When Chris Blackwell signed Hillard “Sweet Pea” Atkinson to Island Records, he wanted to do more than just make a solo album for the Was (Not Was) singer.
“He wanted to make a comic book where Sweet Pea was the main character,” Don Was tells Billboard, “because he was a larger than life guy — which is how I still think of him. I don’t think of him as a regular human.”
Atkinson’s large life came to an end May 5, when he suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 74 in Los Angeles, where he lived.
While Was (Not Was) became Atkinson’s claim to fame, it was also the stepping stone into a career that included two solo albums — Don’t Walk Away in 1982 and 2017’s Get What You Deserve — and membership in another band, the Boneshakers. Atkinson also spent a decade on the road with Lyle Lovett and sang on records by Bonnie Raitt (including her Grammy Award-winning Nick of Time), Bob Dylan, Elton John, Brian Wilson, Willie Nelson, Iggy Pop, Jackson Browne, Kris Kristofferson, George Jones, Bob Seger and others. His smoky, soulful vocals were his calling card, but his fashion sense — sharply tailored, wide-lapelled suits and an ever-present fedora — an equally memorable impression.
Upon the release of Get What You Deserve, Atkinson proclaimed that, “I’m old as dirt — but I can still sing!”
“People keep saying ‘one of a kind,’ and that’s it. He was one of a kind,” says Was (Not Was) and Boneshakers guitarist Randy Jacobs. “He was one of those guys who opens his mouth and it’s just there. He didn’t have to warm up to do that. All the time I knew him, he didn’t have to warm up singing. He just opened his mouth, and there it was. It was a gift.”
On top of that, Jacobs adds, “He had that aura. He could walk on stage and win everybody over, without singing a note….because he’s Sweet Pea. I saw him do that so many times. And then once he sings…forget about it.”
Lovett, who met Atkinson during the early ’90s, recalls that “he had a gruff exterior. He might say something that had an edge to it, or a little bit of an attitude — but then he’d laugh. He was very aware of his persona.”
Born in Oberlin, Ohio, Atkinson moved to Detroit when he was young and worked on the assembly line for Chrysler — where he would sing while building rear ends for cars. Steeped in R&B, soul and blues, he always had musical aspirations and was singing with fellow United Auto Workers members in a local band called Hi Energy when was first met him during the late ’70s at Sound Suite Studios in Detroit, one night when Atkinson and his band were rehearsing at the facility.
“He was the most flamboyant character I ever met,” Was recalls. “It was three in the morning and we walked out into the hallway and he’s wearing this orange ensemble — hat, shirt, socks and shoes all matched the exact same shade of orange. Coming out of that dark control room, it looked like he was on fire.
“He was pretty lit,” Was adds, “and talking a mile a minute, and it was hysterical. He had the most incredible stories.”
Atkinson became a key part of Was (Not Was)’s cross-pollinated sonic stew, forming a vocal triumvirate with Sir Harry Bowens and Donald Ray Mitchell but also stood apart as a defining character in the mix, bouncing from wry wit to soulful sincerity. “He had the voice I always wished I had,” Was says. “When I was writing songs, I was always writing with him in mind.”
Atkinson remained a staple in the Was (Not Was) lineup over the years and was also a key voice in Was’ Orquestra Was and its 1997 Hank Williams covers album Forever’s a Long, Long Time — as well as the Grammy Award-nominated short film that accompanied it. He remained with the Boneshakers as the band joined forces with Mindi Abair, and Atkinson’s resume also includes albums by Paula Abdul, Michael McDonald, Wayne Kramer, Marc Cohn, Khaled, Felix Cavaliere, Curtis Stigers, AJ Croce, Dave Koz, Taj Mahal, Keb’ Mo’, Richie Sambora, Walter Becker and Solomon Burke.
“I always encouraged Sweet Pea to adlib and throw in whatever occurred to him,” Lovett says. “Just how natural he was and how soulful he was came through in everything he did.”
Keb’ Mo,, who co-produced Get What You Deserve with Was, said that the time that, “Sweet Pea is one of the last great R&B/soul singers. He’s a man of charisma and style, a timeless talent…and the epitome of cool. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”
He got the name “Sweet Pea” because “he was a sweet gentleman who truly cared about people,” recounts his best friend, the producer and writer Chris Tian. “He was a gift to the world and he will be missed by all who knew him.”
Atkinson is survived by three adult children, grandchildren, and a sister in Detroit.