Like its predecessor Vanity 6, the Apollonia 6 album was something of a community effort, with contributions from Prince’s touring bandmates and others from his circle. One of the most notable new additions to that circle was percussionist Sheila Escovedo, better known as “Sheila E.”
Sheila had actually been on Prince’s radar–and he on hers–for years before they ever set foot in the studio together. Her father, Mexican American percussionist Pete Escovedo, first told her about the “young kid… playing all the instruments and producing and writing by himself” in 1977, while he was recording with Santana and Prince was working on his debut album at the Record Plant in Sausalito. The following year, she told Billboard’s Jem Aswad. “I walked into a record store and saw a poster of him and was like, ‘Oh my God, he’s beautiful’” (Aswad “Sheila” 2016).
The pair finally met in person in 1979 or 1980, while Prince was on tour in support of his second album. “I went to the show and I was looking for the guy with the big afro who was so gorgeous,” Sheila recalled. “I got there a little late, and onstage there was a guy that kind of looked like him playing bass [André Cymone], and the other guy had long flowing hair and was wearing a trench coat with leg-warmers and underwear. I was like, ‘Is that him?’” (Aswad “Sheila” 2016). Naturally, it was; and when she came backstage to meet him, she learned that their admiration was mutual. Like her father, the 22-year-old Sheila was an accomplished musician, and Prince had heard her play with George Duke and Herbie Hancock. According to Sheila, he wanted to poach her for his own band: “The first thing he asked me was how much I charged. I told him, and he said, ‘Well, I’ll never be able to afford that’” (Nilsen 1999 138). Instead, they “traded numbers and became friends” (Aswad “Sheila” 2016).
Over the next several years, Prince and Sheila continued to circle each other, jamming together whenever he passed through her home city of Oakland, California. In 1983, while Sheila was on tour with Lionel Richie, Prince “sent enormous bouquets to every hotel room in every city where I stayed” (E. 180). By the end of that year–with Prince now presumably able to afford her services–she was joining him for recording sessions at Sunset Sound: Before he learned who she was, staff engineer Bill Jackson recalled a shy woman “sitting in the control room… wearing a T-shirt and jeans [and] being very quiet, coming in for several days” (Tudahl 2018 223).
Sheila played on several tracks Prince recorded in early 1984, including “Oliver’s House” and “The Glamorous Life”–both, at this point, being tentatively considered for Apollonia 6. But her most critical role was as a sparring partner to help push his writing and playing in exciting new directions. Their sessions would often begin with a jam, Sheila drawing on her jazz fusion background to nimbly improvise new grooves: As engineer Peggy McCreary recalled, “He’d be working on something and she’d be out playing drums, and he’d say, ‘Put some tape up to record’” (Tudahl 2018 251). “A Million Miles (I Love You)”–their only collaboration to make the Apollonia 6 record–was a glowing example of this approach.
The jam that produced “A Million Miles” included not only Sheila, but also keyboardist Lisa Coleman and guitarist Wendy Melvoin–two other key ingredients of Prince’s emerging post-Purple Rain sound. Sessionographer Duane Tudahl writes that the initial jam was recorded with Prince “standing at the soundboard playing bass”; he called out, “Give me a groove,” and Lisa came up with the main piano line “on the spot.” Her soaring major-chord melody conjures images of wide-open vistas, evoking both Prince’s recent “Take Me with U” and later Wendy & Lisa compositions like 1987’s “Honeymoon Express.” After “working out the basic structure of the song,” Prince ran the group through another take, tweaking the arrangement by calling out chord changes and “asking Wendy to give him some ‘greasy guitar.’” According to Tudahl, this take is mostly instrumental, aside from Prince’s James Brown-style shouts of, “Good God!” and, “It’s funky in here!” (Tudahl 2018 251).
When it came time to add lyrics, Prince turned for inspiration once again to the love affair between Apollonia 6 member Brenda Bennett and her husband Roy; he “gave me the impression that it was written for me,” Brenda told Tudahl. “This came from the fact that I always wore my wedding ring. There is a line in there about my ‘diamond ring’ and there had been a conversation between Prince and [me] about my ring” (Tudahl 2018 251). The song’s central theme of a love so strong it transcends physical distance–“If I were a million miles away / Would you visit me[?]”–may also have been inspired by Roy’s recent travels: while “A Million Miles” was being recorded, he was away on tour with West German hard rockers the Scorpions. Yet, in contrast to the more straightforward domestic bliss in Brenda’s lyrics for “Some Kind of Lover,” Prince can’t resist adding a touch of capital-“R” Romantic drama: Among the tests of devotion he proposes to his beloved are, “Would you eat a poison apple[?]” and, “Would you be burned at the stake[?]”
“A Million Miles” was completed on February 3, 1984–impressively, later in the same session as the jam that inspired it. Recordings of the basic track with Prince’s guide vocal are circulating in the bootleg market, with sound quality varying from abysmal to merely below average. Luckily, we aren’t missing all that much: Owing perhaps to the fast recording pace, his performance feels a little perfunctory, his falsetto not up to his usual sterling standards. In any case, as Brenda pointed out to Tudahl, he’s audible enough on the album version: “If you put your headphones on you can hear him, because he put his voice on there to show Apollonia how he wanted her to do the backing vocals” (Tudahl 2018 252).
Besides, the Apollonia 6 version of “A Million Miles” is another welcome vocal feature for Brenda, who hits it out of the park per usual, even nailing the inimitably “Prince” mid-song monologue (“Where’s the dawn[,] darkness is death / Don’t die[,] live forever[,] say you love him”). And the best part of the song has no vocals at all, as Prince, Lisa, Wendy, and Sheila take the opportunity to really cook over an extended instrumental coda. “A Million Miles,” along with its rough contemporary “17 Days” (written in August of 1983 and worked on further in January and March of 1984), feels like a definitive move into a new, baroque phase of Prince’s musical evolution, marked by increased collaboration with these three women: what I like to think of as “Purple Rain, Mark II.”
This shift would have more immediate, material consequences than even Prince likely anticipated. By the end of March, Sheila E would graduate from session musician to frontwoman, with her own album ultimately beating Apollonia 6 into the shops (not to mention cannibalizing half its prospective track listing). As for Apples and company, they sadly weren’t long for this world; but at least they got “A Million Miles,” a bittersweet memento from the benefactor who was about to leave them in the dust.