COVER STORY: SHEILA E.
By Teryl Warren
It’s natural to assume that Sheila E. has led, well, a glamorous life. Her illustrious career has spanned three media (music, television and film), more than three decades, and has included performances with some of the music industry’s most legendary performers.
It’s also difficult to believe that a life that has been marked with such incredible triumphs has also had its share of darkness and traumatic moments. But it has. When we spoke with Sheila, she shared some of those moments with us, as well as her new mission in life to use love and music as means to help others heal.
To say that Sheila E. grew up in a house filled with music is an understatement. Really. Her father – legendary percussionist Pete Escovedo – is, in fact, the patriarch of a musical family.
Despite the natural ability that young Sheila showed early on, interestingly, her father didn’t encourage her to take up percussion – at least, not a first.
“My dad didn’t want me to struggle as a musician. He wanted me to play a more respectable instrument – something that I could make money playing. So, for five years, I played the violin! But that was not the hip instrument to play as far as the kids I hung with in school were concerned. Carrying a violin was not cool,” she laughed.
When young Miss Escovedo finally set down her violin for good and picked up her sticks, her father became her greatest champion and her lifelong mentor.
“Percussion is a hard instrument, but he never discouraged me from playing, and he taught me to always be professional. He’d say, ‘If you want to be a musician, you’ve got to be on time, or early. This business is really hard and challenging, and you have to respect the people you play with and play for.”
The strong work ethic, business savvy and personal values her father instilled in her early in her development are tools that Sheila E. brings to every recording session and performance to this day.
“Percussionists are like artists or painters,” she said. “Just like artists add elements that subtly complete their paintings, we bring to bring the performance that extra element that makes it great.
Those who were fortunate enough to catch a performance from Prince’s recent “Welcome 2 America” tour may have had the opportunity to witness the legendary Sheila E. in action. It was a tour that, as Prince had promised fans, would feature unique performances every night. And, as Sheila told us, each night was actually fresh for the performers, as well.
“Every night is different – not just playing with Prince. Every time I’m allowed to perform and play – it’s never the same. Even if the set list is all planned out and I know what I’m gonna do, once I get onstage, I’m inspired by the audience and the people I’m performing with,” she said. “God has given me this gift to express myself with these instruments. My whole body is involved when I perform, and being able to give my all to the audience is the most awesome feeling.”
And while playing percussion may feel awesome onstage, it’s a whole different matter once Sheila steps off the stage.
“I probably wouldn’t be as sore I as I am if I worked out more!” she laughed. “The biggest thing about playing percussion, physically, is endurance. You have to have the endurance to keep up with everything, as well as put out the energy that‘s needed. When I’m performing, I’m standing, I’m sitting, I’m using both of my hands, I’m usually singing – so I have to keep my breathing right. And when I’m doing solos, I have to kick everything into high speed!”
When it comes to playing the congas, Sheila offered us a vivid illustration of the toll that playing that instrument can take on the body. She also shared an exercise that we can all practice at home!
“Take your hands and slam them on a brick wall nonstop for a couple hours a day and see how that feels!” she laughed. “Usually, I’m still on a high when I come offstage, but when I finally get home and chill out… I feel like I got hit by a truck!”
Not surprisingly, Sheila’s post-performance routine typically includes soaking her hands in ice and getting some relief for her aching feet – which, after performing for 2-3 hours in 5-inch heels, are usually quite ready for a break.
For years, audiences have found Sheila E.’s combination of talent, femininity, sex appeal, and genuine warmth captivating. While there have been other female percussionists who’ve come before her and since, she remains a gold standard – as an artist and a role model – that few, if any, will ever reach. She humbly credits her family – specifically, her parents – for helping her navigate the sometimes misogynist, murky waters of the music industry – particularly early in her career
“My Dad never showed me any favoritism – he never attached gender to playing percussion because, and no one ever told me I couldn’t play because I was a girl, but when I started playing, that was whole different ball game,” she told us. “I experienced everything you can imagine. People would tell me I wasn’t that good, that I was only getting gigs because of who I knew. They’d make passes like – ‘If you sleep with me I’ll get you a record deal,’ or, ’I got these drugs, wanna come hang?’ I’m so thankful I never got into all of that.”
