Top-tier artists always seek to surround themselves with the best—it’s how excellence maintains its longevity. Make that cream stay at the top, right? Welp, Sheila Escovedo, born in Oakland and raised in the Bay Area and who performs under the world-famous stage name Sheila E., started her career at the age of 15. She went on to become a one-of-one supernova, a continually sought-after musician. George Duke, Santana, and Herbie Hancock knew what was up, placing her in their outfits. The whole world followed suit.
Sheila E’s superpower? The ability to find intricate polyrhythms, the notes not seen on the chart, and showcase them in all genres of music. That’s what made Shelia E. the multi-instrumentalist, Grammy Award-nominated singer-songwriter, actress, mentor, and philanthropist she is today. Ringo Starr of the Beatles had her join his all-star band numerous times. What does that mean? She single-handedly catapulted the vocation of drummer to new and unseen heights. Shining for a damn Beatle, folks. That’s weight.
She was born into what some would call the first family of rhythm. We can start with her father Pete Escovedo, but in effect that home network includes a staggering list of percussionists. They include former Santana member and Azteca founder Coke Escovedo, The Dragons frontman Mario Escovedo, and her godfather, Tito Puente, who was largely responsible for popularizing Latin dance music in America. Growing up in the Bay Area, musical talent whorled all around young Sheila: Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Pointer Sisters, and the funk of Sly & the Family Stone.
Sheila E. and the E-Train will be playing for free on Sat/7 at the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater as part of the Due South concerts being put on by Noise Pop Presents and SF Parks Alliance. Accessible seating is available through reservations here.
While there is still some time in the fading summer, you should sit back and revisit some highlights from this master musician’s career.
Catch a good beat …
PETE ESCOVEDO & SHEILA ESCOVEDO, “BOLINAS” (1978)
This song comes from the reissue of Solo Two/Happy Together, which includes two 1970s releases by the father-daughter duo of Pete and Sheila Escovedo, with Pete on timbales and Sheila on congas.
“Bolinas” is a mellow jazz-funk track that captures the essence of a sunset in that special place in Marin just north of The City, with a touch of energetic magic towards the end that hints at Sheila’s promising career on the horizon. The lyrics of “Just Imagine” repeat, putting that sentiment into existence, as the song comes to a close.
GEORGE DUKE GROUP FEAT. SHEILA E., LIVE AT THE BERLINER JAZZTAGE (1977)
She holds her own, front and center in the highly acclaimed funk-jazz George Duke Group, where she is surrounded by nothing but ’70s musical ninjas. Somehow they spell her name wrong, but that would soon change.
“OLIVERS HOUSE” FESTIVAL DE VIÑA PERFORMANCE (1986)
Sheila Escovedo became Sheila E in the ’80s, and this drummer became an icon in the decade just as hip-hop caught on nationally and synth-wave band members began growing that asymmetrical hair look. Some would say that Sheila E, her band, and Prince’s entire entourage put a soul-clap accent on the Flock of Seagulls thing. The point is, Prince and Sheila E changed each other’s careers.
“The Glamorous Life” song and album were Sheila E’s grand slam hit for the decades. If you look at the evolution of Prince’s sound after intersecting with Sheila E, it become a bit more polyrhythmic and energetic. In his concerts, he started to make space for fusion jams. Listen, Prince was a genius, but he surrounded himself with musicians and, more importantly, women, who were geniuses too. The Wendy and Lisa bedrock of songwriting were his in-house McCartney/Lennon pop-Brill-Building songsmiths. And Sheila E made the band, the live performance, and his subsequent albums in the ’80s. Around The World In A Day, Parade, The Black Album, Sign of The Times, and Lovesexy—they were all full of movement. Sheila’s percussion chops made a big difference in his trajectory as an artist.
“Oliver’s House” from The Glamorous Life was one of those funky cuts…no. It was a Jam, that made its way around by cassette, college, and black radio stations back in the day. If that lyric from Glamorous Life “without love it ain’t much” was going from Don Cornelius to Dick Clark, then “Oliver’s House” was for us.
SHEILA E. AND PRINCE, “A LOVE BIZARRE” (1985)
Listen up chicken butt, you wanna talk about heady ’80s Sigmund Freud funk?
Look no further than this mega-bomb jam:
The moon up above shines down upon our skin
Whispering words that scream of outrageous sin
We all want the stuff that’s found in our wildest dreams
It gets kinda rough in the back of our limousine
That’s what we are, we all want a love bizarre
This track—another jam—off her second album Romance 1600 lasted over 12 minutes, making it an obvious choice at basement parties and events around the way. It provided an opportunity for those who maybe couldn’t afford a ticket to a Prince or Sheila E live show the in-concert energy, passion, and excitement for which both artists were known.
Sheila E, now three years away from a highly celebrated 50-year career anniversary, has consistently made funk pop-ready without diluting one note.
SHEILA E with Due South, The E-Train, and DJ Umami. Sat/7, 3pm, free, Jerry Garcia Amphitheater, SF. More info and RSVP here.