Book Review: Sheila E’s The Beat Of My Own Drum

sheila eConsidering he was such a huge star and cultural icon, it’s surprising that Prince’s eventful life and sad death has yet spawned so few ‘kiss and tell’ memoirs. Let’s hope it stays that way.

But while his long-time musical partner and one-time fiancée Sheila E certainly doesn’t shy away from sharing her memories of him in her fine autobiography ‘The Beat Of My Own Drum’ (co-written with Wendy Holden), those recollections form only a small part of a very rich, diverse collection of portraits.

After all, Sheila has played percussion and/or drums with some of the all-time greats: Carlos Santana, Herbie Hancock, Marvin Gaye, George Duke, Lionel Richie, Tito Puente, Diana Ross and Billy Cobham, not forgetting her father Pete Escovedo.

But while there are plenty of tasty music biz anecdotes, the book also provides a fascinating portrait of growing up in a mixed-race family (her mother is African-American and father Mexican) in a less-than-salubrious section of Oakland, California.

Sheila paints a rich picture of a seemingly happy childhood based around music, dancing, sports (she is apparently a pretty useful football player), charity and community, with shared cultural references such as The Carpenters (Sheila was hugely inspired by seeing Karen on the TV), Sly and the Family Stone and The Jackson 5, though there also some racial tensions around too.

But then the book goes in a completely different, unexpectedly harrowing direction when she chronicles the sexual abuse suffered as a young girl at the hands of several cousins. The section rivals James Rhodes’ recent book ‘Instrumental’ in its shocking candour. Thankfully, if anything, the abuse drives her ambition rather than beats her down, though she admits to seeing it as a dark secret that clouds the rest of her life.

There are fascinating anecdotes about travelling to Colombia at the age of just 15 to play percussion with the Latin/fusion supergroup Azteca. Cobham, Duke and Gaye are mainly described in glowing terms, almost as father figures, and she is unexpectedly candid about her romantic and musical infatuations with Santana. There’s also a hilariously mismanaged backstage ‘meeting’ with Diana Ross.

But it’s easy to forget just how unique Sheila’s talent was in the 1980s when she made it as a ‘pop star’. We had never seen a percussionist/singer/dancer triple-threat before, as she herself points out, and Latin celebrities were very rare. The pop period is grippingly covered in the book, with tales of disastrous video shoots, crazy tour schedules and much celebrity hobnobbing. Escovedo also very nicely juggles the spicy anecdotes with some genuine, intelligent advice for the modern musician, and just enough technical stuff about playing drums and percussion too.

Sheila also discusses her project Elevate Hope Foundation which focuses on music therapy for victims of child abuse, a noble and important program which continues to go from strength to strength. So if the last quarter of ‘The Beat Of My Drum’ reads more like a self-help book than a famous musician’s autobiography, we can surely cut her some slack. Highly recommended.

Six Great ’80s YouTube ‘Shreds’

SWING IN DEAUVILLE 1992

Chick Corea – look away now…

YouTube ‘shreds’ didn’t take off on social media the way trolling and cat videos did.

They are possibly a little bit ‘niche’. But what I really like about these musical parodies is that they take on a quality all of their own, producing a surreal, appealingly-amateurish mash-up of cheap synths, terrible guitar sounds and fake drums.

There is some intelligence behind them too – it’s not easy to sound this bad. You need talent. They also bring home just how great these players are. But hey – some possibly need taking down a peg or two…

6. a-ha play ‘Take On Me’

I like the badly-played synth motifs, Morten’s little off-mic asides and the unexpectedly-early chorus. And also the drummer’s Herculean efforts juxtaposed with the tinny, inconsequential sounds he is producing.

5. The Chick Corea Elektric Band play…something

This band were always one of the more unsavoury fusion units of the late-’80s. Their freakily-flawless musicianship, cheesy synth sounds and ‘zany’ stage performances are ripe for a bit of a rave-up.

4. USA For Africa play ‘We Are The World’

This one gets in for sheer oddness. It sounds like it’s been overdubbed by people whose first language is not English. Chinese? French? Kenny Rogers, Tina Turner and Billy Joel always get me.

3. Miles Davis plays ‘Tutu’

Sorry Miles, but I like the way this classic piece is re-imagined as a kind of remedial reggae/world music/’50s rock jam. I like the intensity of percussionist Don Alias’s performance. That little ‘tinging’ ride cymbal gets me every time.

2. Dire Straits play ‘Money For Nothing’

This is ‘Money For Nothing’ played by a bunch of teenagers who have just been given a few cheap synths, a crap bass and a few rubbish guitars for Christmas. I particularly dig John Illsley’s backing vocals.

