The day before Prince's birthday, there's an audible crackle in Sheila E.'s soft voice. The legendary drummer said she's been up all night polishing her new cover of "America" so it would be ready for what would have been Prince's 59th birthday.
"Prince wrote the song in response to America bombing Libya," Sheila E. (real name, Sheila Escovedo) says with sadness in her tone. When the song came out in 1985, it addressed Reagan-era paranoia about nuclear war. It was the final single on Around the World in a Day.
"It's crazy," Escovedo said of the song's resonance 30 years later. "Because here we are again."
When Prince died just over a year ago, Escovedo abandoned the dance album she was working on and began furiously compiling a new project that would become a new politically charged covers album, Iconic. She phoned famous friends like Ringo Starr and Sly and the Family Stone's Fred Stone for their involvement. She's using crowdfunding website PledgeMusic to finance it on her own. The whole thing came together in less than a year.
In honor of Prince's birthday, Escovedo gave Rolling Stone an exclusive taste of her new album with the incendiary, seven-minute long rendition of "America." She also spoke in a lengthy conversation about her personal relationship with Prince, what their kismet bond taught her about love and loss – and how she could always make him laugh.
What was it like revisiting "America," which you used to perform with Prince?
When I was filming the video, I was just getting angry thinking about how we're at this place again in society. And in the studio a couple weeks ago – as I was taping my timbale solo – I just broke down crying. Because I'm playing this song that [Prince and I] used to play together. I think it was written in '85, '86. And with him now not being here, it really messed me up. Filming and singing it was hard. Then to think, "Wow. OK, I'm gonna release this on his birthday." It's very emotional for me. But I think he would do this at this time, if he was here.
What musical elements did you aim to capture your new version?
Well, the crazy thing was both cymbals crashed to the ground when we were recording "America." I was hitting one cymbal so hard it came right off the stand. We kept playing, because I was like, "Don't stop." Then towards the end, the second cymbal came off. We did one take. Both cymbals were down at the end and I was like, "Wow, that's how you play a song." [Laughs].
Right after we initially spoke a few weeks ago, the Manchester Arena bombing happened. How did that news affect you?
Just horrible. And we're in this place, especially after Manchester and then the London Bridge attack just the other weekend, where we're going out on tour all year. It's a concern. Anyone can be targeted. It's not specific people.
My band and I were in Paris the night of the 2015 attacks, not even a mile away from [the Bataclan]. We might have actually played there, but we ended up changing the venue about a month before, because I'd played there the previous year.
That night, we were playing this other theater [in Paris] and as we were getting offstage, all of a sudden people were getting calls, texts. Promoters came and said they were gonna shut everything down, that they don't know what's going on but there had been a bombing. I remember – everyone, my whole band, our crew – we stayed in the lobby of the hotel. We didn't know if we'd be able to fly out.
None of us want to be in this place right now. But it's so easy for some politicians to say we'd rather be in war. Why? It's about power and money. It's not about our safety, our health and who we are as people. It's easier to just go kill someone. I don't understand the logic behind that. And that was Prince's point when he wrote "America" about Libya. It was a warning to our country.
"We'd just sing a lot of things and sometimes slip in a little something here and there ... There are no limits, there are no laws, there are no rules, we're just gonna do whatever."
Have there been other times in your career when you've been that fearful for your safety?
When I was 15, and traveling the world with my dad who was a professional musician, I remember my first time leaving the country, going to Bogotá, Colombia. I didn't know what it was like to leave our country. America is free. It's a country of gold and dreams; being able to pursue life. It's not a communist country. So when I left to go to Bogotá and there were guards with guns, military people walking the streets like it was an everyday thing, I had never seen it before. As I got older, there were bomb threats at Purple Rain concerts when I was out with Prince. Even when I was out with Lionel Richie, we got bomb threats all the time. One time, we had to evacuate the building. I mean Lionel Richie, really?
What was it like playing with saxophonist Candy Dulfer on "America" after so many years?
Well we've been playing off and on together for awhile. She's my girl. We're actually trying to put shows together for this year. I love her as a person. And as a musician and an artist she's incredible. Amazing sax player. And I don't wanna say because she's a girl – that has nothing to do with it.
