In honor of the 2017 American Music Awards, Billboard is counting down the best performances from the awards show’s history. Here is no. No. 3.
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Sheila E. was already staking out her own spot in music by playing drums in sessions for Herbie Hancock and George Duke. Her father, also an accomplished percussionists with stints playing with Santana under his belt, passingly mentioned Prince, a young artist with whom he was sharing a recording studio, and remarked on his solitary drive to write, record and produce his album For You entirely on his own.
“Later, I walked into a record store and saw a poster of him and was like, “Oh my God, he’s beautiful,” she told Bilboard in 2016. “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.”
The fascination, she found, was mutual. After meeting him backstage, they quickly became close friends and collaborators. But unlike a lot of Prince’s band members and collaborators, which he often used to support his singular vision, the creativity between him and Sheila E. flowed in both directions: She worked with him through the Purple Rain sessions and he helped write and record her debut The Glamorous Life in under a week. He saw her as an equal, even if the curiosity that followed Sheila E.’s solo career was largely based on the idea that she was one of his discoveries.
Sheila E.’s associations with other notable acts was made apparent immediately before she took the AMAs stage in 1985: Her former bandleader Lionel Ritchie introduced the performance of “The Glamorous Life,” a Prince-penned tune and her only Top 10 hit (charting at No. 7 in October 1984, when Purple Rain‘s “Let’s Go Crazy” sat at the top), right after the man coyly accepted the questionably-titled award for “Favorite Black Album” with the Revolution. But in the space of her four-minute performance, any belief that her fame was owed to those acts was completely set aside by her unspeakably fiery drumming and enthusiastic band-leading. Standing before a cocktail percussion kit, Sheila E. sang and drummed through the chorus as her rhythm section hopped and shimmied around her. From there, she let her frontwoman side loose, stepping out from the drums with a kick to her cymbal and syncing with her band’s shuffles. Halfway through, she thanked the audience as a tuxedo-clad stage hand draped a long mink-fur coat around her shoulders and headed toward the stairs upstage, seemingly leaving the band to play her off. Instead, the lights cut out and she returned, glow-in-the dark drumsticks in hand, to put on a light show with her incredible drum fills.
Sheila E.’s AMA performance marked only a brief break from the exhaustive Purple Rain Tour — for which she was opening — that initiated nearly two years of nonstop touring behind The Glamorous Life and its follow-up, Romance 1600. Taking a “break” from the solo-artist spotlight, she joined Prince’s band full-time. While that tour would bottleneck her close working and romantic relationship with Prince, it also returned her to a robust career as a side player, one that would find her playing with and leading bands for the likes of Marc Anthony, Beyonce and Hans Zimmer. Her “Glamorous Life” performance here is one of the few enduring moments Sheila E.’s vivacious, unencumbered talent is on full display — and shadowed by no one else’s.
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The 2017 American Music Awards will broadcast live from the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on Sunday, Nov. 19 at 8 p.m. EST on ABC