As one of the world’s most multi-faceted drummers, Sheila E. has lent her incredible talents as a percussionist to the likes of George Duke, Lionel Richie, Marvin Gaye, Herbie Hancock, Diana Ross, Phil Collins, Ringo Starr, Prince and Beyoncé. Although she is best know for her work behind a drum kit, she is also an accomplished vocalist, songwriter, performer, arranger, producer, composer, instrumentalist and humanitarian. Her musical gifts have inspired musicians around the world, established her as a tremendous talent and treasured star. Sheila continues to devote her talent and time to the Elevate Hope Foundation (EHF), a charitable organization (which she is co-founder and co-chair) assisting the needs of abused and abandoned children through music therapy. As a member of the legendary Escoveda Family, Sheila recently teamed up with her siblings, Peter Michael and Juan, and her father, Pete, to bring the family’s decades long love affair with music to life on a collaborative album. Icon Vs. Icon’s Jason Price recently caught up with Sheila E. to discuss the making of The E Family’s new album, “Now & Forever,” her work with the Elevate Hope Foundation, her upcoming autobiography and her amazing family’s longevity in the music industry!
You influenced so many people with your work in the music industry. We know you come from a very talented musical family. What are your first recollections of music?
Probably when I was in kindergarten and elementary school because my dad [Pete Escovedo] was playing and rehearsing in the house as far back as I can remember. My first performance came when I was 5 years old. I knew that my dad was playing and I went in and sat in with him and his brother, Coke Escovedo, they were called The Escovedo Brothers. That was my first time playing with them but throughout my early years, I pretty much had music around the house every single day.
Who were some of your early inspirations outside of your family who helped to shape the artist you became?
At that time, it was pretty much anyone involved with the music of Motown. It was all about Motown music outside of the house, besides the music that Pops brought in, which was Latin Jazz or Jazz like Miles Davis, Tito Puente and Mongo Santamaría. Outside of the house it was anyone from The Temptations, The Supremes to Stevie Wonder. There was also a lot of James Brown. I think I bought one of his 45s when I was in the first or second grade, I think it was James Brown. When I was 9 years old, my father brought home a Sammy Davis Jr. album. It was him performing live in Las Vegas with Buddy Rich. I was just intrigued with the drums but really I was intrigued by who Sammy Davis Jr. was as an entertainer. He was such an amazing all around entertainer — he sang, he danced, he played the organ, he played the drums, he did everything! I remember my father bringing that album home and I learned it from top to bottom within a week! Every single thing that he sang, the horn parts, it didn’t matter! I just had to learn everything about it! At that same time, Karen Carpenter and her brother had a television show and I became intrigued by them as well.
You always help each other along the way, appearing on each other’s work. Your latest project is called The E Family’s “Now and Forever.” What finally brought you all together as a unit for this project?
Someone had mentioned that we should do a family CD together and we said, “We have already done that!” Then we thought about it an realized that we actually hadn’t! [laughs] We had played on each other’s projects like you said but had no idea that we had not done a CD together. We got to thinking and realized, “Duh! We need to do this!” We sat down to talk about a way that we could do it. My brother, since he still lives in the Bay Area, came down south to Los Angeles and we recorded most of the album at my studio. We made an A-list of friends who are artists, at the time that we were recording the album, to see who we could get on the CD. It is very, very cool and a great process. We had never before written as a family! We had written songs for each other but we had never written together for the four of us. It was a great experience and very challenging when we first started because we didn’t know how to interact with each other. We are all leaders in our own bands and the things that we do so we kept saying, “OK, let’s do it this way! Oh, wait a minute! We need to listen to what you are saying first!” [laughs] We had to split it up four ways and that was something that I wasn’t used to. I am used to saying, “OK, let’s just do this!” or “OK, here is what it is!” and we are all like that, so we were kinda butting heads at first but it all worked out!
How many songs did you write for the album and was there anything that didn’t make it on the album?
There were a couple of songs that didn’t end up on the album that we wrote together. Peter Michael brought in songs, Juan brought in songs, Pops wrote one by himself and then we collaborated on four songs, I think.
Did you feel any pressure, as a group, to live up to the expectations you had for this album?