1. Chick Corea duets with Herbie Hancock

Yes, why not some more Chick? There’s something about his smug performance style that lends itself to these clips. And of course the fact that he has made so much tasteless music for someone so near to genius…

Sadao Watanabe: Maisha

sadaoElektra Records, released 25th May 1985

7/10

Ah, the joy of tape-to-tape machines. One day, when I was about 16, my parents’ cool music-biz friend Steve brought me round a pile of cassettes, all tape-to-tape recordings, two albums per tape.

That was an important little selection right there: Little Feat’s Last Record Album, Steely Dan’s Katy Lied, Talking Heads ’77 and a few others that have skipped my mind.

Sadao Watanabe’s Maisha was also amongst them, an album/artist I’d never heard of. He’s a highly-regarded Japanese sax player who has performed in many different idioms from straight ahead to bossa nova.

He’s probably best known for his late-’70s jazz/funk material when he borrowed Grover Washington Jr’s band (Steve Gadd, Richard Tee, Eric Gale, Ralph McDonald and Anthony Jackson) for some huge home-country gigs and a few fairly popular albums on CBS.

Maisha is a fairly light jazz-funk album of a mid-’80s vintage, but on reflection it’s got more in common with MJ’s Thriller than anything by Spyro Gyra or Shakatak. This is due to a really phenomenal rhythm section and very subdued production with no blaring synths, drum machines or digital reverb.

Instead, it’s a lesson in groove construction. Drummers John Robinson/Harvey Mason and bassists Nathan East and Jimmy Johnson have seldom played better.

Yellowjacket Russell Ferrante’s keys are typically tasteful, sticking to Rhodes and acoustic piano rather than synths, while Jerry Hey adds brilliant horn arrangements to various tracks. Paulinho Da Costa is his usual effervescent self on all manner of percussion. And finally, guitarists Carlos Rios and David Williams play beautifully, the latter of course a mainstay of Thriller.

sadao 2

In general, the musicianship is loose and spontaneous, a world away from the studied session-head sounds usually associated with the ’80s LA studio scene. Mason marshals the band through ‘Paysages’ with a fantastically loose interpretation of the famous Bernard Purdie shuffle.

Herbie Hancock pops in to contribute a ridiculously great synth solo to ‘What’s Now’ (which is surely due a big-band cover version) while Brenda Russell’s refreshingly artless vocals feature on the Calypso-tinged ‘Tip Away’ and infectious ‘Men And Women’.

And not even Stanley Clarke could have bettered Nathan East’s bass-and-scat solo on ‘Good News’.

Unfortunately Sadao’s sax chops get a bit swamped by all this classy playing, but he does have a lovely tone, almost like an alto-playing Stan Getz, and writes several memorable themes on the album. So, thanks for this one, Steve, and for the Steely, Little Feat and Heads. Oh, and the China Crisis. I knew I’d remember eventually.

 

Story Of A Song: Chaka Khan’s ‘And The Melody Still Lingers On’

Jazz regained some ground in the ’80s. After a chastening period in the late-’60s and ’70s when rock pretty much swept all before it, major labels took a renewed interest in established jazz acts and underground movements flourished (no wave, acid jazz, harmolodic funk, neo-bop). Wynton Marsalis, Miles, Courtney Pine and Loose Tubes even put jazz back on primetime TV.

But when Chaka Khan recorded ‘And The Melody Still Lingers On (Night In Tunisia)’, the dramatic centrepiece of her What Cha’Gonna Do For Me album, she arguably set the whole revival in motion.

Dizzy Gillespie, Arif Mardin and Chaka Khan

Dizzy Gillespie, Arif Mardin and Chaka Khan, Atlantic Studios 1981

It was producer Arif Mardin’s idea, his mind wandering during a flight between New York and LA. The album was one song short – so how about a tribute to the bebop masters of the ’40s using the crème de la crème of the early ’80s soul/R’n’B/jazz session players? They could use Dizzy Gillespie and Frank Paparelli’s 1942 bebop classic ‘A Night In Tunisia’ as a template.

Chaka loved the idea. Mardin hoped to find a lyricist but deadlines were pending so he tackled it himself with Chaka adding the final touches. Mardin made a demo of the arrangement which cheekily inserted Charlie Parker’s famous 1946 alto break.

Charlie Parker in 1946, photo by Ted Giola

Charlie Parker in 1946, photo by Ted Giola

A lengthy chart was quickly made up (resembling a ‘Chinese laundry list written in cuneiform’, according to Mardin) which included eight spare bars for the insertion of the Parker lick. The musicians – Casey Scheuerell on drums, David Foster and Ronnie Foster (no relation) on keys, Abe Laboriel on bass – were booked and smashed the tune in one take.

