Sheila E tells of the night Prince Popped The Question
Asking for someone’s hand in front of a stadium of cheering fans is common nowadays. Fans regularly marriage-bomb concerts, with stars like Madonna and Kylie Minogue happily interrupting their shows for couples to publicly declare eternal love. When drummer Sheila E (the “E” a shortening of family name Escovedo) found herself on the receiving end, the moment was remarkably private, despite thousands of revellers being present. The guy who popped the question was Prince, during a 1987 concert when Escovedo was still part of the superstar’s band.
As they reached the climax performing Purple Rain, the Purple One turned and mouthed the words: “Marry me?” Their romance played out publicly, but until Escovedo’s 2014 biography, details of the proposal weren’t.
“I met him at the very beginning of his career, right before his first record came out,” Escovedo says. The title track of her coming album Girl Meets Boy – due out next year – is a meditation on falling in love with her enduring collaborator in 1978: she was 18, Prince six months younger.
Prince’s death in April this year shocked Escovedo. In June she staged a tribute at the BET Awards in Los Angeles, featuring many of his bandmates, in an eye-popping testament to Escovedo’s skill and stamina. “The biggest challenge of that tribute was the emotional part,” she says. “I didn’t know if we were going to be able to get through it. When we were backstage getting ready to play, I was just trying to breathe and calm myself down because I didn’t want to break down and cry.”
Compared with Prince’s 40-plus albums, Escovedo’s discography numbers less than 10. Their success peaked early with debut album The Glamorous Life (featuring three chart-topping singles) and 1985’s Romance 1600 spawning a further hit in Prince duet A Love Bizarre. Yet any suggestion she is trading on Prince associations would be wrong.
Proficient on several instruments, Escovedo has produced, written and arranged most of her output and been in demand professionally since she was 15. Sheila E did her first gig aged five and has been in demand professionally since she was 15. “My parents said I loved music even from three years old,” she says.
At five she did her first gig with her father’s Latin-jazz band, Azteca. Surrounded by an extended family of musicians (Escovedo’s godfather was iconic Spanish Harlem percussionist Tito Puente), she was soon rubbing shoulders with musical greats.
“My Dad [and I] did our first record together when I was 16 with Billy Cobham – I couldn’t believe it,” Escovedo says. “Then Billy Cobham introduces us to George Duke and I’m like: ‘wow, this is amazing!’ Then Herbie Hancock. Lionel Richie and then Marvin Gaye … it just kept going on.” That list indeed goes on, from Diana Ross to, more recently, Beyonce and Kanye West.
So what does Sheila E have planned for Australia in December? “We’re going to have one big party,” she says. “I like incorporating the new and the old in my show. I know there are a lot of people who have never seen me live before. They want to hear a lot of the older songs and I don’t mind playing them.”
Sheila E plays the Metro Theatre, Sydney, on December 11, $75. Also 170 Russell, Melbourne, on December 7, $73; and Meredith Music Festival, Victoria, held Dec 9-11 (sold out).
Popping The Question
In the pop world, proposals are often public as well as showy. Former Sheila E boyfriend Carlos Santana mimicked Prince by proposing marriage to his drummer Cindy Blackman during a concert. Kanye West also did his asking in a large venue, although he wasn’t actually performing. West hired a sports stadium, filled it with people and had the billboard flash his question.
Pink took matters in her own hands, holding up proposal placards track-side between laps while her future husband, motocross rider Carey Hart, was competing. Singer and former The Voice star Seal has his own proposal advice: you’re never going to hear yes unless you get a little crazy. To propose to German model Heidi Klum in 2004, he built an ice hut atop a glacier accessible only by helicopter.