Ya know, no we didn’t. It was more like, “How are we going to make this work?” because we all individually like different genres of music. The biggest thing, as far as being challenged, was not excluding Pops from the whole equation because the foundation of who we are is him! That is what we brought to the table but again finding the direction of the CD and the collaboration. We were influenced by a lot of different types of music growing up, whether it be Jazz, R&B, Pop — a little bit of everything! It is like a big pot for gumbo. When we were writing, I think our focus was on creating something that radio would play, creating radio friendly songs that people would remember, especially being a new artist. This being a collaboration, we are considered a new artist. Not excluding Pops, that was the most challenging part. I think how we collaborated on that was by making sure that he was involved in the process. He talks about our music being “younger,” so it is a little bit different. He is like, “What is this Pro Tools stuff!? Where is the tape?!” The technology has changed so much through the years and everything is digital now. He says, “Can’t we get horns?!” and we say, “We don’t have to have horns on every song, Pops! Some songs, we don’t need them!” But that is his sound and that is what he likes. It was very cool to go through the process and figure out how we’re going to make this work!
You have some amazing guests along for the ride on “Now & Forever.” What can you tell us about them and how they shaped up?
It was really cool! Like I said, we made an A-list of people we wanted to work with, once we had the time frame for when we were going to record the album. We reached out to as many of those artists as we could and the artists that reached back said it was a great time for us to do it and they were interested, absolutely. With Gloria Estefan, I talked to Emilio [Estefan] and told him that I needed some songs. He said, “Let’s collaborate!” So we did something together with one of his writers, we co-produced it. Then Gloria came onboard and sang it. It was wonderful! She did an incredible job.
Then we had Earth, Wind and Fire. The drummer with Earth, Wind and Fire is named John Paris. He has been part of our family since before I moved out of Oakland, since the early ‘80s, like ‘79 to ‘80. He used to live with us and play in one of our bands, so I have known him for a long time. He has been playing with Earth, Wind and Fire for the last seven or eight years, at least. We knew that we were going to reach out to Earth, Wind and Fire because we have been inspired by them and their music for so many years. John and I wrote a song based on what Earth, Wind and Fire sounded like. When they heard it, they said, “This needs to be on our record!” [laughs] They loved it and had a great time! It was a lot of fun to have them in the studio. It was very cool because it ended up as everyone telling their stories and it coming back around to how it got started. Philip Bailey explained how he had grown up listening to the family and when he 20 or 21, he opened up for the band that my dad and uncle had called Azteca. They were signed to CBS. So, they had opened up for Pops, 40-something years ago! He said, “Oh my god! This is the baddest group ever! How are we going to open up for them!? We are not even that good!” He just told a bunch of stories and you are thinking, “But, you guys are Earth, Wind and Fire!” [laughs] And they are like, “Yeah, but you guys are the Escovedos!” It was very cool to have them involved!
Joss Stone, we did a trade. She wanted me to play on her record as well, so I did. I asked her if she had any ideas for a song that we could collaborate on. She sang something on her cell phone and emailed it to me. I wrote the music. Then she came and listened to it when she got there. She thought that it sounded great so she did her vocals and that is how we wrote that song! Every process was different but we did whatever we needed to do to get it done.I know you and your family must be very excited to bring this album to life in a live setting. Can we expect a tour in the near future?
Yes, we are actually working on that now. The response to the CD has been great! It has only been out since Tuesday but everyone is so excited about it because we have been playing a lot of the songs for the past couple of months, pushing it and letting people know that the album was coming out and have been selling the CDs at the concerts. We have had a great response in the Bay Area and of course, KBLX has been blasting the song, “I Like It,” what seems like every 15 minutes! It is the most requested song on KBLX right now! It has been really, really cool and we are very excited by that. We are working on doing some touring and are working on getting as much of the family together as we can so we can get a bus and do a bus tour for a couple of months. We are trying to route it in a way that makes sense to be out for a month. I can’t wait! I love being on the bus, I love touring and getting to go to places that we haven’t been to in a long time to present new music! I am more excited for my dad. Pops is just amazing! He just turned 76 and he is having the time of his life! He’s like, “Who would have thought at 76 that I would be a rock star!?” [laughs] He is enjoying himself!
Music is your life. I was curious to know to what you attribute you and your family’s longevity in the music industry?
