Sheila Escovedo) has established herself as one of the greatest percussionists in the world. Many see her as one of the greatest female drummers of all-time, but she ranks anywhere regardless of gender.
When I watch great drummers play I often think the same thing, “No matter how much I practice, I will never be able to do that.” It seems like some people can accomplish the impossible when it comes to music. With Sheila E., though, you can catch a glimpse at how one obtains that musical je ne sais quoi. For her, rhythm is a second language, she learned to understand the beat in the same way you and I learn to speak our mother tongue.
Before Sheila E. was able to walk, she was studying music and learning how to keep time. Born in Oakland, California in 1957, Sheila E. is part of a grand musical lineage. Her father, Pete Escovedo, is a master percussionist from Mexico who once fronted the successful Latin fusion group, Azteca. He used to play with Carlos Santana, and has toured the world with Stevie Wonder. Her godfather is one of the most famous percussionists ever, Tito Puente. And, numerous brothers and uncles are highly skilled players. Sheila E. spent her formative years growing up around constant music being played by incredible musicians. She soaked it all in, joined in, and developed in to a formidable player.
At age 15, she made her live debut when her father’s conga player fell sick. Sheila E. filled in for the tour, fell in love with playing live, and everything spiralled from there.
Since the late 70s, Sheila E. has accomplished a great deal in the music industry. From that first live performance she would go on to play on numerous recordings and tour with the likes of George Duke, Marvin Gaye, Herbie Hancock, Ringo Starr and Diana Ross.
Perhaps her most definitive collaboration, however, has been with musical icon, Prince. After a concert with her father’s band in 1978, the pair met and decided to work together. At that time Prince was also an up and coming artist and the two began to collaborate and developed a dynamic musical chemistry. Sheila E. went on to record with Prince during his Purple Rain album and tour. In turn, Prince also helped Sheila launch her own solo career. He helped her transition from a just a player to an all around performer.
In 1984 Sheila E. released her debut solo album “The Glamourous Life.” The album’s title track became a top 10 hit and propelled Sheila E. into the spotlight.
Sheila E., the artist, is known for playing in decadent outfits, rocking high heels on the drums, and creating a show full of sexy swagger.
Several other hits followed, along with other solo records, and albums with her family (called the E. Family). Sheila E. continues to leave her mark in the industry to this day.
She’s also expanded beyond music and acted in films like Krush Groove, and appeared on various TV shows. She’s committed to being an all round entertained.
Like most great artists, words cannot do justice to what they do. You have to watch to understand. Below is a clip of Sheila E. performing a drum solo in 2011 as part of David Letterman’s drum solo week.
Currently Sheila E. is playing a string of solo shows across the world and is prepping a new solo record and autobiography for the near future.
There is much I WANNA KNOW from one of time’s great keepers. I reached Sheila E. by phone from her home in California.
From playing drums in high heels, to what it means to be an entertainer, to playing a glass bottle on a Michael Jackson record, to gender and music, we cover it all.
. . .
Ryan Kohls: Before we discuss the music, I just wanted to talk about something that happened recently that’s been on my mind. And, that’s the fight between Amir Khan and Danny Garcia. I saw you tweeted about that. What did you think of the fight?
Sheila E.: I really wanted Khan to win, only because I look at him as a good fighter; his morals and how he expresses and composes himself. He’s a good fighter and has a good heart. Not that Garcia doesn’t, the part that makes him bad is because of his Dad, which is just unnecessary. It’s association and is a reflection of him.
RK: So, you’re a legit boxing fan aren’t you?
SE: Yeah. I watch some of the fights because of my Dad.
RK: You’ve been touring all over the world for your recent gigs. What have been some of the highlights so far?
SE: Definitely being able to play some countries I haven’t played in a very long time. The response has been overwhelming. A lot of people told me they hadn’t seen me since the 80s. So, I put together a show that played a lot of the old music and every single song it was great to hear people singing along.
RK: You’ve played countless shows in your career. Is the thrill still there for you every night?
SE: Oh, absolutely. Every time I perform it feels like the very first time I’ve played. I’m that excited. I have that much passion in my heart to still play. I’m excited, I’m nervous, I get butterflies, all of the above. I look forward to being able to share the gift that God’s given me. I haven’t done a record in so long, so to be able to last this long and play all over the world still, it’s pretty amazing.
RK: Is playing music live something you couldn’t live without?
SE: I like performing live, but the great thing about my life is that I’m able to do a lot of things at the same time. I’m in the music industry and business, so my hands are in something all the time, whether it’s in the studio or putting projects together. It would be hard not to play live, but there are times when I say it’s going to be challenging to continue to do this, at this rate, when I forget how old I am. Sometimes after a show I go, “Ow, that hurt.”
