His longtime collaborator remembers the musical icon and shares stories of their friendship with EW

By Eric Renner Brown
Updated April 22, 2016 at 04:40 PM EDT
Barry Brecheisen/WireImage

The multi-instrumentalist and percussion virtuoso Sheila E. has played with artists ranging from Ringo Starr to Beyoncé, but none were as singular as her longtime collaborator Prince. “He recorded differently than any other artist I have ever recorded with,” she told EW Friday when discussing the iconic musician’s death. “It was just amazing — I had never seen anyone do that before.”

Sheila E., whose full name is Sheila Escovedo, shared the stage with the Purple One for much of his storied career, including the fertile period in the ’80s when he released seminal albums like Purple Rain and Sign O’ the Times that reshaped the pop music landscape. But her relationship with Prince dated back to the late ’70s, when she introduced herself to him after a gig and he famously responded, “Oh, I know who you are.”

Escovedo eventually connected with Prince professionally in 1984, as he was putting the finishing touches on Purple Rain and preparing to go out on tour. That same year, he also produced her debut album, The Glamorous Life, which was just one example of his emphasis on helping less-established artists. “He just loved so many songs that there was no way that he was going to be able to release all them on his own,” she says. “He loved working with women and helping them and encouraging them.”

The two soon bonded over their mutual love of Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, and James Brown, cementing a working relationship that spanned decades. “We knew were going to have fun,” Escovedo says of the subsequent tour, where she both played with Prince and served as his opening act. “We didn’t realize how big it was going to be. We had no idea.”

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But even in the midst of the massive string of gigs — during which Escovedo says she and Prince “were always together” — Prince acclimated admirably to his growing celebrity. “Wherever we would play, every couple of days or so we would try to stop at a hospital for kids who were sick and we’d play a show for them,” Escovedo recalls. “He loved giving back. It was something that he enjoyed. He didn’t do it to get something back — he just did it because he wanted to.”

Escovedo continued to collaborate with Prince for much of the ’80s, serving a crucial role as his drummer and musical director. “I was just as competitive as he was,” she says. “I was one who could hang with him until the end and he loved that.” And their good-natured rivalry extended beyond the stage: “We pushed each other in many areas, whether it be who dressed the best, whether it be who was going to beat each other at ping-pong or pool.”

Though Escovedo left Prince’s band toward the end of the Lovesexy Tour in 1989, because she “really couldn’t get into” his new musical direction, she remained close with him and they performed together frequently over the years. She says that when she heard the news that the star’s plane made an emergency landing on April 15, she called to check in on him. “I left a message and one of his guys called me back to say that he was sleeping, he was resting, and he was fine,” she says. Prince never returned her call.

Escovedo reflects fondly on the Purple One’s legacy, and says that his 2001 conversion to becoming a Jehovah’s Witness helped him manage his fame. “He wanted to be more outgoing and more approachable at times,” she says. “Imagine you’re so popular that you can’t walk down the street and enjoy a cup of coffee at a cafe without people taking pictures. It’s hard to live what everyone would call a normal life — his normal was different than ours.”

But his unusual sensibilities — the fact that Prince was simply different from others — also helped make his music some of the most unique in pop history. Prince “honestly wrote about what he wanted to write about, whether he told you a story that was true or not,” Escovedo says. “The way that he could flip a song and talk about something so sexual that you weren’t even sure if that’s what he was talking about — because the music was so funky.”