SAN FRANCISCO — A lot of it is new to Sheila — having to stop rehearsals to do interviews, refusing to be photographed, not being able to stay at home when performing in town, answering questions from fans and media about her love life. She grew up in show biz, working with her father, percussionist/vocalist Pete Escovedo. But Pete took care of all the business then. Now daughter Sheila is learning the inside story — and fast.
”Sometimes being the bandleader is a pain in the butt,” says the 26-year—old, as she collapses into a cushiony leather chair in Studio instrument Rentals’ warehouse district offices. Sheila is riding high now on the strength of her first solo record, Sheila E. in The Glamorous Life. She handles not only the drums and percussion, which has long been her forte, but does the vocals, bass, some guitar, and keyboards. Aided in the effort by her friend, Prince, Sheila E. blends the contemporary sound and humor of Tom Tom Club with the stark sexuality of Tina Turner. She kneads a robust funk ala Nile Rodgers, with her own musical heritage in Latin percussion breathing in extra fire.
The single, “The Glamorous Life,” has made Billboard’s Top Ten on the Dance, Black, and Pop charts. It’s been a top radio “add on” in cities ranging from Asbury Park to Topeka, Oklahoma City to Pittsburg, Denver to Santa Barbara to Seattle. She’s touched the heart of America, it seems, and Warner Brothers is of course very happy about the record’s “crossover” appeal.
While the recording of her album at Sunset Sound in Hollywood took only five days, according to reports, Sheila has been rehearsing her band in San Francisco for weeks. Last summer, the group played with Prince at the Purple Rain premiere party, and now they’re focusing on the show that will open his Purple Rain Tour well into 1985. According to Tim Scott, manager of Studio Instrument Rentals, Sheila E. takes her rehearsal seriously. “They work about the longest of any band I’ve ever seen, really,” he says. “Like from noon until 1 am, 2 am, with pretty much no breaks. They bring the food and drinks in. The only time they come out is to stand on the street to get some fresh air and then go right back in. I’d say their breaks last about 20 minutes. It’s a solid 13 or 14 hours of rehearsing.”
“It’s fun, but it’s hard,” Sheila smiles. She is her group’s principal writer, arranger, and choreographer. “Sometimes it’s hard for men to take orders from a woman, but this band works out fine. We respect each other, and they listen to me pretty good. I don’t have any ego problems. Nobody’s badder than anybody else, and we all just want to play and have a good time.”
The Sheila E. band consists of Eddie Minifield on sax and keyboards, Susan Davis on keyboards, Benjamin Rietveld on bass, Michael Weaver and Stephen Birnbaum on guitars, and drummer Karl Perazzo. They have the look of “Fame” High School, very young but with surprising polish and showmanship, and incredible energy. “The band has been sore and aching,” says the bandmaster, “It takes a lot of chops to sing, dance and play at the same time. It was hard finding people that really looked good, had a good personality, were easy to get along with, and could do all that. You’re asking a lot, and they’re all doing it.
“I like to dance,” Sheila continues. “The choreography we do is just things I think up on the spot. Sometimes I don’t plan things out, but as soon as we start working I’ll say, ’OK, let’s do this step, this step, and this step on the chorus.’ It’s kind of crazy. I wasn’t ever in the position to do choreography in a show with my father. That music was different. I never had my own thing, so people say, ’How did you learn all this?’ I mean I always did it, I just never had a chance to show it,”
It’s not like the strikingly attractive Escovedo has been keeping her talent to herself all these years. She’s actually been hanging out on the music scene from an early age. “When she was real young, I wasn’t working enough to actually support the family,” says her father, Pete. “So my wife went back to work right after we had Sheila. So when I did get a gig, I’d have to take Sheila with me. She got that early experience of just watching and being in that environment. Being brought up in it. Listening to music, and watching myself and my brother Coke play all the time.” Sheila was five years old when Pete first sat her down behind some skins in front of an audience. “We just kind of knew all the time that she would get into music,” he says,
After putting in some years with neighborhood bands, Sheila was offered a spot in Azteca, the Latin~jazz band that Coke and Pete were organizing. She recorded an LP with fusion bassist Alphonso johnson, then recorded the Latin-jazz albums Solo Two and Happy Together xi“ Pete E. on Fantasy (drummer Billy Cobham producing). From there she went on to play with Patti LaBelle, Herbie Hancock, Diana Ross and Harvey Mason before joining George Duke’s band for the albums Don’t Let Go (featuring the “Dukey Stick”) and Brazilian Love Affair (1978 — 79) and extensive touring. “George had me playing keyboards, drums, congas and timbales, and out singing and dancing. That was fun,” she says. “He let you do what you really wanted. If you wanted to try something that you never did before, he’d let you. If it worked, fine. If it didn’t, well, let’s try something else. He had us doing crazy things. And to play in his band you had to play good all the time; you had to stay at your best.”
