Albums of Black History: Sheila E., 'The Glamorous Life'

Sheila E.'s 'The Glamorous Life'
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Warner Records

Hearing the demos compiled on Prince's Originals in 2019, it's tempting to agree that the late artist was the sole architect for each act he worked with, supplying enough superpowered talent to last them a whole single or even an album's worth. Some of the songs, from "Jungle Love" to "Manic Monday," could've been released as-is on his own albums and did just as well.

That changes slightly with "The Glamorous Life," a song Prince wrote and produced for percussionist Sheila E. off her debut album of the same name (reissued on vinyl in 2021 for Black History Month). The catchy melody and leapfrogging, saxophone-and-cello-driven hook is there. Conspicuously absent, however? The insistent percussion Sheila packs throughout the tune (running nine minutes on the original album). There's no denying Prince's singular talent - but it's also not wrong to say that he could be even better with the right collaborator.

In 1984, Sheila E. was that collaborator. The charismatic drummer came from a considerable musical lineage: her father and uncle, Pete and Coke Escovedo, played with Santana before forming their own Latin-rock combo, Azteca. Her godfather was Latin jazz legend Tito Puente, who'd penned Santana's hit "Oye Como Va." But her connection to soul music - stemming in part from her mother, a factory worker of Creole and African descent - was also considerable. Through her teens and early 20s, she logged time as a percussionist for George Duke, Herbie Hancock and Marvin Gaye.

It was Prince - himself a barely-of-age wunderkind in the late '70s and early '80s - who was determined to make her a star. He cast her in his ambitious film project Purple Rain and soon had her tapping rhythms alongside the core members of backing band The Revolution. His second chart-topping single "Let's Go Crazy" featured a bawdy B-side called "Erotic City" that featured Sheila's coy vocals amid waves of pitch-shifted Prince lines. Despite the risque lyrics - was she singing "we can funk until the dawn" or something more inappropriate? - the song charted on the Billboard Hot 100.

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Soon, Prince helped assemble an album for her. The Glamorous Life was slight at six tracks, but established her bona fides as a solo performer. The album delved deep into various shades of romance, from the dangers of material love ("The Glamorous Life") to distant yearning ("The Belle of St. Mark") and even slow-burn feminine lust ("Noon Rendezvous"). Add in a few showcases for Sheila's rhythms ("Oliver's House," "Shortberry Strawcake") and it's clear to see she was utilizing Prince's help as a springboard, not a cushion.

Read More: 5 Unforgettable Moments from Prince's Cult Classic Film, 'Purple Rain'

"The Glamorous Life," as a single, reached No. 7 on the Hot 100 - better than The Time's "Jungle Love," Apollonia 6's "Sex Shooter" or even Purple Rain's fourth hit, "I Would Die 4 U" - and Sheila's presence in Prince's world remained consistent. They collaborated on two more solo albums and several tours through the '80s, reuniting again throughout the 21st century. Today and everyday, The Glamorous Life is that first mile marker on an incredible collaboration between two great soul artists and a tremendous body of work for Sheila E.

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