Sheila E. (1987)

Sheila E.’s time with Prince was nearing its end. Her third, a self-titled album on Paisley Park/Warner Bros. Records, was released on February 24th, 1987. While Prince and Sheila would continue to collaborate through 1988-89’s Lovesexy tour, it would be another 26 years before he would help write another song that she would record after Sheila E. So what was going on at this time?

Prince and Sheila E. in 1986. Photo courtesy of The New York Times.

In 1987, Sheila E. was a full-time member of Prince’s band. You could catch her drumming her ass off on the Sign o’ the Times tour in Europe and on the Sign o’ the Times concert film, which would be released that fall. Touring with Prince in 1987 didn’t leave much extra time for her to promote this record the same way she could with her previous two releases, The Glamorous Life and Romance 1600. As a result, this was Sheila’s first effort, neither certified Gold by the RIAA nor produced any Top 40 Billboard Pop hits. However, a couple of tracks from this album found success on the R&B charts, so there were still hits here, just not those of the cross-over variety like “The Glamorous Life” and “A Love Bizarre.”

Sheila E. was also her first album to not be entirely written and produced by Prince. What that meant for Sheila was an opportunity to escape the tight clutches of Prince’s influence. Prince allowed Sheila to show off her Latin flair through drumming instead of forcing her to sing songs he wrote for any potential female vocalist. While retrofitting existing tracks for Sheila may have been par for the course on her debut album, by album #2 and especially on this record, Sheila pushed her style to the forefront more and more. While Prince wrote or co-wrote only five of the ten tracks on the album, it was still released on the Paisley Park label, so I consider this album a Prince/Sheila E. collaboration. 

Sheila E. on the drums during the Sign o’ the Times tour in 1987.

One Day (I’m Gonna Make You Mine) – The album starts with this upbeat Prince-Sheila E. collab that has his fingers all over the sound. The horns. The synths. The lyrics. We can even hear Prince’s vocals in the background doing some sort of strange Spanish language yelping. Sheila adds her timbales to give it that trademark Sheila E. flair. This album opener remains one of the strongest tracks on the album, and it’s no accident. Prince’s involvement should always be placed front and center. 4/5

Recording information for the following three tracks is not well-documented and detailed like they are for most Prince collabs and writing projects for other artists. This is mainly because Prince had little involvement in recording these songs. Prince Vault has no entries for “Wednesday Like a River,” “Hold Me,” and “Faded Photographs.” Therefore, any writing credits documented below for these songs were pulled from Wikipedia. As for performances and instruments, the details remain a mystery.

Wednesday Like a River – This track is a Sheila writing and performing collaboration with Constance Guzman and Levi Seacer, Jr. Levi. Levi is best known for being Prince’s touring guitarist and bassist in the late ’80s to early ’90s. He was part of Sheila’s Glamorous Life touring band before Prince snatched him up after breaking up The Revolution in 1986, so offering his skills on this album makes perfect sense. It’s a good song with a catchy guitar and lyrics focusing on a woman’s break-up after losing her virginity. 3/5

Hold Me – The album’s third track was also the biggest hit from the album. “Hold Me” is a pretty standard late ’80s R&B/Pop ballad co-written again by Sheila E. and Constance Guzman. This time, Sheila’s longtime saxophonist, Eddie Mininfield, also receives co-writing credit. Sheila’s vocals shine here, but the song doesn’t stand out amongst the plethora of similar-sounding ballads of the era. The song reached #3 on the R&B charts in 1987 and #68 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. A non-album B-side, “The World is High,” was included for the 7″ and 12″ singles. 3/5

Faded Photographs – I do enjoy how this track is seamlessly transitioned right after Sheila’s breathy “hold me” is sung as the final line from the previous track. It’s an upbeat mid-’80s synth and rock guitar banger that would sound at home on any of the major movie soundtracks of the era. Again co-written with Sheila and Constance Guzman, including input from Samuel Domingo and another Prince band member, keyboardist, and vocalist Boni Boyer. The lyrics of this track appear to focus on the aftermath of a dissolved relationship, possibly the one Sheila had been singing about on “Hold Me.” The guitar sears on this track, so I would love to know who performed the solo. Could it be Levi Seacer, Jr., Stephen Birnbaum or Carlos Rios? Likely one of the three, but I don’t know which one. 4/5

