Sheila E, the legendary singer, drummer and percussionist, has lived on stage since she was a teenager — playing music first with her family and then on tours with Marvin Gaye, Lionel Richie and her notorious collaborations with Prince.
Now, after a lifetime in the spotlight, Sheila has written an autobiography, The Beat of My Own Drum, which casts a light into the areas of her life lived off-stage. TIME talked to the legendary drummer about her new book, her work as a musician and bringing the F-U-N-K to Prince songs.
TIME: You’ve spent so much of your life in the spotlight. Have you ever figured out how many years it’s been that you’ve been in the public eye?
Sheila E: The first time I played was with my dad at [age] 5. That was my first experience being on stage. And then I was playing a little bit when I was 14. But during that whole time in the Bay Area, we had so many different groups that we were inspired by, like Carlos Santana and Grateful Dead, Tower Power, Sly and the Family Stone. My dad played Latin jazz music and still does, but that time was the Motown era, so my brothers and I would emulate all the different bands, from the Temptations to the Supremes, Jackson 5 and Stevie Wonder, James Brown — it didn’t matter. We were always performing, going to our family’s house, my cousin’s house, my uncle’s house. But up until I was 15, I didn’t know that I was going to be a musician, because my focus in life was sports. I was an athlete, my mom’s an athlete, and I wanted to train to be in the Olympics and I wanted to win a gold medal. I feel that I’ve been transparent for so many years now that actually writing it down and letting other people who I haven’t been able to reach, letting them read this — I’ve been telling my story for a while, so it’s OK. I want to be transparent.
I read an interview where you mentioned how many inaccuracies were in your Wikipedia entry. Is this book sort of a way to fix that?
Yes — that would be great. We keep going in and fixing it, and they keep changing it.
What’s the one thing that keeps changing?
One thing is they keep saying that I learned how to play tuba.
You don’t know how to play tuba?
Maybe you should just learn to play a tuba.
Exactly. And then the year that I was born was wrong. It was two years off. And this lady argued with my manager one time. She says, ‘You know that Wikipedia says this was the year that she was born.’ And my manager says, ‘No, it wasn’t. I’m telling you, it’s my artist.’ And she’s like, ‘No, it’s not. Wikipedia is right.’ She’s like, ‘I’m sitting here with my artist. I know how old she is.’
One of the things Wikipedia says is that you met Carlos Santana when you were 18.
I met him before then, because my dad and my uncle played in the band, and we loved Carlos Santana growing up. That was some music that we had never heard before. Bringing percussion with some rock and roll melodies, a little bit of flavor of Latin in. Yeah, I met him when I was younger and then, later on, I fell in love with him.
What was that like for your dad? Was he like, ‘You can’t date my daughter!’?
It’s really weird, because it never came up when I was dating him. We really didn’t tell anybody. Not that I was too young or anything like that, or it was weird. He was coming to my soccer games, he was coming to the house hanging out. But he’d always pick me up or I’d meet him somewhere and we’d hang out on the other side in San Francisco, as opposed to Oakland all the time. My father never said anything to me. I don’t know if maybe he didn’t want to say anything, or it’s not like Carlos and I really hung out with the family and said, ‘Hey, we’re riding together now.’ He was on tour and I was touring, so it was almost like a relationship that was kind of in the Bay Area, but not. And my mom, honestly — I know this is crazy, but I don’t know if she even knew.
Your book talks about how Prince was already a fan of your music before you started working with him.
Yeah, before he was famous. He came to the Bay Area to do his first record, because he was influenced by Bay Area music and wanted to record in that studio where Sly and Carlos had recorded. So my dad was in Santana at the time, and they were at the studio, and they were talking about this young kid who was next door recording and producing and playing all the instruments by himself. They were like, ‘This kid is amazing.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I want to meet him.’ The following year Prince’s record came out, so he came back to the Bay Area and San Francisco to perform. And I went backstage to meet him and as I went to introduce myself, I put my hand out, and he saw me in the mirror and he turned around, and he said, ‘I already know who you are.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, okay.’ He goes, ‘I’ve been following your career for a long time.’ Then he asked me how much money I was making, and said, ‘Okay, I can’t afford you.’
A lot of articles have cast Prince as a mentor for you. Do you agree with that? Because it sounds like you influenced him as much as he influenced you.
Yeah, he’s not as much a mentor. I think we influenced each other. I influenced him the same way he influenced me. When he came back to the Bay Area, I introduced him to my family, and he got to see me play with my family, with my dad, and play Latin jazz music, and he’d never heard it before. He was like, ‘This is just crazy. This is amazing.’ He loved it. We mentored each other, if you want to look at it that way. That’s the good thing about Prince: you can see how he was influenced by the people around him. I can hear and see it, because I got to live the influence that I had on him as well as the influence he had on me — just being around each other, being able to record all the time and play, and do things that he had never done using live percussion instruments and recording all the time.
One of the things that comes through in your book is how spiritual you are. How did that work, being in the music industry in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s?
It didn’t. I knew that there was a God growing, but it was different later on, when I realized I wanted to be a better person and believing in God was not enough. I really needed to, in a sense, give my heart to the Lord.
There’s a story that you refused to sing “Erotic City” because there’s so much profanity in the song. Is that true?