Whenever confronted by an unsavory character or uncomfortable situation, Sheila turned to her parents for support. Without fail, they assured her that, even though there weren’t a lot of women playing percussion at the time, she was, indeed, special and gifted. They instilled in her a level of self respect that would help her carry through all of those difficult times.
But there was another difficult time – one that occurred well before Sheila became a musician – which her parents could neither foresee, nor fully help her through.
“I was molested and raped by a babysitter when I was 5 years old,” she shared with us. “It was someone outside the family. I never blamed my parents – I love them, they’re my homies. I felt a lot of shame about it for a long time. But music healed me and got me through a very dark place.”
And this healing power of music is one that, through her Elevate Hope Foundation, Sheila hopes to make accessible to others.
Founded by Sheila and her manager Lynn in 2001, the Elevate Hope Foundation (EHF) is dedicated to providing abused and abandoned children an alternative method of therapy through music and the arts, and funding special services and programs that assist the needs of these children using these fundamental methods.
“When we first started, I would play in a city, we’d auction off that gear that I had played on, and we’d donate the money to a school in the area. Soon, I was selling all my gear!” she said. “In talking with different people who had also been abused mentally, spiritually, physically, we realized that there was a lot of need- especially for foster kids. The numbers of abused people in this country, and in the world, are staggering.
The numbers of abuse victims truly are staggering. A recent report published by the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS), estimated that 3.3 million reports of alleged abuse and/or neglect involving approximately 6 million children were made to local child protective services (CPS) agencies across the country.
Fortunately, the numbers of people who are turning to Sheila and the Elevate Hope Foundation for support and healing are continuing to grow, as evidenced in the “Testimonials and Prayer Requests” section of her website: www.sheilae.com.
“We get so many testimonies every day. People feel empowered to share their stories because I’ve shared my testimony,” she told us. “I shared my testimony because it set me free. Now, I don’t have to feel like it was my fault or carry depression or anger. Talking about it is healing. It allows you to break free from bondage and know: You’re not the only one. There is help and you don’t have to let the abuse take control of your life.”
On February 11, Sheila E. will receive the Vanguard Award for her achievements as an artist and philanthropist at the 4th Annual Moja Moja Pre-Grammy Brunch and Concert in Los Angeles, CA. Past recipients of the prestigious award include industry legend Mavis Staples. Receiving recognition for her humanitarian efforts, in particular, is of special significance to Sheila.
“I have a lump in my throat, really. I’m shocked that I’m even being honored,” she confessed. “I don’t feel like I’ve done enough! I’ve made some contribution, but I have a long way to go. I’m very grateful and humbled to be honored.”
Sheila also recently embarked on a new chapter in her musical life. For the first time, she joined her father and her brothers Juan and Peter Michael in recording Now and Forever – an album they released under the moniker “The E. Family.”
“I’ve been playing with my family for my entire life, but, even though we’ve produced each other’s projects, we had never written or recorded together. Playing music that we’ve all created together – a fusion between our styles and Pops’ style – makes this album really special.” The album also features appearances by Joss Stone, Raphael Saadiq, to name a few, and the second single from the CD is slated for release soon. Listen to the new single I Like It here:
A lifelong student of music, Sheila E. has said that she hopes to never stop learning. And the styles she’s eager to explore are endless.
“I used to joke that the only style I would probably never play was polka. But this past week, I played polka, and I didn’t even know it,” she laughed. “Who would ever think Sheila E. would be playing polka? But, I played polka and I danced polka and it was great!”
Award-winning poet Maya Angelou once said, “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.” Sheila E. has lived a life that has witnessed tremendous highs and traumatic lows, but her inspired journey reflects an amazing ability to find love, joy and peace between the extremes.
“I often get asked ‘What has been your greatest moment?’ But how can any of us answer that? There have been lots of great moments. This moment – you asking me questions so I can share my experiences – this is a great moment,” she said. “Life is full of great moments. And that’s a beautiful thing.”
To learn more about the Elevate Hope Foundation, please visit www.elevatehope.org. You can support the organization by hosting a function, donating money, time or musical instruments.
To sample The E. Family’s new CD Now and Forever, please visit: www.the-e-family.com