The Latin music world would sound much different today if Pete Escovedo had maintained his original teenage aspiration of playing the saxophone. Thankfully, he quickly realized that his skills lay elsewhere, displaying a knack for playing beats on bongos he made out of coffee cans and tape that led to his establishing a six-decade career as one of the world’s greatest percussionists.
He’s also become the patriarch of a family with three generations of professional musicians, including his daughter Sheila, who attained stardom of her own in the 1980s as a Prince protégé who had a Billboard Top 10 hit with her song “The Glamorous Life.” Now 82, he’s still going strong, with a free concert Sunday at the Levitt Pavilion and his memoir “Pete Escovedo: A Life in the Key of E,” out Monday on Amazon.com and his own website.
“It’s really a labor of love, I never thought I would write a book but through the years of my travel, I’ve always kept a journal of where I went, and what I did,” says Escovedo. “It’s not a tell-all, but it has happy moments, a lot of sad moments, and great moments of people I met in this business and the countries I played around the world, telling how I started and the kids started and where we are today. I’ve had a very, very blessed life.”
That life began growing up in a music-filled house with six siblings in Pittsburg, Calif., where his brothers also played instruments and he would watch musicians play while sitting on the steps of nightclubs. He was invited to join the band of a local jazz pianist named Vince Kelly, and soon found himself performing with the group at the famed Downbeat club in San Francisco while still in high school.
“We opened for the Count Basie Orchestra, and that’s what sealed the cap on the jar for me,” says Escovedo. “Once I got into performing in a nightclub, listening to a great big band like the Basie Band, seeing how people applauded and enjoyed the music, I said, ‘Wow, this is what I want to do.’”
Throughout the 1960s, Escovedo teamed with his brothers Coke and Phil as the leaders of The Escovedo Brothers Latin Jazz Sextet, becoming kings of the San Francisco jazz scene. That led to his three-year run as a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band Santana, a gig for which he made the leap from playing a club with his own band one night to Madison Square Garden the next.
Yet he still dreamed of having his own group, and led the big band Azteca for a dozen years before moving into the past three decades in his own combo, which frequently features Sheila along with his sons, percussionists Peter Michael and Juan. Aside from playing dozens of shows together each year in clubs and festivals, the family also launched The Glamorous Life Latin Cruise from Miami to the Bahamas this past February.
“Because we were just getting started with it, the band rehearsed at my house since I have the biggest living room,” recalls Escovedo. “My kids would sit there and listen to everything and like a duck takes to water, they started taking in all that music. I was surprised when they actually started to get interested, and with all the instruments in the house, they had a little band of their own.
“Eventually, after hearing them play, and they would play so good, I said we might as well put them in my band and they would do a great job,” he adds. “Playing music around younger people keeps me going, and it’s been a great thing for me.”
Pete Escovedo performs at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Levitt Pavilion Pasadena in Memorial Park, 85 E. Holly St., Pasadena. Admission is free. Visit levittpavilionpasadena.org and peteescovedo.com.