Yeah, he said the “f word,” he was reading the lyric, and I said ‘I’m not singing that.’ He said, ‘Why not?’ I said, ‘Because I’m not going to say that word.’ I said funk, f-u-n-k, and he said the other word.
And then the story lives on.
Yeah and they keep telling me, ‘You said…’ You can manipulate things but I did not say that word.
Prince has so many songs that were really raunchy — songs like “Darling Nikki,” that spawned a whole national movement spear-headed by Tipper Gore. What are your memories of that time or that song?
I loved it. Are you kidding? Back then?
Even though it was raunchy?
Yeah, I mean, I didn’t know any better. That was the ‘80s. We were having a blast, I’m young. It’s like I walked around: ‘Hey, I’m naked. Look at me.’ Playing, just doing, having a blast. I had so much fun. And I loved the show that he put together. We all loved those songs. That thing was brilliant, then. And some of the songs are still great — just change the lyrics a little bit. I do “Erotic City” in my show. But I change the lyric.
Around the time that “The Belle of St. Mark” and “Glamorous Life” came out, there seemed to be a real push for you to be a pop star and less of a musician. Did you feel that sort of tug-of-war?
That was challenging for me, yeah. I signed as an R&B artist, and when “Glamorous Life” crossed over to pop, it became, ‘Yeah, she was a pop star, not an R&B artist.’ A pop star, that changed it. Then I started changing my show, because then it was more about me singing and less playing, and that’s why by my third record I said I don’t want to do this anymore. It wasn’t true to who I am. Not that I didn’t want to be a pop star or pop music was bad, it was just I wasn’t playing as much and that was the foundation of who I was was a musician. I played percussion and played drums. And the more that I sang and the more I didn’t play, I felt an emptiness and I realized that it just didn’t feel right. So I just walked away from it.
There’s a long tradition of singing drummers, but that didn’t appeal to you to try and do both?
I did do both. I incorporated as much playing as I could, but it was more about singing. By the third record, I need to figure out really what I want to do. I was so famous when “Glamorous Life” came out, and I mean, I couldn’t go into the store, I couldn’t do anything. And that’s a hard place, to be to be that popular. It’s a scary place to be, and it can swallow you up. I could see what these young artists have to go through nowadays. It happened to me, and I know it’s crazy. So I felt that I needed to change some things. So I went back, I started another band. I started a band called the E Train and I went back to playing some more Latin jazz, Brazilian, a little bit of everything with a smaller group, just so I could play again and I felt so good.
In your book you write very frankly about the abuse that you suffered. Was it liberating to write about it?
I’ve been sharing my testimony for a long time, since my 30s. It’s not always easy, but it’s great to talk about, because I realized not only was it healing for me, I was also helping other people. So then when I started to write this, well, the first time I wrote that first chapter about the abuse, I was in my 30s. I wrote for two hours, and I just broke down, like someone had stabbed me in the stomach. I hurt so bad, and I cried for three days. I couldn’t even get off the floor. I felt sick and disgusted. And I almost felt like I wanted to die — it was that intense. But I realized that after getting that out, after holding it in for so long, that the process of the healing began. I started talking about it and I started sharing. And then I realized that this baggage that I had carried for so long — baggage of guilt, baggage of shame, feeling dirty and all of these things that are not pure and clean and of God — and I wanted to let it go. I was like, ‘God, I’m giving this all to you. I don’t want it anymore.’ And really, I started feeling lighter and happier, and not angry as much, and getting better and better the more that I did it.
The experience has also led you to do a lot of philanthropy and a lot of charitable work.
Yeah, my brother introduced me to his friend and she said, ‘Hey, we’ve been through the same thing.’ I started selling my instruments on stage, and I was running out of gear, so I was like, I got to start doing this the right way. So we thought about starting a 501(c)(3). And we started Elevate Hope Foundation, and we started helping other kids. We thought, music has gotten us through this. Music and arts have healed us. They’ve become our outlet to express ourselves, and gave us courage and healing and hope. So we we went to foster care facilities since they’re the least likely to be helped — we started there. And now we’re opening up to the public schools, because all the music and arts have been taken out of the schools.
Going back to Prince for a minute, your relationship with him seems like a double-edged sword. Obviously working with him helped bring you to fame, but at the same time, you’re put up with people like me asking about your relationship. Is that how it feels? I’ve read interviews where you’ve been like, ‘Can we stop talking about this?’
It’s fine to talk about it, but after a while, once I answer one or two questions, then it becomes all about him, and I’m not doing his interviews. He should do his own interviews, you know what I’m saying? So it’s not fair to me to ask me a bunch of questions about him. I know everyone does that, because I’m the closest thing to him, or the only one talking about it. A couple of questions here and there is fine, though.
I’ll ask you one question. Did he ever make you breakfast?
Yes. Why does everyone always ask that question?
Because there are so many stories that circulate about Prince showing up somewhere and inviting them to his house for breakfast.
That’s true. I lived with him. Of course, he made me breakfast, and I made him breakfast. No one asks me, ‘Have you made Prince breakfast?’
Okay, I’ll ask you. Have you made Prince breakfast?
What did you make him?
Eggs. He loved eggs. Scrambled eggs. He loved scrambled eggs, pancakes — he loved my pancakes. And he loved my lemon cake.