Sheila E. Looks Back on the Rich, Rhythmic Path That Led Her to Hollywood Walk of Fame

“I forget about a lot of the things that I’ve done until someone brings it up,” says Sheila E. “I wish I could remember everything, when there’s so much that I’ve done! I look back and reflect a little bit, but I’m always in the moment and I feel that there’s so much more for me to do.”

On July 12, Sheila E.’s remarkable career will be recognized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. “It’s something that never even crossed my mind,” she says of the honor. “Well, it probably did when I was younger, because growing up in the Bay Area, we would drive to Los Angeles and go, ‘Wow, look, this is Hollywood!’ So it’s very humbling.”

It’s been a long, wild ride for the woman known as “the Queen of Percussion.” In addition to her hits such as “The Glamorous Life” and “A Love Bizarre,” and her long affiliation with Prince, there were her early days touring with such legends as Marvin Gaye and Lionel Richie; her collaborations with a range of superstars including Beyoncé, Phil Collins and Gloria Estefan; her extensive work in film and TV and a five-year run with Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band.

Starr has high praise for his fellow percussionist. “Sheila is an incredible drummer and bandmate,” he tells Variety. “The best example I can give you is to tell the story of when we were on tour: It was the first show of that particular tour and sometime around soundcheck Sheila tripped over some wires. She had to be taken to the hospital and returned in a wheelchair carrying crutches. But did that stop her? No! Not only did she play that night — she wore her high heels over her sprained ankle when it came time to doing her number! We were all blown away.”

In June, Sheila was featured on a track on Kelly Clarkson’s new album, “Chemistry.” “Sheila E. is not only an incredible musician,” says Clarkson, “but she is an amazing person that has shown me kindness, encouragement, and a realness that is rare in this industry.”

Born in Oakland, Sheila Escovedo grew up surrounded by music — her father, percussionist Pete Escovedo, would bring his band and friends like Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri to their house to rehearse, and her uncles played in a range of groups from punk bands to Santana. Music in the Bay Area was thriving. “Growing up around the environment of Carlos Santana and Sly Stone and the Pointer Sisters, Tower of Power, Grateful Dead — we were inspired by all of those musicians,” she says.

Sheila studied music as a child (her father wanted her to play the violin), but it wasn’t her real focus. She ran track and played soccer— “I loved music,” she says, “but my goal was to win a gold medal in the Olympics.”

But those plans were disrupted when she was 15 and played her first show with her father. “That changed my whole life,” she says. “I dropped everything. I knew then that this is what I was supposed to do, to play music and be a percussion player and entertainer.”

Soon Sheila was working with such giants as Herbie Hancock and Diana Ross (“I was having so much fun, I didn’t want to get paid”), and in 1977, she joined fusion keyboardist George Duke’s band. In 1983, she played percussion on what turned out to be Marvin Gaye’s final tour.

During her time with George Duke, Sheila met a young musician named Prince who was in the Bay Area recording his debut album. He told her he had seen her with George Duke on “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” and “The Midnight Special.” They exchanged numbers, she recalls, “and the very next day, that was the beginning of a lifetime of memories.”

By the time she was touring with Lionel Richie, Prince had become an arena headliner, and they decided it was time for Sheila to do a solo project — which, she emphasizes, was a mutual idea.

“Everyone thinks that he created that solo role for me, but he didn’t,” she says. “Every time I played in a situation with other artists, they always featured me. So I was used to being up front doing things.” They “stayed up for three days straight and recorded nonstop,” Sheila says, and “The Glamorous Life” album came out in June 1984 — the same month that “Purple Rain” was released.

Prince took her on tour as his opening act and they duetted on “Erotic City.” Very quickly, Sheila E. became a star on her own, with multiple Grammy and MTV Awards nominations. Two more albums soon followed, but by 1987, she was hitting a wall.

“I was just exhausted,” she says. “The pressure of trying to do all that needed to be done all the time and taking care of everyone — it was scary at times, it was really crazy. So at the height of my career, I said, ‘I’m done for a while.’”

She told Prince that she just felt like playing the drums again, and he replied that they should start a band together. Combining some members of each of their teams, they created the group that would be documented on the concert film “Sign ‘o’ the Times” — probably the definitive official document of Prince’s onstage magic.

“I was so excited, because that’s what I wanted to do, to play drums in a rock ‘n’ roll band,” she says. “We created a drum set with triggers on all the drums. It was incredible what they built for me, it was crazy, and I played it in heels!”

Sheila and Prince were even briefly engaged in the late 1980s, and she would continue her association with him for the rest of his life. She still performs his music at every show, though she says that after he died in 2016, “at the beginning, it was hard to do anything, because I was just too emotional. Now, seven years later, I’m able to get through it — I just do my own celebrating in my own way.”

Sheila’s unmistakable percussion style has taken her along some unexpected paths over the years, from working on film scores with Hans Zimmer to winning the 2009 CMT competition show “Gone Country.” Her latest album with Sheila E. & the E-Train, “Hella Fonk E,” is available on her website and at her shows (“I just didn’t want to stream this record — the whole streaming thing is a mess and it’s unfair to us as artists”) and she’s completing her first-ever salsa record, with guests including Ruben Blades, Gilberto Santa Rosa and, of course, her dad.

As a pioneer in introducing Latin sounds to a pop audience (she was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2021 Latin Grammys), she’s proud of the incredible growth the genre has enjoyed. “It’s beautiful,” she says.

She also notes the continual increase in women playing drums, as well as other instruments and in studio roles. “When I grew up, the only person that I saw playing was Karen Carpenter, when she and her brother had a variety show,” she says. “I told my dad, ‘I play drums, I have brothers, how come we don’t have a television show?’ So it is changing, and it should be changing, with women getting recognized for the talent that they have, not just because they’re women — we’re great musicians, we just happen to be women.”


WHAT: Sheila E. receives a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

WHEN: 11:30 a.m., July 12

WHERE: 6752 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood


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