Sheila E. Wants to Shed Her Sexpot Rep

Sheila E. isn't happy with her reputation. "No one knows me for what I do best," she said the other day.

What she does best is play percussion instruments and drums. "But people don't realize I can play drums--I mean really play," she said. "They don't take me seriously. They don't think I have any talent. I must say I'm not a singer. I'm vastly improved over what I was when I started. But you can't compare me to the great singers. To me, somebody like Patti La Belle is a singer. I can't do what she can do, like get up there and sing a ballad and do it well. I can't even come close."

But because of her 1984 hit single, "The Glamorous Life," and three Warner Bros. albums, Sheila E. is known as a singer--and a sexpot singer at that.

"People think I go out on stage with no clothes on and sing," said Sheila E. (the E stands for Escovedo). She doesn't quite go to that extreme, but her outfits do accentuate her curvaceous figure and leave little to the imagination.

That afternoon in her Westwood hotel room, wearing a rather conservative suit, Sheila E. didn't look like a sexpot. Nor was she living up to her fiery image. She was very reserved, speaking in a soft monotone, looking down at the table much of the time, fiddling with a piece of paper and smiling infrequently.

Was this the real Sheila E.?

"Not really. It's just my mood now. But I'm not as wild as people think I am. What I do on stage is a show. People shouldn't expect me to be that way all the time."

Her image as a drummer will get a big boost with the release this week of "Sign 'O' the Times," Prince's new concert movie. She is the drummer in his new band, which toured Europe earlier this year. The movie, filmed in concert in Amsterdam, showcases this 11-member outfit.

Originally Sheila E. gained fame as Prince's protegee. He gave her her first break as a singer and has been a major influence in her career. Her association with him created a mystique that fueled the first year of her career. Since he showed up at some of her early club dates, fans started flocking to her shows, hoping he would be there.

According to the gossip, protegee was just a euphemism for girlfriend. Of course, her return to the band has generated rumors of a romance with Prince. But she only discussed their business relationship and didn't comment on personal matters.

This is not, as many assume, her return to his band. "I've never been in his band before. I've done some songs with him in some of his shows, but only as a guest. I've never been part of his band."

Sheila E. corrected another popular misconception: "I'm not giving up my solo career. It's just on hold while I'm in this band. I'm working on new songs for my next album. I've just finished two songs."

Unlike most back-up musicians who long to be solo stars, Sheila E. is apparently not too happy being a solo artist. "I'm more comfortable being in the background, playing behind someone," she said. "I can play drums and percussion and not have to worry about carrying a show. There's incredible pressure on a solo artist. You don't have that kind of pressure as a background player. I just need a break from it."

Without Prince's goading, Sheila E. would probably still be a percussionist. In the early '80s, she was a highly respected musician, working recording sessions and concerts. Landing a job in George Duke's band was one of her first big breaks. Back then she was still known as Pete Escovedo's daughter. Many music fans were introduced to her through two Latin-jazz albums she recorded with her father, a famed percussionist, on Fantasy Records. Her main credits, though, were playing percussion in bands that backed Lionel Richie and Marvin Gaye.

In 1983, Prince, who first met her about eight years ago, encouraged her to try something different: singing.

"He asked me to come to the studio and I thought he just wanted me to play drums. But he wanted me to sing on 'Erotic City.' I told him I couldn't sing and I had no experience as a singer, but he wouldn't listen. He inspired me. He had great confidence in me. He made me feel I could do it, so I did it. I was real nervous. But it sounded better than I expected."

She liked it enough to try recording her own solo album, "The Glamorous Life." That's when she changed her name to Sheila E. "I just did that so kids would have an easy time remembering it. People used to say Escovedo wrong or spell it wrong or forget it altogether."

The "Glamorous Life" single was a huge hit, launching her career, which seemed to be doing very well until her last album, "Sheila E.," which wasn't a big hit.

"My record sales are OK," she insisted. "Taking a break from my solo career has nothing to do with selling records. I just wanted to concentrate on what I love doing more than anything--being a percussionist and a drummer."

Sheila E., who's from Oakland, first started playing percussion instruments at 5. "Dad played this stuff around the house. I just picked it up because I grew up around it."

But she didn't get serious about it until she was 14. For a while, her father tried to talk her out of being a percussionist. "My dad played with all the famous Latin jazz and salsa people but he never made big money," she said. "He struggled all his life and didn't have much money. He didn't want to see that happen to me. I played the violin for five years and got pretty good at it. I even turned down scholarships. But I didn't want to be a violinist. I wanted to play percussion."

At 15, she talked her father into letting her substitute for an ailing percussionist in his band. "I did a solo and I got a standing ovation. What an incredible sensation! I knew then this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life."

Sheila E. is one of the major attractions of Prince's new band, which includes three musicians--bassist Levi Seacer Jr., keyboardist Boni Boyer and guitarist Mike Weaver--from her old band. With her powerhouse drumming in her showcase sequences, Sheila E. makes a vivid impression in the movie.

This time, rather than congas, she is playing standard trap drums--a new experience for her. "I've never played the big full drum kit in a band before," she said. "But Prince's band had broken up and he needed a drummer. I was looking for a change, looking to get back to percussion and I told him I'd let my band go and I'd play drums for him--even though I wasn't used to trap drums. But he always can get me to try things I haven't done before."

Getting used to playing a different kind of drums, she said, took a while: "With these drums, each arm and leg are doing different things. But through all the jam sessions, I learned how to do it."

Playing drums in this band, she said, is often a grueling experience. "Sometimes he'll jam for an hour without stopping," she said. "Sometimes I feel like my arms are about to fall off."

According to rumors, Prince is a dictatorial leader--a relentless perfectionist who's tough to work for. But Sheila E. refuted those notions: "He's a perfectionist but he's not closed off. He listens to people's ideas. And he's not that difficult. When you get close to him, you see him differently. I ignore the rumors about him. He's not a nasty person. He's not Hitler or anything. He's just Prince."

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