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Q&A: Sheila E. remembers working with Prince: ‘He just wanted to play’

Prince, Sheila E

Prince performs with Sheila E. at the 2007 National Council of La Raza ALMA Awards in Pasadena. Sheila E. was a former close collaborator of Prince, who died Thursday at his home outside Minneapolis.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

When Sheila E. picked up the phone Friday evening, she didn’t need to be asked how it felt to lose her friend Prince. The breathy, reassuring voice of this singer and percussionist — a familiar presence in the mid-1980s thanks to tunes like “The Glamorous Life” and “Erotic City” — had grown small and measured, clear indication that the news of Prince’s death Thursday at age 57 had taken a toll.

Yet Sheila E. — who first made a name for herself in the Bay Area playing with her father, percussionist Pete Escovedo, and other jazz musicians — seemed to brighten as she began telling me about her experiences with the legendary musician. After meeting in 1978, the two started working together around the time of “Purple Rain,” then spent much of the next half-decade side by side, both on the road and in the studio; they remained close, she said, even after they drifted apart musically. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

What do you remember of that initial meeting?

My dad was playing with Santana at the time, and they’d heard about this guy playing and recording all of his own music. I remember seeing the poster for his first record with him and the big Afro. My friend who worked at a record store gave me the poster, and I put it in my bedroom and said, “I’m gonna meet you.”

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A couple of months later, he came out to San Francisco to play. No one knew who he was — the first record had just come out. The show was interesting, a little bit different than what the single was. When I went backstage, I introduced myself, and he turned around and said, “I know who you are. I watched you with George Duke. I think you’re amazing.”

We started talking, and we liked the same type of music and people that influenced us. We became friends right away. He came and started hanging out with my family, and he was introduced to Latin jazz music. He had never heard it before. He was like, “Where did this come from?”

Six years later, he co-produced your debut album, “The Glamorous Life.”

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I was so excited. We did it at Sunset Sound [in Los Angeles]. We said, “Let’s just do a record.” We stayed up and we recorded the whole album in a week. 

You must’ve been working 24 hours a day. What was the schedule in the studio?

There was no schedule — that’s what was cool about it. We just wanted to get it done, and if we were tired, we went home for a few minutes. But there wasn’t much sleeping because we were having fun: “Let’s try this. Let’s try that.” Some of it was with the band, some of it was just he and I.

Prince was making so much music at that time. He put out a new studio album every year between 1984 and 1992. Nobody works like that anymore.

That’s the problem: It’s work to other people, but to us it was just life. If you enjoy what you do and you’re in the studio every day just hanging out and creating, it’s not a job. Then, all of a sudden, you look back a month later and you’ve got 30 songs.

Was there a difference between the music you were making for his albums and the music you were making for your albums?

Not at all — it was just one flow. Especially at Paisley [Park] at that time, I’d be in one room doing vocals and he’d be in the other studio doing something, and he’d call me in. I ended up engineering a lot of his recordings because it was just him and I in the studio, 4 or 5 in the morning.

Prince famously worked closely with other women over the years. Did he understand women in some unique way?

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Yes. Our tie was him watching me play with my dad’s band and my family. He had never seen a girl play percussion before. He said, “Who else can we look at that plays?” I said, “The only person I know that plays drums that I grew up listening to was Karen Carpenter.” He was like, “Well, then you’re unique, so you need to do something because no one has ever seen this.”

I did my record and turned it in to Warner Bros. I didn’t even have an A&R person — I just did the record and turned it in. I told the label who I was and that I played timbales, and they were like, “What’s that?” They didn’t even know what the instrument was.

Eventually you and Prince stopped working together.

I was opening for him on the “Purple Rain” tour, then I was in his band. And then it went to headlining my own shows, and I felt it was too much for me. It was a heavy burden to carry to be a superstar. I said, “I don’t want to have to worry about doing interviews. I just want to go back to playing drums and percussion.”

That’s part of who he was, too. He just wanted to play. What’s to talk about? Nothing. We say what we need to say when we play.

Did you stay in touch?

I always knew when he was thinking about me, because the next thing you know, he’d call me and it would seem like we had spoken yesterday, even if it had been months. We were just connected in that way. It was all kind of seamless, like a thread that continued for 38 years.

Twitter: @mikaelwood

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