RK: You were tweeting recently that you jammed too long with George Clinton the other night. Is that the kind of overplaying you’re talking about?
SE: Yeah, you get excited, you start playing, you get in the zone, and you forget what happens. A lot of times I don’t even remember I’m playing in front of a live audience. With that show, we were at a place where we were on a stage in the middle of a lake. After awhile you don’t see anybody and have a great time. I think that’s what makes it so cool. I’m having a such a great time, and I think the audience feels that as well.
RK: A review in Variety from the Playboy Jazz Festival said you, “expended the most sheer physical energy of anyone to rouse the crowd” Your show is clearly action packed, but what do you want the audience to experience when they see you live?
SE: Well, I definitely like to entertain. I’m an entertainer in the sense that I’m not just a musician, I like to entertain. That means, overall, a little bit of everything. One of the people I really looked up to as an entertainer was Sammy Davis Jr. He was able to do everything. He’d go onstage and talk to the people and do impressions. He was able to play different instruments, he did movies, TV shows; he did it all. I like to do that. My family kind of grew up doing that. We grew up performing in front of the family and it’s a huge family, so it was always like a big huge party. We put on the music and entertained each other with different art forms like music and dancing. The entertainment value is very important to me, to not only play the music, but visually you have to see something is going on. What I try to get across is that I enjoy doing what I do, and I’m so excited people come to support me and enjoy the pleasure that I get. There’s so much music in me, so many genres I grew up playing, and it never gets old. I joke and say I’ve played everything but Polka, but that’s actually not true, I’ve played that as well.
RK: Why do you place so much value in using your life to be an entertainer?
SE: I don’t know anyone that doesn’t love music. I know that God has given us all different gifts and talents and if we use it to make people happy. That’s part of my mo to bless someone every day, at least one person, and make them smile. That’s what we’re supposed to do.
RK: Part of becoming a great performer involved stepping on a few toes and treating people in ways you’ve had to since apologize for. How do you balance between being a perfectionist and a friendly person to work with?
SE: It’s still challenging. It will always be that way. I used to think I was in control and I was a perfectionist. After a while I realized I’m not in control, God is in control, and he’s given me every ability I have. At this point, it’s like, somethings don’t happen and now I think maybe they weren’t supposed to happen. I can sit here and say I thought of everything myself, but it’s not true, I have a team around me.
I said that I was a diva back in the day, and I think there should be a different definition now where it’s seen as more divine as opposed to being evil. I can demand things, but demanding could be looked at as a way of asking instead of telling. It’s just the way you change the words and speak.
RK: A big part of Sheila E. the entertainer was being able to play drums in your 6 inch high heels. That choice led to some health problems for you and forced you to stop wearing them on stage. I noticed, however, that you were wearing them again when you did your solo on David Letterman. Have you developed a way to wear them and not damage your body?
SE: I play the timables standing up in my heels, but when I sit down and play drums I have to take them off because I messed up my back. But, on the David Letterman performance I did wear the heels for that show.
It’s not healthy to wear heels, but Dave asked me to come play that show, and you’ve got millions of people watching, and you’re the only woman, I had to represent and show the guys.
RK: Speaking of that solo. I’ve always wondered what is going on in the mind of a drummer during a solo like that. When you riff are you improvising and feeling the groove, or is each stroke calculated beforehand?
SE: The funny thing about that solo was I just sent 16 bars from one of the songs my family plays to Paul Shaffer and said I’d like to play this and we’ll figure it out when I get there. The day of the show we were doing soundcheck and we ran the 16 bars, and I said let’s loop this, stop here, and then I’ll just go for it. I told them to just let me know when there was two minutes left and I’d just end it. That was it.
And, mostly everything I do is spontaneous. Nothing is written out.
RK: I’ve played drums for a long time now, and I find it to be deeply satisfying, but it’s still hard to articulate why. How, if you can, would you describe the emotions you feel when you play drums?
SE: In the second grade there was a band that used to play near our house. They used to play a lot of James Brown songs, and I love James Brown, and I remember every time I heard the drummer play a beat and I heard the snare drum, I thought, I want to play drums. There was something about it. When I was younger I used to listen to my Dad play. When he used to have his band come over, I loved the percussion, and I finally got to jump on the drums when my Dad’s band would take a break or something, I’d get on it for two seconds, play something, and then leave. When I really first started playing I was so excited because it made me happy. I loved the sound of it. In playing drums, if I thought about what I was playing I’d probably mess up, but it was something that I could express myself in a way that I could unite with the band and be a part of something that became one. And, I was the one responsible to take everyone to the different sections. I counted everyone in, and I had that responsibility of getting into these grooves, in the pockets of Latin and Funk. I just loved it. It really is hard to explain though other than saying I knew it was something I was destined to do.
