Sheila E. with Wendy Holden
Here is one of the single best music memoirs I’ve ever read – sure, it helps I’m already a fan, I found out about Sheila E. through her work with Prince, of course. But I was soon well aware of her back-story, solo albums, part of a percussion family – her godfather was the great Tito Puente, her father and one of her uncles were both percussionists in Santana, her uncle Coke formed Azteca, another uncle is the gifted singer/songwriter Alejandro Escovedo – the Escovedo family is full of great music stories and musical triumphs.
And before Sheila E. was a session star working with Billy Cobham, Con Funk Shun, Beyonce, Goria Estefan, Prince and many others there were the stories of Latin-jazz legends turning up the house for informal jam sessions, of learning her craft first-hand from Tito Puente and her father Pete Esovedo, of studying records by Santana and Sammy Davis Jr and The Beatles – taking in everything and anything.
For the young Sheila E. there are no musical boundaries – there are no favourite genres, music is the excitement, music is the escape too, the refuge; this frank and honest account of her life details the horrors of a childhood stolen from her, raped by an older cousin when she was five years old. Repeated sexual abuse by relatives until she approached her teen years.
As musical prodigy she has the stage to escape to, she crafts exciting performances, hides inside costumes and within the music – and then to a clandestine affair with Carlos Santana. Her first love is, it turns out, doing the dirty on his wife, Sheila is naïve, she’s young, she didn’t even know that Santana was married. But she issues an ultimatum, she walks away – never to be involved in cuckolding again. Her decision to leave Carlos at the height of his fame results in her father and uncle losing their top gig, they’re biffed from the band.
She’s on tour with George Duke and Billy Cobham, in the late 1970s she meets and falls for Prince. A long courtship is carried out over phone calls and very occasional get-togethers, the friendship blossoms, he then becomes a crucial collaborator, musical mentor. But before Sheila E. is strutting the stage with Prince she’s on tour as part of Marvin Gaye’s band – she’s spending daylight hours rehearsing for Lionel Richie’s huge stage show – his first big solo tour. Then she’ll fly off to meet Marvin and his band, play that night’s show. She is with the band when Gaye is murdered by his father.
So you see, even if Prince wasn’t in the picture ever – this would still be one heck of a story.
Then there’s the Prince years, including an engagement – but Prince won’t let Sheila off the tour to grieve the death of a family member, they drift apart, their relationship ends.
Then there’s a conversion to Christianity – and further solo records. Time with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band and a reality TV show. If the final 20 years of Escovedo’s story here seem like something of a comedown from the 1970s and 1980s then it’s worth understanding her journey, and this book, as a tale of survival.
And the highlights are constantly astounding – that’s her playing the percussion parts on Michael Jackson’s Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, her appearance on the Off The Wall record uncredited. It was her idea to fill glass bottles with water, tapping out the rhythm with the beater from her triangle.
It’s also her playing alongside Herbie Hancock and Diana Ross (she can’t read music so wings it when given a last-minute call up to join the Diana Ross orchestra).
And this is her – so much of her, her story – candid, revealing but never does it seem like a dishing-dirt style of memoir. There’s scandal but it’s not told in an intentionally scandalous way. Through it all we have a picture of a woman so strong to get through her life, so appalled at how she was treated not just in her early years, never safe in her own home, but for much of her professional career as the woman expected to put out, and be grateful for any leering looks and gestures by her co-workers, her band members, the people she was supposed to be able to trust.
It’s a remarkable story – and told with real heart and courage. But it’s also, for the first two-thirds in particular, a whirlwind of amazing musical experiences, so hugely exciting. It’s a wonderful book with the right kind of feel-good ending. She’s still touring, still recording, still turning up for work. She’s found happiness and peace.
You want to wish her well at the end of it, and thank her for all that incredible music. You feel like you’ve been blessed to have an intimate conversation with an old friend. And in a sense that’s exactly what has happened.
So thank you, Sheila E.