Oh, Sheila E. - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Oh, Sheila E.

Oh, Sheila E.

By Eugene S. Robinson

Sheila E. performs on SNL on November 16, 1985


Because if you have the slightest bit of funk in you, hers is a name that will double your daily funk quotient (DFQ). Guaranteed.

By Eugene S. Robinson

Setting the scene for someone who wasn’t there is almost as hard as it is necessary. Because when the artist sometimes and forever known as Prince was aggressively ascendant in the early 1980s, the heat was almost unbearable. Which is to say that when the Purple One and his entourage rolled into a club, not to play but to relax, the party was ON.

Capital O. Capital N.

What we truly dig is her viciousness in the pocket.

And in the midst of all of that costume-balling, androgyny, cross-dressing, and talk about G-d and sex onstage and off, you’d find a timekeeper nonpareil: Sheila E. It’s been said that the best way to ruin a good band is with a bad drummer or a horrible singer, and going into the Purple Rain sessions with Sheila E., Prince had neither. 

Prince spotted Sheila E. when she was playing percussion with her percussionist father, the renowned Oakland, California-based Pete Escovedo. While ’80s kids will remember her best for her multilayered collaboration with Prince, she made her bones before and after with the likes of Billy Cobham, Ringo Starr, Jennifer Lopez, Beyoncé, Kanye West — and the list goes on, even if it doesn’t have to. We’d have been happy to stop with just Prince and the fact that her grandfather happens to be salsa great Tito Puente.

But that’s not truly why we dig her. It’s not the big hair, the feathers and the fashion excess of that decade when and where she came into her own (and Grammy nods, TV and film roles, humanitarian efforts and charity work), but her viciousness in the pocket. There is a legend propagated by studio jocks, many of whom are male, that women drummers are consistently just a little bit behind the beat. Or, driven by nerves, rushing it too much. 

Sheila E. put that kind of thinking to sleep in no time.

On the money, on time and with a percussive dexterity that made you stop even if you knew nothing about the technical genius that drove her, nothing but what your ears heard. Sheila E. was and is something else. Though slowed a bit by health problems, she is still heavily involved in entertainment, charity and doing what she did and does best: beating the skins into some version of submission.

So for this Flashback we’re going to flashback to the tune we’ve been humming the whole time we’ve been writing this. And yes, indeed, without love, it truly ain’t much. 

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