Happy 35th Anniversary to Sheila E.’s debut album The Glamorous Life, originally released June 4, 1984.
Some music is just joyous. Bursting from your speakers with an infectious jubilance, you can’t help but let it carry you away. This was how I felt the first time I heard “The Glamorous Life,” the titular track from Sheila E.’s debut album.
From that stuttering bass drum and flittering sax lick, “The Glamorous Life” drew me in. And by the time Sheila rained down her first timbale roll, I was hooked. As a young kid learning drums, I was instantly attracted to the scattering percussive groove that skipped effortless across the track.
“Who is this?” I thought, “and who is playing percussion?”
The answer to both was Sheila E., a young, yet seasoned session musician who had played with George Duke, Herbie Hancock, Marvin Gaye and reportedly played the infectious bottle clank rhythm on Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.”
And this was funky.
I first knew of Sheila E. through Prince’s B-side to “Let’s Go Crazy,” which had her seductively teasing and matching Prince’s come ons as they slinked through “Erotic City.” And whilst “The Glamorous Life” was written by Prince, this wasn’t just another protégé being pulled by the purple puppet master. This was a bona fide talent being ushered into the spotlight. And she held her own.
Driven by Sheila’s percussion prowess, “The Glamorous Life” is a funky frolic through the trappings of material relationships and emotional entanglements. It’s coquettish, daring, and playful, guaranteed to get feet shuffling any time it’s taken for a spin.
A month after the single’s release, Sheila dropped her debut outing, a collection of songs that, according to the liner notes were “directed by Sheila E. and The Starr Company.” But for anyone in the know, they really read “written, arranged and produced by Prince.” But unlike other non de plume recordings, this paisley production wasn’t a “prop yourself up at the mic and follow my lead” session. As an accomplished musician, Sheila contributed to the production and performance of the album that really makes it just as much hers.
As a whole, the album delivers on the funk and fun promise of its lead single. Album opener “The Belle of St. Mark” is a synth-led telling of infatuation set against a jittering drum machine. As only makes sense in a world of purple, the song is credited to Sheila E. though claimed to be written by Prince which he actually lifted (uncredited) from The Time guitarist Jesse Johnson. In return for this slight of musical hand, Prince confusingly gave Johnson credit for the song that follows, “Shortberry Strawcake,” despite Johnson having no involvement at all. Go figure.
This is made even more curious as “Shortberry Strawcake” has Prince’s purple prints all over it. The 4:44 funk jam is an instrumental jousting with swaying synth runs and twirling guitar solos. Sheila’s contribution is an oddly mixed down percussive accompaniment.
The seductive slow jam of “Noon Rendezvous” steadies the ship with a Sheila E. and Prince co-penned track. Sheila’s vocals achingly embrace the longing of the narrative whilst the sparse, yet warm arrangement doesn’t overplay the emotion.
The upbeat and playful “Oliver’s House” has Sheila once again adding her percussive skills to propel the track forward, and her dry delivery adds to the tongue-in-cheek narrative that makes a not so subtle (self) referencing line, “Oliver is so weird, but he knows how to play guitar” stay this side of cringey.
The lamenting ballad “Next Time Wipe The Lipstick Off Your Collar” is a curious arrangement that foreshadows later Prince tracks like “Condition of the Heart” and offers Sheila a chance to show off some of her vocal range. It’s one of those songs that you either love or hate and that can change with each playing. Right now, I’m back in love with it.
The album closes with “The Glamorous Life” (a double dose given on cassette with a Club Edit thrown in for good measure) and this ever-so-brief affair is over. Comprised of just six tracks, the album can feel a little lite. And the liner notes including credits for Hair, Make-Up and Wardrobe might make you think this is an all style, no substance outing. However, in the process of finding her voice and confidence, Sheila E.’s impressive musicianship offers plenty of the latter, ensuring that The Glamorous Life remains a thoroughly enjoyable listen.