Hilliard “Sweet Pea” Atkinson, who had a run of improbable hits in the 1980s with surrealist art-funk outfit Was (Not Was) before becoming an in-demand session singer, died of a heart attack May 5. He was 74 years old.
“He was one of the most underrated soul singers around. I never felt he quite got the recognition he was entitled to,” said Don Was, who started the group with partner David Was in 1979.
David Was called Atkinson “a soul singer through and through and the greatest amalgam of gruff and gentle I’ve ever met.”
Gruff and gentle is a descriptor that could apply equally to Atkinson’s music and his demeanor. An impeccably dressed soul shouter, Atkinson sang hot but exuded cool. He projected danger, but his friends described him as fiercely loyal and warm-hearted.
“If he loved you, nobody could do anything to you. Nobody could say anything bad about you,” said guitarist Randy Jacobs. “And I believe that that gruff exterior was to protect him because he was a softie.”
Don Was echoed that sentiment. “He was cool, and he was smooth,” Was said. “He kind of learned it out on the streets, but you know something — it went beyond something you could learn. He was just the shit, man. He was fearless and warmhearted all in the same stroke.”
Which is not to say that the fierce persona was simply a façade.
Don remembered a time when a pack of drunken, amped-up Glaswegians started breaking beer bottles and kicking glass under the Was (Not Was) tour bus’ tires after a raucous show. Atkinson stepped up to handle the situation.
“He was changing out of his clothes. He had no shirt on, but he had his silk pants on and his shoes, and his hat. It was wintertime. He didn't give a shit. He grabbed a bottle of wine, ran out of the bus, broke the wine bottle, and accosted the 30 drunk guys. He scared the fuck out of them, and he made them sweep up,” Don said.
Atkinson was already in his mid-30s by the time Was (Not Was) launched in 1979. While the group was the brainchild of art provocateurs Don and David, Atkinson became the soulful figurehead.
“He was the emotional point of contact,” Don said. “I was concerned with grooves and melodies, and David was concerned with lyrics. And Sweet Pea had to bring the two of those together and transcend concept and make it touch people’s hearts.”
Atkinson’s ability to deliver weirdness convincingly was a key component of the Was (Not Was) vision of futuristic, atomic-age soul. However, Atkinson sometimes chafed at David’s more surrealist lyrics. He said in 2004, “Sometimes you wonder, ‘What the hell is that man thinking about?’”
David says Sweet Pea was a good sport about it, and that he could sing anything.
“Any guy who can sing ‘Walk the Dinosaur’ and make you feel like it’s about something, well, that's a guy who could sing from the proverbial phone book and make you feel good,” David said.
Released in 1987, “Walk the Dinosaur” was the band’s biggest hit, reaching the Billboard Top 10. It was a dance-along number about nuclear Armageddon, and the video had a strong Flintstones vibe. Was (Not Was) also charted with “Spy in the House of Love” and a rendition of the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” before going on hiatus in 1992. The group reunited sporadically in the 2000s, releasing the Boo album in 2008.
After Was (Not Was) dissolved in the early 1990s, Atkinson became an in-demand studio singer, recording with Michiganders Mitch Ryder, Bob Seger, and Iggy Pop, along with the likes of Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Willie Nelson, and Bonnie Raitt. He was also a longtime fixture of Lyle Lovett’s touring band.
Don, who by this time had become one of the recording industry’s top producers, worked with Atkinson on many sessions. He said it was never a hard sell to bring Sweet Pea in to record.
“He had this thing, I don't know, I guess you would call it like a sonic charisma, but even if he was singing background, he put like this little magical sheen over it, and it translated to warmth. He could warm up a record,” Don said. “Even though it was a gruff sound, it was comforting.”
Atkinson was born in 1945 and grew up in Oberlin, Ohio. By 1966, his employment prospects were bleak and he didn’t get along with his father, so he split. “I just got in the car and drove,” he said.
Atkinson ended up in Detroit. He got a job at Chrysler’s Eldon Avenue Gear and Axle plant, where he worked for more than a decade. He was also a fixture on Detroit's soul circuit, singing with groups like the Ixquisites and Hi Energy.
The latter group was recording at Sound Suite studios — the same studio on Detroit’s west side that served as the incubator for Don and David’s strange vision. Atkinson made an impression and quickly became an integral member of Was (Not Was).
“At that point, he was young, he was energetic,” remembered saxophonist Dave McMurray. “He was a scary guy with a big smile.”
Atkinson was the first arrival in what became Was (Not Was)’s trifecta of vocalists — alongside including Sir Harry Bowens and Donald Ray Mitchell — that proved to be a fierce front line. “We were always very lucky,” Jacobs said. “Not many people have that kind of firepower right up front.”
Former MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer was an early Was (Not Was) member and part of that Sound Suite scene.
“He was a larger-than-life character,” Kramer says. “Sweet Pea had a kind of persona that he implemented with new people. And so I got that larger-than-life impression of him. And then as time went on and we started touring, you know, I roomed with him, or we'd sit next to each other on the plane. And then we started to talk, and I realized this guy has some substance to him.”
Atkinson recorded two solo albums: 1982’s criminally underrated Don’t Walk Away (ZE/Island) and 2017’s Keb Mo-produced Get What You Deserve (Blue Note). In recent years, Atkinson would return to Detroit annually to take part in Don Was’ All-Star Revue as part of the Concert of Colors.
Before his death, Atkinson was planning to return to Detroit to begin recording a blues album with McMurray.
“We were getting ready to work on a blues record. That was our plan. And it was supposed to be this month, before all this happened,” McMurray said. “He was going to come to Detroit and stay here a month, and then we were going to record this record and also rehearse for the Concert of Colors.”
Brian J. Bowe is a journalism professor at Western Washington University. He wrote liner notes for the CD reissue of the first Was (Not Was) album, as well as the greatest hits compilation Pick of the Litter. He also wrote a Metro Times cover story about Was (Not Was).
We have a new events newsletter! Find out the best things to do in the area every Thursday morning in your inbox.
Brian J. Bowe is a freelance journalist and a journalism professor at Western Washington University. He was the recipient of a 2017 research fellowship from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation to conduct archival research on the MC5.