Women in Music 2016

Sheila E. Looks Back on Prince: Their Collaborations, Engagement & Lifelong Love

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Sheila E. and Prince perform onstage during the 2007 NCLR ALMA Awards held at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium on June 1, 2007 in Pasadena, Calif.

It’s safe to say that Sheila E. had a relationship with Prince unlike any other.

He worked with hundreds (if not thousands) of musicians, had many friends and several long-term romances, but none combined all three, or lasted as long, as his relationship with her. 

Sheila Escovedo comes from a musical family -- she’s the daughter of Pete Escovedo, a veteran percussionist who played with Santana and many others -- and she herself was already an accomplished percussionist when she first met Prince, having worked with jazz artists Herbie Hancock and George Duke (and later with soul stars Marvin Gaye and Lionel Richie). The two became friends and would frequently jam together, but their first recorded collaboration emerged in 1984 with “Erotic City” -- the B-side of the Hot 100 No. 1 single “Let’s Go Crazy” and a radio hit itself. From there, he launched her career -- in a fashion similar to the way he launched The Time, Vanity 6 and Apollonia 6 and others -- but with a level of respect that he’d later show with more-established artists on his Paisley Park label, like Mavis Staples and George Clinton

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She released three albums in as many years -- The Glamorous Life, Romance 1600 and Sheila E. -- but, as she describes below, she grew tired of being a solo artist and decided to join Prince’s band as drummer/singer. Their romance, which had been on since the Purple Rain Tour, grew -- to the extent that Prince proposed to her one night in Europe in 1987 when the band was in the middle of playing “Purple Rain.” But the grueling, six-month-long 1988-89 Lovesexy Tour put a strain on the relationship, and Sheila parted company with Prince and the band shortly after it ended. But they remained close and she’d frequently guest with him onstage over the years, most recently in 2011. 

It’s all in her 2015 memoir The Beat of My Own Drum, but Prince's death on April 21 at the age of 57 casts a very different light on things. Below is an edited version of Billboard’s conversation with her, via phone from Minneapolis, on Friday (April 22).

When did you first meet Prince?
I met him in San Francisco after his first record came out. But I’d heard about him before that, because my dad was playing with Santana at the time and they were working in the same studio. They were talking about this young kid who was in the other room, playing all the instruments and producing and writing by himself. 

Later, I walked into a record store and saw a poster of him and was like, “Oh my God, he's beautiful.” I bought the record, and I had a friend who worked at the store and she gave me the poster -- I actually have a picture of me standing next to it. 

When he played San Francisco I went to the show and I was looking for the guy with the big afro who was so gorgeous. I got there a little late, and onstage there was a guy that kind of looked like him playing bass [Andre Cymone], and the other guy had long flowing hair and was wearing a trench coat with leg-warmers and underwear. I was like, “Is that him?” I was a little shocked, but his music was pretty cool so I went backstage to introduce myself. He saw me coming -- he was combing his hair in the mirror -- and I put my hand out and said, “Hi, my name is --" and he said, “I know who you are. I've been following your career for a long time. You're an amazing drummer and percussionist.” I had been playing with Herbie Hancock and George Duke and doing session work. We traded numbers and became friends. 

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People always say he was shy, but that doesn’t sound shy at all. 
No, he wasn't. With more than a few people in a room he gets very shy and quiet, but he was far from what everyone sees. Everyone always asks me “Who is that man you knew that we didn't?,” and there's a lot about him that you guys didn't get to see that's pretty fun. He just didn't show that side of himself to the public. 

What was your first collaboration, “Erotic City”?
Yes, I think it was the first one. We jammed together a lot all those years, starting in the late ‘70s, at my house in Oakland when I lived there -- I had a piano and a bass and drums and guitar in my bedroom, next to my waterbed. 

What was it like recording your early albums with him?
We were in the studio every single day, just hanging out and playing, and he was writing music for other people and I’d help him. The Glamorous Life was done in a week -- we’d stay up until five and six in the morning recording, go home for a couple of hours, come back and start playing again. Next thing you know, seven days later, the record’s done. That's how to do a record. 

Why did you decide to join his band instead of focusing on your solo career?
My solo career started in early ’84. I was the opener on the Purple Rain Tour, and I remember him coming to see my rehearsal, and we had it pretty down. I remember him walking out -- I knew I’d kicked his butt; I was like, "I got him! I got him this time!" -- and by the time he got into the car they had called an emergency meeting with the Revolution: “Set up the gear, as soon as I fly in we're going to start rehearsing.” He just said, “I can't allow Sheila to be better than me.” 

After the Purple Rain Tour, I toured Europe for two months on my own, then I did the Krush Groove movie and then I opened for Lionel Richie in ‘86 -- and I was exhausted. I just wanted to play the drums. Prince was listening to me say that one day and said, “I'm getting ready to change my band -- you want to play?” That was it -- I joined the band and then we started the Sign O’ the Times Tour. 

So you actually joined Prince's band -- one of the hardest-working bands in the world -- to take a break. 
Exactly. How insane is that? 

You were in the band during that 1987 New Year’s Eve show at Paisley Park when Miles Davis sat in. What was that like? 
Oh, it was a lot of fun. We first met Miles at one of his shows. After the Purple Rain Tour my bass player, Benny Rietveld, started playing with Miles, and we went to one of his shows and hung out with him, and [he said] he would be here in Minneapolis. We had dinner at Prince's house and to hear Miles talk, in his coarse voice, “Yeah, Prince told me you was a bad mother.“ Well okay, thank you, Miles, for that compliment!

It seems like you had a different relationship with him than just about anybody -- there weren’t many people in his bands that he treated as peers. 
He did, absolutely. We were equals. 

Is it true Prince proposed to you onstage during the Sign O’ the Times tour?
Yeah, it was during “Purple Rain.” There were a couple of songs that I really loved, and sometimes in the middle of playing “Purple Rain,” like, my eyes are closed and I don’t know where I am and I don't know that I'm in front of 20 or 30,000 people. Prince turned around and looked at me -- we knew we had connected, we had gone to that peak musically -- and he proposed.

How long had you been dating?
It was all during Purple Rain

Was he seeing Wendy Melvoin’s twin sister Susannah [who he dated in 1984-86] at the same time? 
Yeah, he was -- which I didn't know! That's why private is private. 

How long were you engaged? 
This is the thing: we were together for so long I don't really know when we weren't. We always loved each other. He really did care for me. 

Why did you leave the band? 
I knew towards the end of the [1988-89] Lovesexy Tour that I was going to leave. Things were changing, the new music he was writing didn't feel right for me -- lyrically it was not saying much, he was cursing again and I had stopped cursing, and where was the melody? And I just didn't want to be around him.

We both took it hard. It was the hardest [breakup] I ever had, because I had to break up with my best friend. It was like a divorce. It was horrible. 

But a few years later you began performing with him again occasionally. 
I'd come back and play here and there, sometimes I’d play the full two hours. 

Were you still close?
Oh yeah, absolutely. Just as close, hanging out, but in a totally different way.  

When was the last time you played with him? 
I think it was four or five years ago, during the 21 Nights [residency] at the Forum in L.A. [in 2011]. I don’t really know the last time I spoke with him, maybe within the year, maybe eight months. To me it seems like it was last week, but that's part of our relationship -- sometimes we wouldn't talk for a long period of time and then start talking like it was yesterday.
 
I don't even know what's going on in the world since I heard the news. It's too surreal. It’s weird enough being in Paisley Park, walking in there and smelling him and him not being there. It broke my heart.