Do you remember when she first started playing with Prince's band?
I remember the first time we met her. It was during the Sign o' the Times Tour. We were somewhere in Amsterdam, where she's from, playing an outdoor concert. [Candy] was in a band that was gonna open for us. At the last minute, Prince canceled the opener. So, we're backstage and I was walking to the production office in this little tractor-trailer mobile home thing to call my parents, and as I was leaving, I see this girl who's yelling.
At the time, I was the musical director for Prince. So I meet Candy, and she's this young thing, stomping around. She was yelling at me. She didn't care who I was, and it didn't matter. She's like, "I can play better than Eric Leeds," who was our sax player at the time. So I relayed that message to Prince. I knew that that was gonna get him. And he said, "Well, tell her to stand by we're gonna call her up to play." That's how we all started – because she was bold enough to stand up and say this is not right.
In honor of Prince's birthday, do you have any favorite birthdays you celebrated on the road?
Oh gosh, there were so many birthdays. One year, for mine – this is on the Purple Rain Tour – Prince canceled one of the Chicago dates just so we could have a party for me. It was at this place called Park West. He bought me another mink coat – I already had two or three already because that was the whole "Glamorous Life" thing. They had these big gigantic blimp things flying in the club. We stayed up all night, talking and laughing.
For his birthday on that tour, it was a costume party. I think he was a pirate or something. But I dressed up as a guy. I went to a cosmetic place and got the fake mustache, side burns and chest hair with spirit gum – it's like a glue – and a wig. It looked so real. At the party, Prince was looking for me and I walked by him I don't know how many times [laughs]. He did not know it was me. At one point, the band is jamming and I took one of the saxophones and hit a few notes – I can't really play, but I know a couple of James Brown licks – and then Prince turns around and is like 'Who's playing saxophone?' When he saw me, he fell on the floor laughing. He laughed so hard. He could not stop. He looked at me like, "I can't believe that you did that." That's what I used to do make him laugh – crazy things like that.
"He looked at me, I looked at him and we fell in love all over again."
Quickly. Can you set the record straight on the "Erotic City" lyrics? Is it "fuck until the dawn" or "funk until the dawn?"
[Laughs] I said F-U-N-K, and [Prince] said the F-word.
So you both sang it differently onstage?
Well, I didn't want to say [the F-word]. At the time, I just told him that I wasn't going to say it. At first he was like, "Why not?" Then he kind of mixed it so you really don't know you know what was really being said.
Were there any other times where you were purposely singing two different lyrics?
Yes, lots! One of the songs that was going to be on my record initially was "Scarlet Pussy" – and it was about a cat, but it really wasn't [laughs]. I stacked all these harmonies on that song. I remember we recorded it at Paisley when I was doing my second record. Paisley only had two studios then, it was A and B, so if he was in A, I was in B, and then he'd come over and hear what I was doing, and then I'd go over there into A and then record something with him, and back and forth. I remember him coming back and hearing all these vocals that I had done on ["Scarlet Pussy"]. We'd just sing a lot of things and sometimes slip in a little something here and there. And that's what made it fun for us. There are no limits, there are no laws, there are no rules, we're just gonna do whatever.
What were the discussions like about the lyrics Prince wanted you to sing? Did you feel like you could tell him if you were uncomfortable?
Oh yeah, if I didn't like something or didn't want to do something, it was no big deal. We came up with crazy things. When you listen to "U Got the Look" – the line "your body's hecka slamming" – that's because I used to say hecka all the time. It's an Oakland thing. We would just trade back and forth – your body's hecka slamming – he's like, "Oh, I'll put that in the song!" There was a lot of that [laughs].
You recently confirmed a rumor that Prince proposed to you onstage.
Yes, during the Sign o' the Times Tour. I was playing drums and it was during "Purple Rain." That song always made me cry. We were so into it. The way he played – my God. My eyes were closed a lot during that song. It was just so emotional. Musically, you know when you get to that place where you're just one? We hit that place. And when I opened my eyes, I could see his eyes were opening as well. He turned and looked at me during his solo and that's when he asked me to marry him and I said yes. We were still playing the song.
Did the audience know? Was it a big moment?
