Oakland native Sheila E. returns to where it all began
I first learned of Sheila E. almost 25 years ago as a young kid stuck in traffic on I-80 listening to the radio as my parents “used” my siblings and I to gain entry into the carpool lane.
Some of my earliest memories are of my mother passing our street on the way home and looping an extra block to let one of Sheila E.’s classic titles play all the way through on the radio.
Though her catalog is extensive, “Glamorous Life,” “Love Bizarre” and her background vocals on Prince’s “Erotic City” are the first songs that come to mind.
Being a child of Bay Area natives, I recall hearing stories of Bay Area functions in the ’80s where Sheila E.’s music was an immediate party-starter. During this pre-social media era, I recall learning about her career rise from members of my family.
The Bay Area, and Oakland specifically, has a well documented history of its contributions to funk music. Tower of Power, Sly and the Family Stone, and Carlos Santana are just a few names that are immediately recognizable. However, Sheila E.’s rise to the national stage is particularly special for Bay Area music fans because they got to witness her ascent from the tutelage of her father, Peter Escovedo, to the global stage.
“I picked up learning the percussion by watching my dad play every single day, and practicing in the house,” Sheila E. recalls.
Pete Escovedo and brother, Coke, were briefly in Santana, and later started the Latin-Rock group Azteka. Sheila E.’s uncle, Alejandro Escovedo, is an influential rock musician as well. Although she grew up in a musical family, some might be surprised that music wasn’t her first career aspiration.
“My passion was to either be the first girl astronaut on the moon, or to win a gold medal in track and field because I was an athlete, and I was training to be in the Olympics,” Sheila E. revealed.
So what was the pivotal moment that led her down the path seen today? It was at the age of 15, when she performed with her dad at a concert in San Francisco.
“That one show that I played with him was when I realized this was what I was supposed to do,” she said.
While raised in a musical family, it was the entire Bay Area musical ecosystem that helped cultivate the star who is known today. Not only was it from the long list of Bay Area funk legends, but also the plethora of opportunities for people to hear and play great music.
“In the Bay Area, again, there were jam sessions on the weekends of people getting together, and we would play out in Berkeley on the square, and at the parks by the lake. It was just everyone knew where to go to hang out and just play music together,” said Sheila E.
It was during one of these typical Bay Area jam sessions where legendary jazz drummer Billy Cobham saw Sheila E. and her dad perform, and immediately set out to produce an album for the duo. Cobham would then serve as a key connection for Sheila E., as he would later introduce her to George Duke, who brought her on as a member of the George Duke Band, appearing on three of his albums.
After performing with the George Duke Band, she later joined Marvin Gaye’s last tour, the Midnight Love Tour. This proved to be another influential moment for her.
“He was the nicest, sweetest person. And, I mean, there were times at the very beginning of us going out on tour, I forgot that I was in the band because I was so mesmerized by his performance and how he commanded the stage so gently,” she reflected.
In an interview with Billboard magazine, Sheila E. shared that she first met Prince at a concert in San Francisco while performing material for his first album. After chatting about how they were both fans of each other’s work, they exchanged contact information and became friends—as well as established a musical connection that would last over the course of their careers.
On Prince’s critically acclaimed sixth album, Purple Rain, released in 1984, Sheila E. sang the chorus to the song “Erotic City” and provided vocals to “Let’s Go Crazy.” Sheila E. and her band were also part of the Purple Rain Tour, performing as an opening act where they were able to capitalize off the success of her debut album, The Glamorous Life.
During this time, a new art form was starting to take shape and enter the boomboxes on streets across America—hip-hop. Krush Groove, a movie loosely based on the founding of Def Jam Records, had just hit theaters. Members of the cast included Blair Underwood, Rick James, the Beastie Boys and Kurtis Blow. Sheila E., who had aspirations as a child to become an actress, played herself as the film’s leading lady.
“I always wanted to do a movie. When I was younger, I always thought of myself as either a cartoon or a superhero. Just because what I was doing was so demanding and different,” she said.
With no formal acting training, her management team presented the opportunity to be in the film. The offer came along with the chance for her to perform her hit songs, “Love Bizarre” and “Holly Rock.” The movie has gone on to become a cult classic, and is often credited for bringing hip-hop to Hollywood.
