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She had big thoughts. Big dreams.
She wanted to be an Olympic track star.
Sheila E., who was born Sheila Escovedo, reveled in sports – running, soccer, anything that kept her moving and competing.
One day, her father, the legendary Mexican-American percussionist Pete Escovedo, asked the teen to fill in for a member of his 18-member band, Azteca, who had fallen ill and could not perform in front of an audience of 3,000 in California.
At one point in the concert, he turned to his daughter and said “Take a solo,” she recalled. She looked at him quizzically. A solo?
Sheila E.’s countless achievements in music and film industries make her a standout entertainer who has lasted the test of time. Like other Latino visionaries, Sheila E. embodies what a crossover star is. Her achievements have opened doors for many aspiring Latinas, artists and actors.
Sure, she had started making music when she was a toddler, banging on pots and pans, and later conga drums, to join in on the jamming that her father and his friends enjoyed at home. She’d gotten skilled, mastering all kinds of drums, including timbales.
But a solo? In front of 3,000 people?
“My father pointed to his heart,” she said. “He was telling me ‘Just play from your heart.’”
So she closed her eyes and played. She lost herself. She let the music take her away, far off to a place that was different from anywhere she’d ever been.
“It was the craziest, most amazing thing,” she said. “It was like an out-of-body experience. I didn’t even know where I was anymore, I was just playing and playing.”
And that is when Sheila E. – the one who became an international percussionist sensation – was born.
“Once I opened my eyes, I thought ‘Wait, I’m playing in front of 3,000 people!’ I started crying, I was shaking. It was so illuminating, it was like heaven, what I thought it might feel like. It’s when I knew that that was what I had to do with my life.”
The epiphany proved rewarding. Sheila E. found fame, particularly with her opening for the Purple Rain Tour, where she performed with Prince, with whom she collaborated for two decades.
In April, Sheila E. – who chose the stage name when she went to Warner Bros. because of all the times she saw people trip over her last name when trying to pronounce it – is being honored with a Hispanicize 2014 Latinovator award at the organization’s fifth annual conference in Miami.
“Sheila E.’s countless achievements in music and film industries make her a standout entertainer who has lasted the test of time,” said Manny Ruiz, organizer and creative director of Hispanicize 2014, in an announcement about her award. “Like other Latino visionaries, Sheila E. embodies what a crossover star is. Her achievements have opened doors for many aspiring Latinas, artists and actors.”
Sheila E. said she is genuinely thrilled to be honored at the event.
“I don’t win a lot of awards,” said the woman who many remember in a decadent white fur coat while performing “The Glamorous Life.” “And that’s fine with me. But when I do win an award, any time someone wants to give an award it’s an acknowledgment of the work that you’ve done. It’s always such a blessing to get that recognition, the appreciation.”
Sheila E. is marking her 40th year in the business with a new CD, “Icon,” to be released March 24. Later this year, Simon & Schuster is releasing her autobiography, “The Beat of My Own Drum.”
Sheila E. still performs with her father, who will turn 79.
“I grew up listening to him play,” she said. “Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, they’d all come to my house and my father would jam with them. My father still sounds amazing.”
She doesn’t speak Spanish, she said. Her father, who was born in Pittsburg, Calif., spoke a little. Her mother is Creole from New Orleans, she said.
“My home [culturally] was like a big pot of gumbo with hot sauce,” she said.
The neighborhood was mainly African-American, but Latin custom reigned at home through food and music.
Sheila E. said she remains friends with Prince, whom she met at one of her concerts.
A summary of her upcoming book on Simon & Schuster’s website said: “After the show, [Prince] told her that he and his bassist ‘were just fighting about which one of us would be your husband.’”
For more than 10 years, Sheila E. has worked to make sure that kids have access to music and art. Her Elevate Hope Foundation (EHF) funds special programs that use music and the arts to give abused and abandoned children an alternative method of therapy.
“We’re also working on putting music and art back in the schools in California,” she said. “The kids really want it.”