After flying in from Los Angeles, Sheila E. walked into Paisley Park late Thursday night.
“You kind of expect him to walk around the corner and say something and hug me. He’s always greeting you at the door. There was a stillness but at the same time it was his home. It was still warm. It wasn’t cold-feeling at all. It was actually beautiful.”
They were close friends for nearly 40 years. He wrote hit songs for her, she played in his band and the two were for a time romantically linked.
“This is not how it’s supposed to be. Things we talked about, he didn’t talk about death. He was always in the now. Let’s create. I thought we were going to grow old together,” the drummer, 58, said late Sunday afternoon, 24 hours after she’d attended a small, private memorial at Paisley Park. “I’m trying to be strong. He wouldn’t want me to sit here and cry. He’d want us to celebrate.”
Following the 57-year-old Prince’s death Thursday morning, Sheila E. became an in-demand media subject. She gave 25 interviews this weekend in Minneapolis and turned down requests for at least 50 more. Many took place in a studio inside the WCCO-TV building.
“It’s hard. It’s hard to talk about, but it’s also helping me,” she said in a soft monotone. “Sometimes in interviews or between interviews, I end up crying.”
She described the scene at Prince’s Saturday memorial. The room was dimly lit. Candles were burning as was always the case when Prince was around. His custom-made purple grand piano was sitting on the stage in the next room as it had been when he last opened Paisley to the public for a dance party on April 16.
Prince songs — recorded by him or other artists like Chaka Khan or the Time — were playing at the memorial.
“Some of those songs were hard to listen to,” said the drummer, her eyes moistening behind her thick black-framed eyeglasses. “I just started crying uncontrollably.”
Prince’s sister, Tyka Nelson, and brother, Omarr Baker, greeted people. There were no formal speeches or service.
“There was not a lot of talking. You grabbed on to someone, hugged them and cried,” Sheila E. said.
Among the handful of mourners were model Damaris Lewis, purple-clad Larry Graham, bassist and Prince’s spiritual mentor, and Kirk Johnson, his aide-de-camp who ran Paisley and played drums in the band.
“I had his urn in my hand,” Sheila said, fighting back tears. “It was unreal.”
“Saying goodbye to him was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”
She paused, took a breath — and paused again.
Sitting in a green room at WCCO-TV, the California percussionist was clearly spent, belying the sunniness of her multicolored top.
Dressed casually, the well-known shoe fashionista was wearing black tennis shoes — after two days in high heels.
‘Not even aspirin’
The topic turned to the unconfirmed reports by celeb news site TMZ and British tabloid the Daily Mail that Prince was addicted to painkillers.
“I’ve never seen him take anything, not even aspirin, in the 38 years I’ve known him,” Sheila E. said matter-of-factly, not defensively.
“Was he in pain? Yeah, he was in pain. I’m in pain every day. People don’t even know what it’s like to play two or three hours in a show. We’re athletes. Athletes go back out — it doesn’t matter if they’re hurt.
“Him jumping off those risers — is that going to injure his hip? Yeah, I think so. And in heels too. He was in pain. My back went out. I was partly paralyzed for two weeks, then my lung collapsed. You think it’s not going to hurt. Ask any musicians and artists. It’s hard to do what we do. We love it so much that the sacrifice is to go back out and do it again.
“I’ve got a brace I wear on my hand for the tendon in my thumb. I’ve got a tear in my shoulder. I’m in physical therapy right now. The older we get, it doesn’t get easier at all.”
Met Prince in 1978
Sheila Escovedo grew up in a family of percussionists. Her father, Pete, and Uncle Coke both played with Santana and the band Azteca. In her 20s, Sheila played with Lionel Richie, Marvin Gaye, Herbie Hancock and Diana Ross, among others.
Prince met Sheila when she was performing with her father in 1978. She sang backup on his “Let’s Go Crazy” on the album “Purple Rain” in 1984 and he, in turn, wrote hits for her, including “The Glamorous Life” and “A Love Bizarre.” After performing as the opening act on his Purple Rain Tour, she became the drummer in Prince’s band in 1987.
After that two-year stint, she launched a solo career specializing in Latin jazz. She also worked as bandleader for Magic Johnson’s TV, toured as part of Ringo Starr & His All-Star Band and recorded with Gloria Estefan, Beyoncé and Phil Collins, among others. All along, she’d occasionally sit in with Prince and his band.
On Thursday morning in Los Angeles, Sheila E. received a text from her uncle, who works at a San Diego newsroom, about Prince’s death. She and her manager, Gilbert Davison (who used to be Prince’s manager), immediately booked a flight to the Twin Cities.
“We got on the plane and it was full of reporters and cameras. All the flights to Minneapolis were sold out,” she said.
Since the drummer has organized all-star concerts for charity, she has been charged with organizing the public musical celebration for Prince.
Although the planning is in the preliminary stages, she’s already looking at the place in Minneapolis with the most purple seats — U.S. Bank Stadium.
It doesn’t open until July 23.
“I know that,” she said, smiling just a little bit.