“She has a lot of experience being on tour and working in front of big audiences,” Pete says, “and working in the studio. When you start going out on the road and doing different tours with different bands, you get a lot of experience. A lot of people think it’s kind of overnight success, but she’s been working since she was about 15, you know.”
Returning from a tour of Japan with Spyro Gyra in 1982, Sheila decided it was time to put together a group of her own. The band came close to signing a contract with Solar, but the deal didn’t go through. She then got a phone call from guitarist Wah Wah Watson, inviting her to play in Marvin Gaye’s band, which she did for five months. Then came an invitation to audition for Lionel Richie’s band last year.
“He’d never even heard of me,” she says with some surprise. “He didn’t know who I was or what I did. He said, ‘Oh, that girl can’t play. She’s too pretty to play.’ But we’re really close friends. That whole band was great. I kind of miss it.” Sheila had a featured spot at the close of Richie’s concerts, flailing away on congas to the roar of the crowd, then heaving one of the drums into the air off the back of her riser. She was also the object of Richie’s affection in his “Running with the Night” video.
“I learned from Marvin and Lionel that if you know what you want, things can work out. I really know what I want, what I want to play, and I’m glad I can do that now, and people really enjoy it.
“This is my own thing, so now I get to do what I really want to do. Change my hair different colors, wear different clothes. You get to be yourself but somebody else at the same time, and it gets to be fun. l had to get out of the little hole I was in, jump out in order to be like I am now, which is kind of crazy.”
Sheila is portrayed on one side of her album cover as a street-tough earth vixen-type, with drumsticks protruding from her black stockings. On the other side she’s a glamorous, innocent starlet. “I was tired of being Jennifer Beals,” Sheila laughs. “On Lionel’s tour, Flashdance was out, and everybody thought I was Jennifer Beals. I had to change!”
E. had been in Los Angeles working with Prince on his single, “Erotic City,” when he helped get her hooked up with Warner Brothers to do The Glamorous Life. “He’s been a real influence on me,” Sheila says. “We’ve been friends for so long that we kind of like the same things. I just wasn’t able to let it go like I do now, He helped me on that, just to be what I want to be. And that’s what I’m doing.”
Tim Scott was on duty at S.I.R, when Prince pulled in to help Sheila and her band in rehearsal in September. “Purple limousine, bodyguards, everything, All the trappings,” he says. “He’s a cool guy. Real low key, actually. He just came in for a couple days, I guess to just psyche everybody up.” Scott recalls that Mr. Nelson wore purple boots. pants, and a purple coat.
“I don’t know how they came up with this thing with me and Prince,” Sheila says, not really sounding annoyed. “It’s all over the radio in LA.” But is there any truth to it? “We’re good friends,” she says.
One thing is for certain about Sheila E. in ‘The Glamorous Life‘ — there is no strict formula to the music. “I just did what I felt,” Sheila explains. “There are so many kinds of music out now, sometimes you wonder what’s left, what else there is to do, There are only so many keys on a keyboard, so many notes on a bass and guitar, You have to pick out certain things, and it’s the way you put it together, the concept, that makes it different.”
The instrumentation on Glamorous Life varies from track to track — from the crunching full-blown funk of “Shortberry Strawcake” to the restrained passion of “Noon Rendezvous.” The fun bounce of “Oliver’s House” gives way to violinist Noyi Novog accompanying Sheila’s lonesome vocal on “Next Time Wipe the Lipstick Off Your Collar.” “That song is influenced from when I used to play violin as a girl. It’s got an orchestrated tooling, and then I just put these crazy lyrics on it. They go together like black and white, but it works. ‘Oliver’s House’ is another out song,” she laughs. “I have a couple characters: Oliver, and another called Miss Tight Butt. You might hear from her on the next record.
“The songs are just ideas, different stories. Either my life or somebody else’s. Could be part of yours, anybody’s. Just things that you think of when you’re writing everyday. I got my 4—track recorder together and all that stuff, and it helped. You just go in, start putting your ideas on tape everyday, and finally you realize it sounds OK. I was just scared to do it at first. But after a while I couldn’t wait to put it on record.”