Oh no, it was just him and I. We didn't even see anybody else as far as I'm concerned. It was just him and I.
What was it like when you got offstage together?
Well, it's always emotional when we get offstage, talking about how great the show was. We got in the car together, you know, just hugging each other, loving on each other, driving to the hotel [laughs].
Did you take Prince's proposal seriously at the time?
Oh, yeah. I felt like we were married anyway. We were attached at the hip. If there were three hours I didn't see him – maybe that was about it. When I lived with him, he'd go to the studio at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning for a couple hours, come back and then wake me up and be like, "I'm gonna play what I just did." It was nonstop. We went to the movies, played basketball, ping-pong, pool. We were very competitive with each other [laughs]. We were in the studio recording all the time. A lot of the music that Prince recorded, it was just him and I in the studio for hours and hours just having fun, just making up stuff.
Is there one conversation you had together that's stuck with you?
Well, one time we were in his room, and he turned, looked at me and said – just out of the blue – "You know, everyone loves you and everyone likes you. Not everyone can say that or experience that." And right then, I just felt truly blessed [pauses]. You know, our lives together started a long time ago. When I first met him, I was already pretty famous. He'd been following my career for a long time. We really challenged each other.
When you reflect on your relationship – as friends, collaborators, lovers – what did you learn?
The learning experience is really about forgiveness. That's the only way you're gonna be able to live your life. And it's a hard thing. About a year or two after we broke up and hadn't spoken, I went to Paisley. This is when he was doing Batman. He was having a party and everyone was like, "How are you gonna go to the party, you guys haven't talked," and I said, "It's fine." I felt like it was fine. I was like, "No, we're good." I just felt it. So I walked into the building and I saw him. He looked at me, I looked at him and we fell in love all over again.
It was forgiveness. It was more important to love him as a friend. People do say, you want to marry your best friend – and he was my best friend. But I also loved him enough to let him go, and that was hard. It was very hard, like I said, it was like a divorce. It felt like I lost someone deeply. It was hard for him too, it was horrible. It was a horrible time for him [pauses].
We had a great life together, we really did, good and bad, the ups and the downs, there were a lot of downs. But at one point I told him, "I'm not here to play your music to get paid because it's money, money has nothing to do with it, I'm here because I love you. I don't care about your money." So I told him to stop paying me when we were out on tour. That really upset him. That was during the LoveSexy Tour.
And that was when –
That's when I knew I was gonna leave, that was about '88, '89.
Did the fact that you and Prince were diverging musically have any impact on your personal relationship?
It was both. It was music and it was personal. I want to enjoy what I'm doing. I work really hard and I love playing with people. And 90 percent of playing with an artist or in a band or being a part of a project is the hang. The other 10 percent is when you finally get to go onstage and do what you do. So if the hang isn't good, then why be there?
I don't care about the money, I never did. I'd be there because I love the music, I love the hang, and we all get along. But just to be there because it's a paycheck? I didn't want to be in that position, so I chose to leave. On the personal side, we started growing apart. And he started seeing other people while I was there playing in the band. That was very hurtful, very hard.
Back when you met, Prince pursued you, right?
Oh yeah, big time [laughs]. He pursued me for a long time.
Was it that you weren't attracted?
Oh, yes I was! Are you kidding? No, oh my God. The first time we saw each other, we looked at each other like – [laughs]. He was beautiful, and he was talented. I had this thing for guitar players. But I had just gotten out of another relationship with a guitar player and I was like, "Not another musician." I kept saying no [to Prince], but it was hard. After a while it was just like, "OK, well maybe." And that was it. He wooed me very well [laughs].
What did he do?
He did so many beautiful things. During the Lionel Richie tour in 1982, he sent me flowers at every place, every single day. Whatever city we were in, there were beautiful arrangements of flowers from [Prince] the entire tour. The entire tour. I couldn't bring anymore flowers on the bus. There were some I couldn't even lift. Each arrangement was different. There was nowhere to put them, so I started giving them away to either shelters or the housekeepers, because there was no room on the bus. It was a lot – and I loved it [laughs]. He knew how to get me. And every arrangement came with a card from him.
Do you still have them?
I kept every single card.