Herbie Hancock later contributed a brilliant synth solo. Chaka then added her sublime vocals. Her four-part big-band harmonies and spine-tingling ad-libs bring the song right up to date.

But there was still space for an opening head melody and a solo in the final verse. Dizzy had been sent the demo by Mardin with a note asking him to contribute. But the bebop legend replied that he would be on tour and so couldn’t make the recording session – but he suddenly arrived two days before the album’s mastering date at New York’s Atlantic Studios to add his part. The track was complete.

Chaka and Mardin attempted to repeat the trick a few years later with ‘Bebop Medley‘ but it lacked the finesse of this timeless classic.

White City To The Hollywood Hills: Thomas Dolby’s The Flat Earth

thomas dolbyParlophone Odeon Records, released 18th February 1984

Bought: Our Price Richmond 1989?

9/10

As a burgeoning ten-year-old pop fan, I was a bit young to be aware of Thomas Morgan Robertson’s famous ‘She Blinded Me With Science’ single and video.

But when I went back and properly investigated that period of his career, it seemed Dolby’s ‘techno boffin’ image had blinded people (sorry) to his more subtle, slow-burning and – frankly – better songs such as ‘Airwaves’, ‘Cloudburst At Shingle Street’ and ‘Weightless’, buried in his fine 1982 debut album The Golden Age of Wireless. 

Circa 1988, my schoolmate Seb Wright stuck a few tracks from The Flat Earth (possibly ‘Screen Kiss’ and ‘Mulu’) at the end of the Lovesexy tape he did for me (yep, we were killing music…) and I was smitten – I needed as much music as possible by this guy. I’ve since bought The Flat Earth several times on various formats.

thomas dolby

Dolby deliberately downplays the ‘zany’ image on The Flat Earth and creates an atmospheric, beautifully arranged, largely introspective collection. He covers various styles (funk, lounge jazz, synth rock, World), mastering all with an incredible consistency of mood, production and songwriting. My mates and I also loved his habit of incorporating seemingly-random clips of audio into/between his songs, like the spoken word outbursts from the likes of Robyn Hitchcock.

The title track came from an unused jam originally intended for Malcolm McLaren’s Trevor Horn-produced Duck Rock album. Its lilting South African melody (reminiscent of ‘Obtala’ from Duck Rock) and confessional lyrics signalled a new maturity in Dolby’s style, continuing with the majestic ‘Screen Kiss’ which features some great (and much imitated) fretless bass work from Matthew Seligman.

Techno-rocker ‘White City’ is crying out for a decent cover version (or any cover version…). Dolby himself masters the art of the cover version with his take on Dan Hicks’s ‘I Scare Myself’ featuring a gorgeous muted trumpet solo by guitarist Kevin Armstrong who, according to Dolby’s liner notes, had never played the instrument before the recording. And the album closer ‘Hyperactive’ (originally written for Michael Jackson, fact fans) is actually a bit out-of-place on the largely downbeat Flat Earth but it’s a fun, funky, irresistible little pop song, perfect to send you out into the night with a smile.

Dolby is a brilliant painter of pictures with sound, relentlessly using audio fragments to augment melodic and lyrical ideas (check out the extraordinary tree-falling which pops up throughout the title track and also the typewriters which pepper ‘Dissidents’). But these songs would also work beautifully played with just an acoustic piano accompaniment, as his recent solo tours have demonstrated.

Of course, over here in Blighty, the music press were a bit suspicious of Dolby’s technical mastery and obvious musicianship, though The Flat Earth reached a more-than-respectable number 14 in the album chart. But, for some, he will always be too clever for his own good, a gimmick-peddler rather than an artist of substance. I beg to differ. He was all the rage in the States though; The Flat Earth peaked at number 35 and he made a gloriously-naff appearance with Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock at the 1985 Grammy Awards:

Dolby followed up The Flat Earth by playing keyboards with David Bowie at Live Aid (alongside Seligman and Armstrong), forming occasional project Dolby’s Cube with George Clinton, Lene Lovich and the Brecker Brothers and producing both Prefab Sprout’s triumphant Steve McQueen and Joni Mitchell’s underrated Dog Eat Dog. He relocated to LA, married ex-Dynasty actress Kathleen Beller and moved into the former house of ‘Blade Runner’ DoP Jordan Cronenweth ‘in the hills above old Hollywood’.

But we would have to wait four years for an official solo follow-up – and it was possibly even better than The Flat Earth. Watch this space…