Appreciation: Sweet Pea Atkinson of Was (Not Was) 'one of a kind' frontman

By Susan Whitall
Special to The Detroit News

These days, you might hear Sweet Pea Atkinson when you least expect it—while social distancing at the supermarket, where in a ‘Mega Hits of the ‘80s’ set you might hear a raspy, Ruffinesque counterpoint to Harry Bowens’ smooth tenor on the Was (Not Was) hit “Walk the Dinosaur,” between the immortal “boom boom acka acka boom boom” choruses.

Atkinson, who died of a heart attack in Los Angeles May 5, at 74, was a charismatic frontman for the quirky pop-funk group founded by David Weiss and Don Fagenson, debuting at the Detroit club Nitro at the dawn of the ‘80s. While the rest of the group could at times seem goofy, the fedora-ed Atkinson was always effortlessly cool, urbane and wearing head-to-toe orange, just because he could.

As Was (Not Was) co-founder David Was said[SW1] , “Sweet Pea is the singer I wanted to be growing up in Motown. God better order another 1,000 cases of Captain Morgan for Pea's arrival.”

“He was one of a kind,” said Don Was. “I still haven’t wrapped my head around it.”

The group was a springboard to a longer career, for Atkinson, as an in-demand backup vocalist.  He served in that function for a slew of artists, including Bonnie Raitt, Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Bob Seger, Iggy Pop, Michael McDonald, Mitch Ryder, Kris Kristofferson, Brian Wilson, Jackson Browne, and George Jones. He was a member of Lovett's touring band from 1998 on.

Bonnie Raitt said in a tweet: “So sad to mark the passing of Sweet Pea Atkinson, whose backup vocals on all my Grammy-winning albums and so many others added so much grit and soul. He was a real character—as delightful as he was sweet under that gruff exterior, and truly one of the greatest soul singers I’ve ever heard.”

Hillard "Sweet Pea" Atkinson

Born Hillard Atkinson in 1945 in Oberlin, Ohio, he was restless as a young man. Sweet Pea headed for the bright lights and factory paychecks of the Motor City. There, according to Don Was, Sweet Pea worked as a bodyguard, and at the Chrysler Jefferson assembly plant. He was discovered in 1974 singing with an R&B group, Hi Energy, in a UAW hall.

Don Was also points out that Sweet Pea was a bit too young for the era of great soul shouters, his heroes Bobby Blue Bland and Marvin Junior of The Dells, but a bit too old for the smooth neo-soul singers of the ‘70s and ‘80s.  

Sweet Pea would have been the right age for ‘60s-era Motown, although that didn’t happen for him. But he had the vocal chops to have been there, the perfect, potent male sound to express the lyrics of the two soul-crazy musicians who formed Was (Not Was).

Was (Not Was) was a product of a decade — the ‘80s — when briefly, it seemed as if anything was possible musically, even a fusion of brainy, Dylan-on-acid lyrics with funk and Detroit soul.

It was weird, and then suddenly, it was mainstream with their 1987 album What Up, Dog, which spawned a No. 16 pop hit -- “Spy in the House of Love” –and then a genuine megahit in “Walk the Dinosaur” which shot to No. 7.

“Sweet Pea was a very good sport in general, and it didn't matter what breed of nonsense or agitprop poetry you put in front of him -- he sang it all as if it were from the very depths of his soul,” said David Was, who was responsible for much of that poetry. “He used to growl at me, ‘Why can't you write me a bedroom song?!’ I am supposing, akin to Teddy Pendergrass’s ‘Turn off The Lights,’ which I am genetically incapable of composing.”

Instead he had to sing numbers like "I Blew Up the United States," or "In K-Mart Wardrobes." But always, with intensity and focus.

David Was recalled a protest song he wrote, "Agent Orange," about how the government wouldn’t extend offer to children born with serious issues after their parents were exposed to the chemical in wartime. “The lyrics went: ‘Agent Orange, Agent Orange / Pray for those yet unborn,’ defying the maxim that you can't rhyme orange. But here's the hook: Sweet Pea didn't know one toxic defoliant from another, and unwittingly sang ‘Ancient’ Orange the entire session, despite my trying to school him to correct it.

Sweet Pea, David Was recalled, was a bit of a mystery. It was only when in front of a mic or under a spotlight when he would “summon his true nature from the depths of his sweet, tortured soul, channeling his pain into the requirements of song.”

Atkinson recorded two well-received solo albums, "Don’t Walk Away" (1982) for ZE/Island and "Get What You Deserve" (2017), produced by Keb’ Mo,’ for Blue Note.

Atkinson, who had lived in Los Angeles for decades, is survived by ttwo daughters and a son, several grandchildren and a sister in Detroit.

According to Don Was, a memorial service is expected to be set for later in the year in Detroit.

Videos featuring Sweet Pea and Was (Not Was):

 Walk the Dinosaur:

Cover of “Papa was a Rollin’ Stone.”