“We didn’t realize at the time how amazing this movie would be, as far as the impact on all these amazing up and coming hip-hop artists. And even actors and actresses who were a part of the film became superstars as well. So it was something that people still talk about, and it was a lot of fun,” she recalled.
In 1986, after a tour run with Lionel Richie and the release of her second album, Sheila E. decided to take a break, and joined Prince’s band on his Sign o’ the Times Tour. She was also a part of the band during Prince’s classic 1987 New Year’s Eve show at Paisley Park, where Miles Davis performed.
In the early 1990s, Sheila E. began to lend her talents through other avenues, performing as a guest artist and venturing into music directing. In 1994, she played the congas and timbales on Gloria Estefan’s multi-platinum album, Mi Tierra.
“I love production. I love actually getting the right group of people together to do projects, to be a part of a team, and even helping others. I just love doing that, I love behind the scenes,” she shared when asked of her role as a musical director.
She later went on to become the band director for The Magic Hour, Magic Johnson’s late night talk show, and in the early 2000s, she performed on the song “Work it Out” by Beyoncé. She was selected to serve as the musical director for President Barack Obama’s In Performance at the White House: Fiesta Latina 2009 special and performed in the house band at the 2012 Academy Awards.
Her journey, much like her talent, has been increasingly expansive. Through it all, Sheila E. has always kept Oakland close to her heart. This couldn’t be better displayed than by the work she has done more recently in the community. In 2011, she—along with her best friend, singer Lynn Mabry—began auctioning off parts of her drum or percussion setup during major tour stops to raise money for organizations that supported historically underserved youth, particularly those in foster care, to provide school supplies.
Being that they were both raised in the Bay Area, and recognizing the need for arts programming in Oakland schools, Sheila E. and Mabry partnered with Oakland-based entrepreneur, Jason Hofmann, and Yoshi’s founding partner, Yoshie Akiba, to create Elevate Oakland. The organization’s mission is to provide inspiration and mentorship to Oakland’s youth, with the goal of bolstering students’ engagement in school and their all-around mental health.
“We use local musicians, or artists who are not working at the time, or if they’re off tour season, we give them a stipend for them to be able to get paid, as well as assist the teacher, if need be, and teach a class during regular hours. And so we understood how powerful music is, to be able to heal people and help the kids,” said Sheila E.
In 2017, Sheila E. released her last album, Iconic: Message 4 America. The project served as a cover album, where she performed some of the greatest protest and revolution songs with a modern twist.
“I felt the need to do that because we were in a state of emergency. I wanted to release something right away. So I went back to songs that I felt meant something, like ‘Inner City Blues’ by Marvin Gaye, The Pointer Sisters’ ‘Yes We Can Can,’ and involving Angela Davis to come in on the break down and write something to speak to the people,” she said.
The pandemic upended the music industry, with touring and live performances being shut down for what was then an undetermined amount of time. Sheila E. used the period of uncertainty to venture into another lane that was somewhat unfamiliar to her—video content creation.
“During the pandemic, I definitely thought about how I am going to reach our people. And I thought well, I’m at home, I might as well turn my game room into a TV room and put up cameras and lights and call it a day,” she recalled.
In December of 2020, the first episode of Sheila E. TV aired on YouTube, under her production company StelleoFlats, Inc. In the YouTube series, Sheila E. conducts a range of interviews with legendary stars, including Bootsy Collins, Jill Scott and George Clinton, among others.
Sheila E. has returned to acting as well. She joined the BET+ show, The Family Business, which kicked off season three in 2021. The series, based on the book of the same name by Carl Weber, explores the day to day operations of a family that owns an exotic car dealership.
Although her work has expanded outside of musical performing, music still remains the center of her life. In February, she released the single “Bailar,” which provides a nod to her salsa roots. Fans of Sheila E. can also expect a full length project to be released in 2023, an album that will include some special guests.
Sheila E. recently sold out a three day concert run at Yoshi’s in Oakland, one of the world’s most respected jazz performance venues. “Yoshi’s, that’s like my second home, and to be able to go there and play five shows in three days is exciting,” she shared.
While she has performed in stadiums across the country, playing for her hometown in front of families, friends and the community that raised her still provides fulfilling moments for her.
Said Sheila E., “I grew up in small clubs. It’s just as important for me; I’d rather play three or four days, and a bunch of shows, than to play one day in the Bay and be gone.”