Hillard ‘Sweet Pea’ Atkinson

There have been so many obituaries of late in the world of music, I haven’t really felt like commenting on them, because they have all felt more acute in this era of pandemic.

Little Richard

Betty Wright

Florian Schneider

Matthew Seligman

Hamilton Bohannon

I may take up one or two, but I wanted to say a few words about Sweet Pea.

Sweet Pea could, by all rights, have been an Atlantic or Stax vocalist.

You can hear it in his voice.

He had an almost ineffable quality that elevates singers to a level where they are discussed in reverence, but suffice to say he had grit, warmth, and fervor.

And he applied all of that mainly in the service of two wiseacres from Detroit:

David and Don Was.

Don met Sweet Pea one night after the vocalist had wrapped a rehearsal with his then band.

At the time, Atkinson was working at Chrysler, but he had dreams of being a singer.

In Sweet Pea, David and Don found someone who had the ability to take their off-kilter lyrics and prevent them from sounding like novelty songs.

Where Did Your Heart Go skirts with conventional tropes of heartache just enough that, if you don’t listen too closely, you miss the odd little details, like sharing a can of corn.

Or the anthropomorphization of the river.

Sweet Pea’s impassioned delivery makes it all work, so much so that Wham! covered the song a few years later as if it was an R&B classic and nearly got a Billboard top 40 hit out of it.

You can find that same delivery on Knocked Down, Made Small (Treated Like a Rubber Ball), which finds Atkinson recalling how the rejection of his father led him to a life of crime over a new wave treatments rejig of the Motown sound.

In a way, it’s a kind of Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone epic, but weirder, with more ramifications, and with the word ‘corn.’

On Was (Not Was)’s breakthrough What Up, Dog? – the album with Walk the Dinosaur, Atkinson tore up Can’t Turn You Loose like he had been waiting all his life to demonstrate his bona fides, and you can really hear how he could have had a career like that of Otis Redding if he’d just been born a few years earlier and had moved from Ohio to Memphis.

Although the Was bros. went their separate ways in the early 90s, Atkinson kept busy as a backing vocalist with everyone from Bonnie Raitt to Lyle Lovett, whom he spent 10 years touring with.

Which brings me to this overlooked nugget from Atkinson’s career.

In 1997, Atkinson reconnected with Don Was for a short film and album that drew on the works of Hank Williams.

My favorite moment on the album is when Atkinson (who stars in the film) sings the song Forever’s a Long, Long Time, a slow, sultry, noir jazz take on the track that provides probably the best showcase he had as a vocalist, allowing him to lean into that honeyed burr of his as he ruminates on the vagaries of loving someone – anyone – for a lifetime.

I kind of wish that Was had made another album or two with Atkinson in this vein, as it really suits his voice, even if there is an extended instrumental passage between his verses.

But that kind of adds to the tension in Atkinson’s voice the way that tension built at the start of Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone, so that when he does slip back in, there’s a bit more urgency, a bit more gruffness, but also a little more vulnerability.

Atkinson paired with Was collaborator Randy Jacobs in a band called The Boneshakers, and he released two solo albums, the most recent in 2017, but also one in 1982 that was also produced by Was and Was, which you might also enjoy if you liked W(NW) as the same humor is on display, with a few interesting covers, like this take on General Johnson’s Don’t Walk Away.

Atkinson’s legacy may be small, but it is rich.

A vocalist who made the absurd go down easy, he pretty much is a tonic for our times.

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