Hillard “Sweet Pea” Atkinson, the rich-voiced and riveting singer best known for his work with Was (Not Was), died Tuesday, a representative for Blue Note Records confirmed. He was 74.
Per Billboard, Atkinson died of a heart attack in Los Angeles where he lived. Bassist, producer and Was (Not Was) co-founder Don Was said of Atkinson: “He wanted to make a comic book where Sweet Pea was the main character, 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 formed a powerhouse vocal duo with Harry Bowen in Was (Not Was), and the band spent the Eighties releasing a string of acclaimed and increasingly successful records that blended pop, rock, funk and R&B with plenty of absurdist flourishes and surreal lyrics. The band was a launching pad for Atkinson, who went on to release two solo records and collaborate with an array of artists including Bob Dylan, Elton John, Bonnie Raitt and Kris Kristofferson.
Atkinson was born in Oberlin, Ohio, and eventually moved to Detroit where he worked on a Chrysler assembly line. He would sing during his shifts and formed a band with some fellow United Auto Workers members, Hi Energy. One night, in the late Seventies, Hi Energy found itself at Sound Suite Studios in Detroit the same night as Was. Was recalled seeing Atkinson for the first time at three in the morning when the singer emerged from a dark control room “wearing this orange ensemble — hat, shirt, socks and shoes all matched the exact same shade of orange… it looked like he was on fire.”
Was (Not Was) released its self-titled debut in 1981, followed by Born to Laugh at Tornadoes in 1983. Their breakthrough, What Up, Dog?, arrived in 1988, propelled by the hit “Walk the Dinosaur,” and the band released one more LP, Are You Okay? in 1990 before going hiatus. Atkinson released his debut solo album, Don’t Walk Away, in 1982, and after the dissolution of Was (Not Was), he embarked on a fruitful career as a session and touring vocalist.
Atkinson continued to work with Was throughout the Nineties, most notably appearing on Orquestra Was’ 1997 album of Hank Williams covers, Forever’s a Long, Long Time. He also formed the band the Boneshakers with frequent Was (Not Was) guitarist Randy Jacobs, spent 10 years on the road with Lyle Lovett and in 2008 he reunited with Was (Not Was) for a new record, Boo!
As a backing vocalist, Atkinson appeared on an array of albums and songs (many of which Was produced), including Bonnie Raitt’s Nick of Time, Bob Dylan’s Under the Red Sky, Iggy Pop’s Brick by Brick, Elton John’s “You Gotta Love Someone” and Brian Wilson’s I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times. In 2017, Atkinson released his second solo album, Get What You Deserve, via the venerable jazz label, Blue Note Records.