30 Years Later: Sheila E.’s ‘Romance 1600′ Album Is Far From Bizarre
A lot of entertainers come and go and a few even make hits, but it's not often that someone stamps their pass into timeless territory within a year of coming on the scene. But legendary percussionist and R&B singer Sheila E. has always had a flair for the dramatic dating back to her days as a musical prodigy.
Born Sheila Escovedo on Dec. 12, 1957, in San Franciso and raised in Oakland, she was the product of a musical family, with a famed percussionist for a father and a litany of uncles that were members of notable indie rock bands. And when you add in the fact that her godfather was iconic Latin Jazz composer Tito Puente, it's evident that music has always been a big part of her foundation. With all of that creative expression bubbling around her, it wasn't long before Sheila picked up the family trade herself.
Taking cues from her father's band, Azteca -- Sheila was heavily influenced by them -- she made her debut as a performer at the tender age of 5 at the Sands Ballroom in Oakland in front of a crowd of 3,000 -- not bad at all for a child that had yet to be enrolled in grade school. After a particularly impressive solo during a performance with her father, Sheila was intent on becoming a musician and would display a drive that would take her to heights unimaginable.
"When I was 15 years old, my dad's percussion player got sick," recalled Sheila E. in an interview with grammy.com. "And I asked him, begged him, [to let me] play in his band for the show and convinced him to let me do so. That one performance changed my life. That's when I knew this is what I'm supposed to be doing -- playing music."
By her late teens, Sheila was already a seasoned percussionist with A-List collaborations, including George Duke, Diana Ross, Herbie Hancock, Marvin Gaye, Patti LaBelle and Stevie Nicks under her belt. Around this time, she also began dating revered guitarist Carlos Santana and fully immersed in her craft. Recording and touring at breakneck speed, Sheila E. was regarded among the elite talents behind a drum set and her undeniable wizardry would pique the interest of the one and only Prince, whom Sheila met after a performance with her father 1978.
While the two hit it off instantly, their actual creative partnership wouldn't blossom until 1983, when the flamboyant virtuoso recruited his friend-turned-lover to assist him in the making of his Purple Rain album. She famously provided vocals on Prince's 1984 single, "Erotic City," which marked Sheila E.'s arrival and introduced her to the mainstream.
That guest appearance resulted in the budding star securing a deal with Warner Bros. Records, where she would release her debut LP, The Glamorous Life, in June of 1984. The album would be a smash success, largely off the strength of its title track, which would skyrocket to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart, as well as peak at the No. 7 slot on the Billboard Hot 100 -- a big deal for a new artist.
The buzz surrounding The Glamorous Life afforded Sheila E. a role playing herself in the rap flick, Krush Groove, in which she's the object of affection for Russel Simmons and Run of Run-DMC's. The hip-hop world were introduced to her face and music with this gig. Deciding to ride the wave and take advantage of the publicity, Sheila E. went back in the studio and quickly churned out her second album, Romance 1600. Released on Aug. 12, 1985, the album exceeded expectations and catapulted Sheila E. into the conversation as the hottest all-around female entertainer in the game.
Romance 1600 commences in the most appropriate way -- a resounding drum solo by Sheila E. as the talented beauty launches into the album's introductory selection, "Sister Fate." Written and produced by Prince, the beat is an uptempo affair, powered by massive percussion, cymbals, organs and saxophones, which collide and make for a contagious sonic collage. "There's a nasty rumor that's going 'round / People thinking you are, you and I are going down / They insist we're way more, more that just friends / So I'm gonna stick around 'til this movie ends," she sings. This could be interpreted as a coy, response to rumors swirling around of her underlying romantic relationship with Prince. Sheila picks up right where she left off on her classic debut with an enthralling lead cut.
While "Sister Fate" is intended to get you out of your seat and your body moving, the following track, "Dear Michealangelo," is a more subdued number that only requires a rhythmic sway. "Dear Michealangelo, colorful dreams in my head / I look at your pages and I'm with you in your bed," she croons over the airy, hypnotic production.
Sheila E. keeps the good vibes going before hitting listeners with the knockout punch that is "A Love Bizarre." Co-written by Sheila E. and Prince and produced by the latter, "A Love Bizarre" is sweet on the ears and is an instant winner, with the two eclectic masters of the groove intertwining their vocals and meshing together with a chemistry that's undeniable til this day. Lyrics like, "The moon up above, it shines down upon our skin / Whispering words that scream of outrageous sin / We all want the stuff that's found in our wildest dreams / It gets kind of rough in the back of our limousines" are both catchy and vivid, the perfect combination for a great tune.
The B-Side of Romance 1600 opens with "Toy Box," a feisty number that laments the joys of self-satisfaction in the most subtlest of ways. Sheila E. gets the point across effectively and leaves male listeners salivating at the mere thought of her getting down and dirty in her most private moments. The funky drummer throws a curveball with "Yellow," a jazzy ditty featuring Prince as the baritone-voiced co-star, while the album's title track, "Romance 1600," is a tour de force of frantic bongos, guitars and synths, which Sheila E. rides over with her most powerful vocal performance on the entire LP.
Making the transition to a singer may have brought Sheila E. to the forefront, but she makes sure to pay homage to her roots as a trained percussionist with the epic instrumental, "Merci for the Speed of a Mad Clown in Summer," which plays as an interlude before Sheila E. closes the curtains with the finale, "Bedtime Story." A ballad in the vein of a premier Teena Marie, Sheila E. owns it and turns in a stellar performance, proving that she's equally adept at providing slow jams in addition to her more lively records.
Romance 1600 served as a successful sophomore album for Sheila E., peaking at No. 12 on the Billboard R&B Albums chart and earning the singer her second gold certification. The project would also mark the climax of Sheila E.'s career on the mainstream, as she would fail to garner the same hype Romance 1600 had received with subsequent releases. She also split with Prince and Paisley Park after her 1987 self-titled album. But when all is said and done, Sheila E. did in two albums what many artists fail to do in a decade and that is create timeless music with a glamorous edge.
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