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.

Human League – Don’t You Want Me


The first thing to know about Don’t You Want Me is Phil Oakey hated it.

So much so, he fought with the producer over it, had it slotted as the last song on side two of Dare! (or Dare, depending where you live) to essentially bury it, and tried to stop it from being released as the fourth UK single from that album.

The sticking point for Oakey, who cowrote the song, was the mix, which he thought lost the allure of the original version.

But then, the song had evolved considerably from how he originally envisioned it.

It was not intended to be a duet.

Inspired by A Star is Born, Don’t You Want Me became a Svengali-protege song with Susan Ann Sulley playing off of Oakey’s stentorian self-importance.

A kind of he-said-she-said that cracked open how men see women as objects to possess and groom and then destroy.

But it is clear that Oakey is being destroyed by his own obsession.

Ironically, Oakey had pickedĀ  Sulley (and the band’s other backing vocalist Joanne Catherall) out of a crowd at a club, which makes the song’s lyrics almost meta.

I have always thought it fascinating how dizzying the song’s phalanx of synths sound, much like being on a carousel at a carnival.

There’s a certain splashy iridescence to it that approximates flashbulbs and spotlights that strafe celebrities on the red carpet.

Although Oakey thought UK audiences were likely soured on the band after three back-to-back hit singles, Don’t You Want Me was the Christmas #1 there in 1981 – a highly coveted prize – and it stayed for five weeks at the top of the charts before hitting number one on Billboard in July 1982.

Oakey still has reservations about the song, but he seems to have warmed to it over the years.

It’s kind of hard not to enjoy it not just as a relic of its time but also for how perceptive it remains about sexual politics.

Even so, every time I hear it, that opening line makes me think Oakey is talking about a missed connection on Craiglist.


Rock goes new wave

Band: Rush

Track: Vital Signs

Year: 1981

From the start, Rush was a band in a constant state of evolution.

The first album was essentially a riff on Led Zep and Black Sabbath heaviosity, with lyrics about what a drag it is to work all day, finding your way, and, uh, having sex.

With each album that followed, Rush moved away from that relatively straightforward template, helped in large part by swapping out drummer John Rutsey for Neil Peart.

Peart gave the band more brains and brawn, but it took a while for the band to get the formula right, as any listen to their third album, Caress of Steel will indicate.

Even 2112 gives way to a scattershot second side that still suggests Rush was hedging its bets to an extent.

But by 1978’s Hemispheres, Rush had it all together – long, complex attacks sat comfortably beside shorter sorties, and droll jokes sat alongside grander concepts about the dichotomy between the heart and mind.

By all accounts, the album was a beast for Rush to conceive and record, and just as challenging to replicate on tour.

The band decided to simplify.

Inspired in part by a new wave of art rock with more economical running times and slightly less bookish topics, Rush turned out Permanent Waves, which found the group dabbling with reggae influenced rhythms and punky pacing even as they continued to change tempos faster than a pit crew could change a blown tire.

But it took one more album, Moving Pictures, before Rush finally made an unmistakably new wave song.

Vital Signs, a treatise on the importance of individuality in a world of conformity, closed the album, and while the signature voice of Geddy Lee made it clear this was still Rush, there was something herky jerky and nervy about the song once it got underway.

And it shifts into a reggae influenced chorus that probably owes more of a debt to The Police than, say, Bob Marley.

Lyrically, you could almost imagine Sting writing something similar, given how he threw in references to ‘that book by Nabokov’ in songs like Don’t Stand so Close to Me.

Regardless, if Rush had started here, you get the sense critics might have received them a bit more favorably than, you know, all those songs about By-Tor and the nods to Ayn Rand.

Even the voice of Geddy isn’t quite as high as usual.

At four-and-a-half minutes, it is a bit longer than most new wave songs, and there are more tempo changes on display too, but that stripped down weirdness that starts around 42 seconds into the song suggest Rush was on the right wavelength, and Signals, the album that followed it, pretty much transformed them into a proper synth band, one that knew how to use the instrument to build the songs as opposed to a coloration thrown on to seem contemporary.

Ultimately, much like the genre that inspired it, Vital Signs proves how vital it is to deviate from the norm now and then.