"I'll remember him as my friend – someone that I loved very dearly," says Sheila E.
Musical genius Prince died April 21 at the age of 57. Subscribe now for an inside look into his private life and shocking death, only in PEOPLE.
Since his death on Thursday, Prince’s friends, family and collaborators have come forward to honor his memory.
Barely 24 hours after the news of his death broke, PEOPLE sat down with an emotional Sheila E., a former flame and longtime friend and collaborator of the late pop star. At her Chanhassen, Minnesota, hotel just two miles away from Prince’s Paisley Park compound, Sheila E. opened up about the Prince she knew – a consummate musician who, while a “genius,” also wasn’t that different from the rest of us.
For more on Prince’s private world and tragic death, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE on newsstands Friday.
“He was my friend. I’ll remember him as my friend – someone that I loved very dearly,” the singer and percussionist, 58, tells PEOPLE.
The two met at a concert in San Francisco in 1978 – and though neither knew it, they were already familiar with one another’s work.
“I thought he was a little strange. I saw his poster when he first came out, and I put the poster in my bedroom next to my bed, and I said, ‘I want to meet him.’ And then he had a big afro. So when I went to see him, onstage he had long hair, straight, with leg warmers on and a trench coat. I was like, ‘Well, where’s the guy in the picture?’ So it was a little strange,’ Sheila E. recalls of seeing him live for the first time.
“But I went backstage, and I went to introduce myself, and he turned around and said, ‘Oh, I already know who you are. I’ve been following your career for a long time.’ And we became friends.”
And fast friends at that.
When they first met, both were up-and-coming artists, relatively unknown to the general public. And they quickly bonded over their shared love of music.
“He would come over to my house, and I had a piano and a bass and a drumset, so we would just jam at my house all the time. We weren’t writing songs; we were just jammin’,” she says of her early days with her friend, with whom she would go on to record her hit “The Glamorous Life.”
Over the years, they would also tour and perform together, and she would engineer many of his tracks.
“He just grew as an artist: as an artist and as a songwriter, as he should. If he didn’t grow, he wouldn’t be the genius that he is. There were no limits. We put limits on ourselves, we put ourselves in boxes – he just continued to grow, move forward, push forward,” she adds. “I was there from the beginning and watched him change and grow into a musical icon. It was amazing.”
And the more iconic he became, the more he seemingly kept to himself.
“He would only go out so much. I don’t blame him: You want to keep your life as private as possible, and it’s hard to do that – and it’s even harder now,” she says.
“It’s hard because people think when you’re in the public’s eye that they deserve to know, and they don’t. They don’t. Our lives are portrayed on television, in the paper, on social media now. Everyone falls short of something all the time. None of us are perfect. It’s not fair. He was just like everybody else. He was just private.”
Having been friends with him for nearly 40 years, “I knew the person I don’t think everyone else knew, someone they didn’t get to see,” she says. “He loved people. He was funny. He loved throwing parties and having people over and playing music and entertaining: He liked doing that.”
As for their own brief romance, “He was amazing. He was an amazing gentleman – so funny and very considerate,” Sheila E. says.
Despite all the good times they shared together, though, she, like the rest of the world, will remember him for what he left behind.
“His music,” she says. “Everyone fell in love with his music. There are not a lot of people that knew him personally; they didn’t know him … but they got to know him because of his music. That’s his legacy.”