At 59, Sheila E. remembers Donald Trump’s “escalator moment” distinctly. “It was shocking; my whole family and I were devastated,” the legendary percussionist tells Rolling Stone. “I posted a picture of my grandfather and said, ‘This is a man of dignity.’ He was a beautiful person; he wasn’t a murderer or a rapist.”
Long before Sheila E became a sleek dance-funk star with her Grammy-nominated song “The Glamorous Life,” she was Sheila Escovedo growing up poor in Oakland, California. She wanted to play drums like Karen Carpenter after watching her on television. Outside of her living room, the Black Panther riots, stabbings and killings were frighteningly close to her doorstep, she said. Escovedo’s father, Pete, a first-generation Mexican, was a percussionist. He never spoke a word of Spanish to her. Her mother, Juanita, was also first-generation of Creole and African American descent. She worked in a dairy factory. Music – percussion, in particular – was both a language and wealth her family had in abundance.
Donald Trump entered the presidential race in 2015 by infamously denouncing Mexicans. A year later, in April 2016, Escovedo’s mentor and friend Prince died at age 57. Her anger, compounded with surreal grief, led Escovedo back to the great social justice anthems that vivified her childhood.
“I was mourning Prince, I was mourning our country,” Escovedo said in her feathery tone. “This person who comes into office through bullying – it was just overwhelming. I cried a lot. I still often cry a lot. It’s just the way I heal.” Out came a uniquely curated covers album, ICONIC, which she is currently fundraising for on the crowdfunding platform, PledgeMusic. Escovedo is giving donors a miscellany of prizes from signed drum heads, cymbals and drumsticks to signed children’s drum sets.
“A lot of artists I grew up listening to in the Sixties and Seventies, like Marvin Gaye, I wound up playing with later on,” she said. “I remember listening to songs like Marvin Gaye’s ‘Inner City Blues,’ ‘What’s Going On’ and wondering which one I should do?” On ICONIC, she chose “Come Together,” enlisting Ringo Starr for a jolt of Beatles zest, as well as Sly and the Family Stone’s joyous ode to the working man, “Everyday People,” with Fred Stone on vocals.
“I remember calling Ringo and leaving a message of his cell phone. He immediately calls me back saying to just bring him the sound files,” Escovedo said with a laugh. “He just killed it.”
Escovedo is a longtime member of Starr’s All-Starr Band (she’s toured with him on three separate treks in the aughts), and described the granular approach she took in understanding his style. On drums, they both sit down to lead with their right hands on the hi-hat, left hand on snare, but from there, their approaches veer.
“Once I sat and broke down his process on every single song, I couldn’t believe how his simplicity of playing drums was actually very complicated. I’d close my eyes and every time I got to the part of playing the drum fill he would already be there. It was then I realized that his approach in the Beatles was as if the drums were another singer.”
The album also includes covers of Curtis Mayfield (“Pusherman”), Wonder (“Jesus Children of America”) and Parliament-Funkadelic (“One Nation Under A Groove / Mothership Connection”).
On the PledgeMusic website, Escovedo also released an original song she wrote for Prince, “Girl Meets Boy,” a wispy ballad she wrote after his death that will be the title track on her forthcoming original album. It is the only original song included on ICONIC, which she might play at her forthcoming concert at the historic Apollo Theater’s spring gala on June 12th in Harlem, New York.
“People aren’t used to hearing from me about politics, but our country in the last five years has been through so much,” Escovedo said. “We have to lift and encourage each other.”
ICONIC Track List
1. “Everyday People” (featuring Freddie Stone)
2. “Come Together” (featuring Ringo Starr)
3. “One Nation Under A Groove / Mothership Connection” (George Clinton)
4. “Jesus Children Of America” (featuring Israel Houghton)
5. “America” (featuring Candy Dulfer)
6. “Inner City Blues / Trouble Man”
7. “Funky National Anthem”
8. “The Ghetto”
11. “Respect Yourself”
12. “What The World Needs Now”
13. “Yes We Can Can”
14. James Brown Medley