x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Dynamite drumming

The drummer Sheila E talks about playing with Prince and Ringo Starr, and her new album, Icon, out this week.

Sheila E, who has played with many greats in her time. Kabik / Starlite / Picturegroup via AP Images
Sheila E, who has played with many greats in her time. Kabik / Starlite / Picturegroup via AP Images

Sheila Escovedo – better known as Sheila E – began drumming at the age of 3 and has played with everyone from Marvin Gaye to Beyoncé. Her father is the famed percussionist Pete Escovedo and her godfather was the Latin music legend Tito Puente.

A key foil for Prince circa his Sign o’ the Times and Lovesexy albums, Sheila E also enjoyed considerable solo success with 1984’s The Glamorous Life. She talks about her new album Icon, out on Monday, and drumming with Ringo Starr.

Icon is your first solo album in 12 years. Why so long?

Mostly because I’ve been busy producing and playing on other people’s records. I’m not the kind of person who has to be out front as a solo artist to be happy.

You say as much on your new song Rockstar: “It’s everybody’s dream to be a rock star / I don’t care at all / my music, that’s all.”

Right. Twenty years ago I might have thought differently, but this business can make or break you and I’ve lost family members to drugs and alcohol. There was a time back in the 1980s when I was so famous I couldn’t go outside; now I’m just happy to be doing this at 55.

Your autobiography is due in 2014. Do you have a title?

It was going to be called From Pain to Purpose. When my lung collapsed in 1991 and my back went and it took me four months to walk again, I came back with a new sense of ­purpose. I think the publishers thought that title was too dark, though [laughs]. So now it’s gonna be By the Rhythm of My Drum.

Prince famously said of your drumming: “Not bad – for a girl!” Cheeky or tongue-in-cheek? 

I first met Prince in 1978, so I’d known him a while when he started introducing me like that on stage. I thought it was a fun way to play with stereotypes. I know Bill Cosby, too, and he used to joke: “Who said girls could play drums?” so maybe Prince picked up on that. But he was very proud and supportive of me and because I was born into this percussive family I brought something unique to the table.

In Prince’s classic 1987 concert film Sign o’ the Times, you play drums in stiletto heels.

Oh yeah. It was on the Lovesexy tour that I came unstuck, though. The smoke in our smoke machine was oil-based and very slippy, and I fell off the stage and landed on my back and both my elbows. I got back up and kept playing – Prince didn’t even know I was hurt. When the ambulance guys patched me up there was blood coming through the gauze, but I said: “I’m fine, we’ve got the rest of the tour to do.” I still can’t bend my left elbow very far.

What’s your key strength as a musician?

Maybe a strong awareness of when not to play. I’m always thinking: “What colour can I add to this painting?” And if I feel I have to wait 42 bars to play one triangle hit, I’ll make sure it’s the best ­triangle hit I can bring.

You played with Ringo Starr in his All-Starr Band. Enjoyable?

I did three tours with Ringo, so I consider myself a Beatle-ette. A lot of people say Ringo is an OK drummer, but I beg to differ – he’s an incredible drummer. When you listen to his drum fills, you realise that his playing is like singing in the gaps.

Do you remember your first ­rehearsal with him?

Sure. Greg Lake from Emerson, Lake & Palmer was on bass, and he looked at me and said [doubtfully]: “So you play rock ’n’ roll, do you?” I just smiled and thought to myself: “Buddy, you have no idea!” We started up, and after a few bars Ringo stopped us and said: “­Sheila, why are you hitting the drums so hard?” I said: “Ringo, you told me to bring it – are you ready?” [laughs]  

Drumming is very physical. Do you every wonder how long you can keep going?

Absolutely. My mind still says I’m 20, but sometimes I come offstage and think: “Who ran me over with a truck?” My father’s a great inspiration, though. He’s 78 and we just played together in Italy and Greece last week.

• Icon is out on Monday

artslife@thenational.ae