It was the moment the BET Awards audience had been waiting for the whole evening. Sheila E. ripping ferociously into the opening drum beats of “Housequake” signaled that the most personal of the night’s memorable Prince tributes was about to go down.
“I knew we were going to sit there and cry,” says Sheila E. of reconnecting with former New Power Generation bandmates, backup singers and dancers when tribute rehearsals began. “And that’s exactly what happened,” continues Prince’s longtime collaborator. “So I said let’s just play first and we started jamming.”
That jamming, Prince fans will be pleased to learn, inspired the group to write a new song about the icon that Sheila E. describes as “funky.” Once everyone’s respective parts are completed, she plans to feature the song on the solo album she is releasing later this year. The project is named after Sheila E.’s new ballad, “Girl Meets Boy.” Both the single and its official video were released June 27 through www.sheilae.com.
In the following as-told-to, Sheila E. outlines the thought process behind her lauded tribute, which culminated with a rainfall of purple flower petals and the performer holding one of Prince’s guitars above her head. “It wasn’t about us taking a bow,” she explains. “This was for him.”
The first group of tribute songs I had selected were based on who was going to be in the band and who I could feature; people like Chaka Khan, Larry Graham, Morris Day & the Time or the Revolution. All of that was in play initially. When I put out the ask, not everyone was available to do it or felt they weren’t ready. I understood everyone’s position and respected it because I almost felt the same way.
Then I asked who else was doing the show and was told D’Angelo, Janelle Monae and Stevie Wonder. I thought that would be cool if they did a song with me as well. At one point, I wanted Stevie to sing “U Got the Look” to Janelle. But then everyone decided to do their own thing. And I have no idea what happened with D’Angelo. So I called in not just my band but members of the New Power Generation including keyboardist Morris Hayes. I also called backup singers Shelby Johnson, Liv Warield, Lynn Mabry and Elisa Fiorello plus dancers Mayte [Garcia, Prince’s ex-wife] and the twins (sisters Maya and Nandy McClean). Jerome Benton (The Time) came in at the last minute on Thursday.
I chose songs I was already doing in my shows that Prince and I had collaborated on and written together. I also thought I should start off on the drums with “Housequake” because I knew everybody would appreciate that song. Then the rest of the order came naturally. When I showed BET my list, there were two songs we agreed on: “Housequake” and “Erotic City.” They wanted me to end with “Glamorous Life,” but I said absolutely not.
That’s because I wanted to build up to end with “Baby I’m a Star” or “America” because that’s how we used to do it everyone on stage. I did have the Time’s “Cool” because they were trying to get Morris Day. I thought we should do that because it’s a big audience participation song. But I was already at almost eight minutes and they had given me seven.
We had a total of about 2 ½ days of rehearsal, Friday was camera blocking and we played Sunday. There wasn’t a lot of time to put everything together. I was trying to find videos to help us remember the dances we used to do. That’s also why I got the twins as there were some things we’d done that were already choreographed.
I knew it was going to be very emotional on the first day of rehearsal. We were sound checking all of the instruments, which takes about two-three hours for setup. By the time we all got together, I said a prayer and then I knew we were going to sit there and cry. It took about 45 minutes to an hour for us to pull it together.
It was the first time we’d been together as a family since all this happened. Everyone is still in disbelief; there’s been no closure yet. Saying goodbye to him just hasn’t happened yet. It’s hard.
Emotionally, people don’t really understand what this means to us and how it’s affected us. Someone showed me a T-shirt today that said something like “It’s a Prince thing.” You had to be in the family to really get it. This process has been draining, fulfilling and healing.
—As told to Gail Mitchell