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Sweet Pea Atkinson, singer with Was (Not Was) and many others, dies at 74

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

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When he released his second solo album, 2017's "Get What You Deserve," Hillard "Sweet Pea" Atkinson declared that, "I'm old as dirt -- but I can still sing!"

And sing he did through a 40-year recording career that included membership in Was (Not Was), Lyle Lovett's band and the Boneshakers, as well as session credits with scores of other artists.

Atkinson died on Tuesday, May 5, at the age of 74 after suffering a fatal heart attack in Los Angeles, where the former Detroit resident lived.

"Sweet Pea was wonderful" recalls Lovett, who featured Atkinson in his bands for a decade. "Just how natural he was and how soulful he was came through in everything he did."

That was a lengthy list, to be sure. In addition to the bands Atkinson released two solo albums -- "Don't Walk Away" in 1982 and "Get What You Deserve" -- and sang on records by Bonnie Raitt (including the 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.

Producer Don Was, who discovered Atkinson in Detroit during the late 70s and was planning to make a third solo album with him later this year, remembers the singer as "a larger than life guy -- which is how I still think of him. I don't think of him as a regular human."

"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, through Was, 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.

Keb' Mo, who co-produced "Get What You Deserve with Was," said at 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."

Atkinson is survived by three adult children, grandchildren, and a sister in Detroit.

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