Reflecting on the Detroit soul singer’s career beyond Was (Not Was)
Most of the obits written about Sweet Pea Atkinson in the last 24 hours were all pretty much standard newswire fare parroting all the facts as they pertain to the Was (Not Was) singer, who succumbed to a massive heart attack on May 5th at age 74.
But when you take a deep dive into Atkinson’s career beyond the Was Bros, there’s this lineage of work as a background vocalist that extends as far back as 1979. He first appeared in an official capacity as studio personnel on the George Jones album My Very Special Guests, where he jumped into the fire with both feet singing backup not only for a giant like George but such guests as Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Waylon Jennings and Tammy Wynette to boot.
AUDIO: George Jones My Very Special Guests
Throughout the next 40 years, Atkinson sang backup on countless albums in country, rock, pop, R&B and punk. He’s appeared on just about every Lyle Lovett studio album since Joshua Judges Ruth. His Was (Not Was) compadre Don Was, on his ascent to becoming one of the most renowned record producers in the music industry, took Sweet Pea along for one of his very first sessions when Was began work on Bonnie Raitt’s Grammy-winning classic Nick of Time. Bonnie wound up using him on every album she has done up through 2013’s Slipstream.
Atkinson sang on so many other albums over the last 30 years:
Bob Dylan’s Under The Red Sky
Iggy Pop’s Brick By Brick
Jackson Browne’s super underrated I’m Alive
Wayne Kramer’s The Hard Stuff
Brian Wilson’s I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times
Taj Mahal’s killer Phantom Blues album
Jimmy Smith’s last jazz classic Dot Com Blues
Willie Nelson’s epic reggae album Countryman
Walter Becker’s Circus Money
And that’s not to mention his work through the years with Mindi Abair and The Boneshakers, Paula Abdul, Ivan Neville, Andrew Gold, Michael McDonald, Richie Sambora and so many others. And he brought the same soulful grit to every project he appeared on with the same fervor he’d use to deliver such Was (Not Was) staples as “Where Did Your Heart Go?” and “A Spy In The House Of Love”.
Hillard “Sweet Pea” Atkinson was a larger than life character whose presence in our lives existed far beyond his work in Was (Not Was). The way by which he’s managed to quietly built up this auxiliary career in country music is in itself of the versatility in his legacy as a singer and vocalist. Indeed it is bittersweet to consider what a Sweet Pea country record could’ve sounded like.
But on the other hand, there’s nothing but nothing like hearing Sweet Pea and Sir Harry Bownes keep the fire of classic American soul music alive against the din of the Brothers Was and their art-funk orquestra.
He will be missed.
AUDIO: Was (Not Was) Live at the Milton Keynes Bowl 01/09/1990