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My Life in the Key of E

Richard J Salvucci By

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My Life in the Key of E: A Memoir
Pete Escovedo with Sarah Spinner Escovedo
284 Pages
ISBN: 978-0-692-87885-9

It's not news that the music business is tough.

There are some phenomenally talented people who scuffle for years trying to pay the rent. And, yes, there is the other phenomenon too,a commercially successful mediocrity elevated by the vagaries of popular taste. If for no other reason, Pete Escovedo's memoir makes for interesting reading: he's seen both up close. Throw in an impoverished childhood, issues of ethnicity and race, even East versus West Coast jazz, and you have a story. It's not always edifying or uplifting, but then again, real life isn't either.

Escovedo came from a family from Saltillo, in Northern Mexico, whose origins and motives for migration are understandably murky. Given the date of his father's birth and probable departure from Mexico, one suspects that the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) likely had something to do with with it, but that's just a guess. Escovedo had a hardscrabble childhood, pretty rough even by the standards of immigrant hardship stories. He and his siblings were separated, his Mother raising Pete and a brother, until she could no longer decently provide for them. His father, probably alcoholic, was frequently absent physically. or otherwise.

Escovedo and his brother Thomas ("Coke," as in the beverage, not the drug) ended up in St. Vincent's Home for Boys, "a place where orphans and foster kids stayed because they had no real home." (p. 26) There was, it seems, thank God, no physical abuse—other than the standard growing-up-Catholic-in the-1950s war stories. Yet the brothers were emotionally bereft and deeply scarred by the whole of the trauma. Escovedo implies that his drive to succeed came from his compensating from these childhood experiences, of which St. Vincent's was merely one. There's also little doubt that his strong affection and loyalty to family—and his own growing family after he married—was rooted in the time he spent separated from his birth family. Escovedo was part of a culture in which family was frequently the only safety net and refuge to which one could turn. The value he came to place on spending time with his own family is, in this context, hardly surprising.

Growing up in the East Bay, Escovedo was athletic, gifted artistically (the book features a attractive portfolio of his very impressive Picasso-Modigliani-Cubism inflected work which I suspect any serious collector would value) Percussion came in a fit of absence of mind, and his formal training, apart from on-the-job learning and "great tradition" lessons from storied Latin players like Tito Puente, a lifelong friend, was scarce. Perhaps it's no surprise that he was self conscious and insecure about his playing, which he considered no better than average on timbales. He regarded his brother, Coke, as much superior.

Apparently Carlos Santana did too, because he hired Coke first, then Pete, by virtue of Coke's recommendation. Santana was the big time, with big venues, big crowds and big living. Santana eventually fired both Coke and Pete, but still gets a warm acknowledgment. "It all worked out for the best, Carlos, gracias amigo. (p. 163)

The Santana connection in itself is interesting, because the the Santana story involved a romantic connection with Sheila E, Pete's eldest child, who gradually assumes a much larger role in the story. Sheila moves up from a kid conga player and student violinist to a major pop star in her own right as well as Prince's consort and controvertible heir. Escovedo seems alternately proud of and puzzled by Sheila over the course of the years. In some ways, Escovedo is an old-fashioned Mexican-American paterfamilias, worried about his children's marriages (or lack of them), their well being, and his grandchildren. Escovedo seems a little uncomfortable with modern mores, even returning in the end to the Roman Catholic Church for Sunday Mass. Yet if Sheila and Tito Puente upstaged him at times, he clearly doesn't mind. Escovedo is not a big ego, which is one of the elements that makes his memoir so poignant. He suffers through a succession of failed clubs in the East Bay; watches drugs and booze destroy his beloved brother, Coke; loses old friends as he ages; and assumes more than he share of responsibility for the troubles that life visits on everyone. This is a portrait of a sensitive, vulnerable, and very human person from whom thoughts of God, mortality, and fate are never too distant. And an appealing picture it is.

One of the more intriguing parts of the story concerns the creation of the band Azteca, whose name Pete Escovedo coined even though he, by his own admission, "wasn't trippin [sic] on the race thing." (p. 55) Azteca was Coke's idea, inspired by his time with Santana.


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