Koo Koo – The album’s second single and only track to receive a music video, “Koo Koo,” is the next of the five Prince co-written tracks. Again, knowing this fact, it becomes pretty apparent to those with a keen ear for Prince’s style. The lyrics mimic some of the state of the world and society lyrics he was writing during this era (e.g., “Sign o’ the Times”), and it includes those tell-tale synth strings that Prince was fond of in 1986. A koo-koo track with koo-koo lyrics is also one of the album’s best songs. “Koo Koo” did not chart on the Billboard Hot 100, but it did reach #35 on the R&B charts in the U.S. This track is also notable for including musical contributions from Raphael (Wiggins) Saadiq of Tony! Toni! Toné! on bass guitar and vocals. He also appears on the album’s finale, “Love on a Blue Train.” 4.5/5

Pride and the Passion – We kick off the second side of the vinyl and cassette versions of the album with another Prince co-written track. Sheila effectively goes back to singing in the third person here, similar to her approach on “The Glamorous Life” three years prior. “Should we pass or should we play?” is a Prince written line reminiscent of other hypothetical questions he liked to ask, such as “Do we mark you present or do we mark you late?” from “Positivity.” It has that mid-’80s Prince feel with Eric Leeds and Atlanta Bliss making their presence known in the horn section. A good song but not exactly my favorite of the album’s Prince contributions. 3.5/5

Boy’s Club – The fourth Prince co-written track is another upbeat, funky number that seems to be written about the singer’s experience at a Gentleman’s Club. One thing that stands out to me in this song is Sheila’s robotic delivery of some of the lines she speaks (“You could be at home watching the Honeymooners. Wanna dance?”). It’s a unique approach to line delivery, and I’m not sure if it was a creative choice or just one out of necessity for her to deliver so many lines of dialogue in such a short amount of time. Sheila’s timbales are another highlight here, but honestly, the song’s overall vibe is a bit strange. That actually makes it another strong track for me, as I like to be surprised sonically. To my ears, it sounds like one of the least dated songs on the album, and I never get tired of hearing Prince helping Sheila kick someone out of the Boy’s Club at the song’s conclusion. 4/5

Soul Salsa – A primarily instrumental song with a credited writing trio of Sheila E., Norbert Stachel, and Levi Seacer, Jr. Sheila E. has included instrumental songs on her albums before, so this Latin flavored track is no exception. I don’t have a lot to say about this song. It’s nice but doesn’t stand out. 2.5/5

Hon E Man – A track co-written by Sheila E., Levi Seacer, Jr, and Constance Guzman, is another horn and rhythm guitar-driven nugget. Even though Prince’s involvement was absent or minimal at best, it still stands out for its Prince-like feel. The song is basically about a type of man that today we would call fuckboys. Sheila’s calling out their bullshit promises to get what they want but will ultimately leave you when the good times are over. Get ’em, Sheila. 3.5/5

Love on a Blue Train – The album ends on a very high note with this final Prince collaboration. Released only in Japan, this is probably my favorite song on the record for all its groove, vocals, and party atmosphere. It’s also likely the oldest song on the album. It was written and recorded in December 1985 before receiving more studio work in October 1986 in preparation for the album’s release. The song has a complete band feel, and according to Prince Vault, with no fewer than ten musicians credited as participating. Prince and Sheila E. effectively use the train metaphor to represent a “trip” taken physically and emotionally. Lines like “locomotive rock me, nothing’s gonna stop me” and “let me take your ticket, I’ll show you where to stick it” are classic Prince double entendres. All aboard! 5/5

Overall, I enjoy Sheila E., but I do not think it’s better than her first two albums. The Prince co-written songs are the strongest tracks on the album, in my opinion, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t value in the remaining five songs. Even though I don’t love “Hold Me,” it was easily the biggest hit on the record and fits in perfectly on ’80s Quiet Storm playlists. That proved to be true with its success on the R&B chart. With a bit more promotional push and a U.S. single release for “Love on a Blue Train,” I think this record could have done better from a sales and pop cross-over perspective. Sheila’s writing and vocals are on point here, and her development as a vocalist and lyricist can’t be ignored. While everyone will mostly remember her collaborations with Prince, this album proved she could go it alone if necessary.

My copy of Sheila E. on vinyl as well as 7″ and 12″ copies of “Hold Me.”

Overall: 3.5/5

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