I think that as a family, being able to adapt to different types of music has been a blessing. At the beginning, Pops never said, “You have to listen to ONLY this music and that is it.” He encouraged us to listen to all types of music and everything that you can think of came through the house. At one point, I think that when I was in the second grade, he said, “If you don’t mind, I would like you to go and play violin, something better than percussion. I don’t want you to be a percussion player. I think it would be better if you were a real musician.” He really thought that playing percussion, you weren’t a real musician! He was struggling most of his life being a percussion player and he didn’t want that for me. I think the longevity is being able to listen to all of the different genres of music and as a percussion player, add a splash of color. If you look at a painting and it is already done, what we are doing is just adding little things in between and trying to find those spaces to do that and where it makes sense. We are able to adapt and do that. Not every Latin beat applies to R&B and Hip-Hop and Rock. You end up making your own beats because you have to play in the holes and find those spaces. It is like looking at a painting and if you put the wrong color up there, you destroy it. A lot of percussionists and musicians just play and just want to be heard. I think what we have known and learned early on that helped our careers is knowing when not to play. If it means that I don’t play a tambourine but four times in a song, then so be it! I am going to play that tambourine four times, really good, ya know?! It’s what we do!
That is definitely great advice for aspiring musicians. That brings me to your charity work. I was hoping you could tell us more about this great cause!
Thank you very much! It is called the Elevate Hope Foundation. It is for children who have been victims of child abuse and in foster care facilities. My manager, Lynn Mabry, and I started it about 13 years ago. We use music and art as therapy to help these kids. We partnered up with a bunch of different schools. We used to have three beneficiaries each year but then we started to focus on one school so that we could really reach the kids. We started a couple of pilot programs at Vista Del Mar, here in Los Angeles. We have helped schools in the Bay Area as well. We are just trying to help these kids through music and art because we found that music is definitely healing and that they can express themselves vocally, musically, through writing, through taking pictures, through dance or sculpting, whatever it may be. We have seen a lot of kids that have been so abused that they just shut down and they don’t know how to communicate. We have found out that with the arts and with music, they have a viable tool to be able to allow them to express themselves freely. After a while, you start seeing a growth and a change in the child where they are now communicating and the fundamentals have become stronger, their social skills have become more alert. It has been scientifically proven and we have been trying to document this to show the government that music is a great, viable tool for kids that have been severally abused and are in facilities where they really don’t know how to communicate.
That is really terrific and we thank you for all the hard work you put in to make it such a success. I am glad we are able to share this information with others as well!
Thank you, we really appreciate that! You can go to www.elevatehope.org to learn more about the things that we have done already, as well.
Your story is such an inspiration and I am sure you have even more you can share with us all. Have you considered documenting your life in an autobiography?
Yeah, I have tried to do that about four times throughout my life. I would stop and I would start and actually, I am now almost done with the book! It is great timing! I wanted to get this done. It is so funny because every time that I sit down with my writer to tell the story, another story comes out and I think, “Oh my God! I forgot about this one!” This book could go on and on and on because there is so much to tell and share from my life. Then there is a lot that I don’t remember until I speak with someone. They might say, “Don’t you remember when this happened?” and I am like, “Wow! No I don’t!” There is just so much to share! I think the part about life is that, hopefully, you learn throughout your mistakes and the things that have happened throughout your life and career. That is what life is about — the good times, the bad and the struggle. You move up and you move down. It has been a crazy ride thus far! Incredible! I wouldn’t change anything that I have been through in my life whether it be hard or not because it has made me the person that I am now. If that is what it took to get me to be a better person, then so be it! I welcome it! I am excited about the book being finished and it will be released next year!
Have you decided on a title for the project yet?
I do but I can’t share it with you yet because it is a cross between three titles and it is really, really close!
That is probably one of the hardest parts of the whole process!
Well, yeah but actually the title came first!
Very interesting! We will be on the lookout for that for sure! What else is on the horizon for Sheila E. musically — no plans on packing it in any time soon I hope!
There are a lot of things that are going on. We are trying to get more involved with television, so there are a lot of TV projects on the fire. I just flew to London to write with Dave Stewart of The Eurythmics and Hans Zimmer. We went there with an all-star cast. There were eight or 10 of us in the studio and we went to write music for “Madagascar 3.” That was amazing and I just got back from that! That was a lot of fun and I look forward to doing more things like that in the future. It was very inspirational and we had a great time. There is more to be done for the movie but it was a great experience overall. There are a lot of things going on! And again, we look forward to more touring with The E Family and reach more people with the album. We will be going to Jakarta, Japan, Australia and we want to hit the U.S. as well. All of those dates are being set up!
We will be spreading the word for you and your family, Sheila. Thank you very much for your time today!
Thank you, Jason!
For all the latest information and tour dates for The E Family, visit their official website at www.the-e-family.com. You can check out Sheila E.’s official site at www.sheilae.com and learn more about her charity work at www.elevatehope.org.