Sheila E. Courtesy, Calgary Folk Music Festival.
In 2016, Sheila E. sprang into action.
Which is not to say that the musician had been idle up to that point.The percussionist and singer, whose real name is Sheila Escovedo, had a full plate. In fact, at the time she was working simultaneously on two very different albums. One was a joyful dance record. The other was inspired by the tragic death of her friend and mentor, Prince, who had passed away earlier that year.
But things were heating up in her country. Donald Trump was on the campaign trail and would eventually win the presidency. For Escovedo, his rhetoric and behaviour cut deep. Grief gave way to outrage. She needed to craft a response. Quickly.
“I was very offended by the things that were being said about people of colour and about just being disrespected as an American,” says Escovedo, who will play the Calgary Folk Music Festival on Friday. “I thought it was just disgraceful and I didn’t have the time to write the album that I would have liked to. I decided to back and listen to songs that I grew up listening to that were still relevant to what was happening in our country now. There are a lot of amazing songs that were written at a time when we had already gone through all this. We’re sitting here going through it again. It’s crazy.”
The resulting double album, Iconic: Message 4 America, is mostly made up of covers and came out in 2017, back when the president’s divisive comments and behaviour still had the ability to shock.
As a testament to the reverence Escovedo holds in the industry, she was able to bring in some high-profile guests to help out. That’s Ringo Starr bashing away on the drums on the Beatles classic Come Together. Israel Houghton steps in to sing Stevie Wonder’s Jesus Children of America. George Clinton sings on his own One Nation Under A Groove, which was a big hit for Funkadelic back in 1978. Freddie Stone takes the lead on Everyday People, which was written by his brother Sly for Sly and the Family Stone. Bootsy Collins lets loose on a James Brown medley.
Two years later, she still plays some of those songs on stage, although they are usually mixed in with a healthy dose of material from throughout her four-decade career. Escovedo comes from musical royalty. Her dad is Pete Escovedo, an iconic percussionist who played with Santana and backed Stevie Wonder. Singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo is her uncle, as is Javier Escovedo of pioneering California punkers The Zeros.
Still, Escovedo had her eye on a very different path early on. She was a dedicated sprint runner and wanted to compete in the Olympics. But everything changed at the age of 15 after she made her professional debut with her father’s band, Azteca, in San Francisco in front of 3,000 people.
“Two weeks later I started going out on tour with my dad at 15 and never turned back,” she says. “They were a band signed to CBS by Clive Davis. They were already touring with The Sensations, Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind and Fire. It was an incredible, high-energy, powerful band, an 18-piece or more. To be able to play with that calibre of musicians in a band, to raise yourself to that level, I had never experienced before. It was a spiritual experience and I just knew after performing and playing a solo that my dad asked me to play, that this was something that was in me and I had no idea it was that deep.”
Sheila E. at the Essence Festival in New Orleans.
So, she was already a wily veteran when she met Prince at an Al Jarreau concert in 1978. He would eventually help usher in what was arguably the highest-profile period of her career. She played on Prince’s Erotic City, the B-side for Let’s Go Crazy, and joined the Minneapolis icon on his Purple Rain tour as the opening act behind her own debut, 1984’s The Glamorous Life. She joined Prince’s band for his 1987 Sign O’ the Times tour. That was when Prince proposed to her, just as the band was kicking into the ballad Purple Rain. They never did marry and she left both Prince’s band and Prince himself in the late 1980s, although the two remained close until his death.
Escovedo covers all of this in her 2014 memoir, Beat of My Own Drum, a book that also included harrowing accounts of the sexual abuse she endured as a child. She plans to write a followup that will offer behind-the-scenes details about her career, a separate book about abuse and some children’s lit.
“There are a bunch of projects in the works and I just need to sit down and have the time to finish them,” she says. “It’s just sharing my story. It’s sharing the stories and maybe people can learn from my mistakes. I’m not perfect and I’ve learned from my experiences. I take full responsibility for the decisions I’ve made based on what has happened to me in the past. It’s pretty interesting and maybe I can help someone with their life and their story.”
Meanwhile, she continues to collaborate. She has a new single coming out with Snoop Dogg and has recently worked with Cee Lo Green and Macy Gray. Escovedo also played percussion on Gary Clark Jr.’s politically charged album This Land, released earlier this year.
“The fellowship, the friendship, the collaboration; there’s a thing where you really love someone and respect them and you don’t mind being around certain people that are encouraging,” she says. “Great music is a key as well. I don’t say yes to everything and everyone. When someone brings a project, I always listen to it first and see if I can add to it or be a part of something. If it’s something that’s very negative, I turn it down. Good music, good artists, good musicians and friendships draw me to those projects.”
Sheila E. plays the main stage on Friday night at 8:50 p.m. at Prince’s Island Park as part of the Calgary Folk Music Festival.