RK: You play three different percussion instruments – the drum kit, the timbales, and the congas. What is the main difference in playing each of those?
SE: They’re completely different, but each of them are very demanding physically. On the drums you’re using all four of your limbs, and for me I sit down and sing at the same time. When you’re playing the congas it’s all physical. You’re using your legs because you’re holding the drums and you have to play with passion and power. You are the time keeper, especially in salsa bands. You’re almost the drummer. With timbales it’s very similar and demanding.
Growing up playing with George Duke, and playing congas and percussion, I used to play until my hands would bleed. We played every single day but it didn’t matter. It got to the point where I had to warm up on a concrete wall, or a surface that was very strong, so that I could numb my hands before I went on stage because it was that painful. But to me, the pain after awhile you kind of forgot about it until we played a slow song and I wouldn’t play for a few songs and then I’d go back to play and you’d hit something and it would feel like your hand was an open sore. That was demanding and it took a lot and a lot of people don’t know that. You have to build up calluses on your hands. And, I had to adapt to play congas in a different way. I play with my wrists as opposed to playing with my arms. These are things I did automatically because I never took a lesson, I just learned from watching.
RK: Would it possible to pick one of the three as your favorite to play?
SE: No, they are equally as important depending on what music I’m playing.
RK: When you first started playing you received a lot of negativity from male musicians. They didn’t think a woman should be playing drums. Do you still think there’s a lot of repression towards female musicians?
SE: Yes, I do. I think it’s changed a little bit, but I still talk to women who are musicians, and not just drummers, and they all say to me it’s still a struggle for them. They feel they have to do more, try harder, for people to accept them and say, “Hey, it’s not that she plays good for a girl, she’s just a great musician.”
RK: We both play the same brand of shiny grey DW drums. I know you have a sponorship with DW, and may be obligated to say so, but do you think they’re the best drums in the world?
SE: Absolutely. I’ve only been with two companies. The first company was Yamaha, I love Yamaha drums, and when I switched to DW I loved them to. I think they’re both incredible. I have drummers that play different drum brands and I love their sound as well, but when I sit down it creates my sound. I think it’s to each their own though.
RK: You’ve had the pleasure of playing with some of the all-time greats. Perhaps one of your lesser known collaborations though was playing a glass bottle on Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Til’ You Get Enough” record. When you re-listen to the track for that, it’s actually a hook on the song. Can you tell me about how that collaboration came to be?
SE: I don’t really say that much about it because I’ve known Michael’s family for a very long time. I’ve known them since the late 70s. When I finally did this record I was very excited about it but then they took me off some of the stuff and ended up replacing some of my tracks. It’s because it took so long to do it, and every time they added something the whole song changed, and they ended up forgetting to put my name on the record, that was like, “really?”
RK: Along with all the success you’ve had in your life, there have also been some very challenging low points. The creation of your foundation “Elevate Hope” seems to be your way of giving back to young people who have experienced similar forms of abuse. Can you tell me a little bit about the organization and what you’re trying to accomplish with it?
SE: My friend and I, Lynn Mabry, started that foundation about fifteen years ago because we were playing a bunch of shows and everywhere I went I wanted to give a donation to foster care facility there. So, we ended up making a legitimate company and started the foundation. What we do is raise money and use music and arts as therapy to help the kids. We figured that there are so many public schools where music and arts are being taken out, it’s horrible. But for the kids in foster care they have even less than those in public schools. So, we started going to different places and sponsoring teachers, or giving them instruments, from violins, to drums, to guitar. We helped gut rooms and build full blown studios for them. It’s been great because a lot of the kids have told us once they graduated from these facilities that if we didn’t help them they would probably be dead. That’s the biggest compliment ever . It’s even just saving one child at a time makes a difference. It was hard to say no sometimes because we couldn’t do it all at one time. It takes a lot and we’re always going to need help and donations.
RK: You have an extremely accomplished and eclectic resume. Is there anything else you’d like to achieve professionally?
SE: There’s a ton of stuff. My bucket list is huge. The great things about it is that I keep checking stuff off, and every time I do I add a few more things. But, I do have a book coming out next year called “From Pain to Purpose.” And, I do want to do some movies and television. There are some things in the works. I could have the best plans in the world, but then God could steer me in a completely different direction.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON SHEILA E:
1) Check out her official webiste at: www.sheilae.com
2) Check out her Elevate Hope foundation at: www.elevatehope.org