One of Sheila’s biggest obstacles has been a fear of singing, but judging from her performance on Glamorous Life and in concert, she’s getting over it. “I sang a lot of background on Lionel’s tour and that helped,” she says with a shrug, “I’m starting to get used to it, finally. Rehearsing everyday helps a lot. I just never liked my voice. l have to get used to it in order to sing with that confidence. You have to like what you’re doing. If you like it, everybody else will like it.”
Wolfgang’s nightclub in San Francisco is out of standing room by the time a comedian walks out to try to pacify the crowd for a few minutes. This show is The City’s version of Purple Rain: the crowd is every color and hue imaginable — a rainbow coalition if ever there was one — and they‘ve all come to see the local girl who’s done good. In Purple terms, Sheila’s show is more The Time than The Revolution. And to set the record straight, Apollonia Six isn’t in the same ballpark. Sheila’s pyrotechnics on percussion provide the main upfront musical focus, and she makes for an engaging-without-being-pushy front person. The insistent rhythm of an electronic bass drum pumps out several of the tunes like cash register tape, and the band marches and dances feverishly to the different drummer. To Pete Escovedo. sitting in the balcony at Wolfgang’s, the electronic drums represent quite a change from the music he’s made with his daughter.
“Even some of the jazz groups are starting to use drum machines on their records,” he says. “Steps Ahead uses one on a couple things. This is the ’80s and we’re faced with these computers and machines that play music. It’s going to get more and more like that, so we’re just going to have to live with it.”
What shocked Pete and other family members at Sheila’s San Francisco show was a bit of suggestive horseplay with a male volunteer from the crowd, who was probably every bit as shocked as Pete was. “Before they left on their first tour, she did a little showcase at Studio Rentals, and we all went,” says Dad. “It was their first time playing in front of an audience, and they held back a little because it was all friends and family. Through the course of this little tour that she did, and probably rehearsing the stuff in front of Prince and Prince putting his input into it, it kind of went in a little different direction. So when she played here, we were a little surprised at some of the things that she did, and mainly about the sex things as part of the act.”
Pete realizes that her new image – the new wrapping around Sheila – is getting her press and public interest. And that even comments like the one he just made have a real effect on box-office draw. “Sometimes we can go along in this business and think that we’re playing the greatest music in the world, and nobody comes. Sometimes these little gimmicks get the people there; and like I said before, it’s the ’80s, it’s a new generation, and I guess the visual thing and the sex thing is a real important part of a lot of acts. It’s show biz, and it’s a fantasy,” he says, “and people expect that. They want to see that. With the image she’s creating and with the fact that she’s tied in with Prince, people are going to expect that. To me, as long as it doesn’t get any more than what it is, it’s okay.”
Sheila decided to stay at a hotel rather than at home when she played the Wolfgang’s, show – to get away from the crowds. “It’s not fans really, its family and friends,” says Sheila’s mom, Juanita, a lifelong resident of Oakland who feels she knows 60% of the city’s population. “No one knows where we live, but family and friends naturally know where we are, so they would just pile over to share with us the happiness and everything that’s going on with her, There is no rest when she’s around, but that’s OK,” she says. “We just visited with her some at the hotel.
“The only thing we’re concerned about is her slowing down a little bit and taking time to relax.” continues Mrs. Escovedo “She doesn’t know how to do that. She’s a workaholic. When she came over to spend some time with us the last time she was in town, she was on the phone 90% of the time. She just couldn’t get off the phone. And I said, ‘Thanks for the visit, Sheila.‘ (Laughing) It was business. All business.”
Fans aren’t camping outside the Escovedos’ house, but who knows? Nobody expected Sheila’s record to do as well as it’s done, either. “Sheila’s sister Zina looks a lot like her,” says their mom. “We go out and there’s hardly a day that someone won’t say, ‘That’s Sheila E.’ She just tells them, ‘No, I’m not.'” Some of the occupational hazards scare Juanita. “One time people were trying to turn over the limo when she was in it,” she says. “And one time she was coming out of a concert with a scarf around her neck, and there were a lot of people around. I guess they thought the scarf was loose, ’cause they tried to snatch it off, and it was choking her. So her body guard had to … I think he broke his jaw, I don’t know. He socked him in the mouth.”
Despite small riots at backstage entrances and full-blown parties on-stage, the atmosphere at rehearsals is one of the hard work and discipline. Sheila doesn’t want to have to worry about anything when the real party starts, when all those eyes are watching, so she makes sure it all gets worked out behind closed doors. “I told the people in my band they’d have to expect to rehearse all day. It’s hard work, because I’m the kind of person who goes for perfect. We rehearse day and night. Just drilling them. After awhile you start to get used to it, and you’re able to concentrate on just having a good time and really playing with everybody onstage — playing to each other. Live, that works great.”