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  • By Alan Richard


Blues and soul singer Sweet Pea Atkinson passed away on May 4, 2020 after a heart attack. He was 74.

Born in Ohio and raised in Detroit, Hilliard Atkinson (reportedly nicknamed “Sweet Pea” for his caring nature), was best known musically as a naturally gritty, soulful singer who performed in Lyle Lovett’s Large Band (along with Francine Reed, Sir Harry Bowens, Arnold McCuller and others) for a decade, and sang regularly with Bonnie Raitt and many other luminaries.

In the 1980s, Atkinson joined brothers Don and David Was (actual last name Weiss) in the band Was (Not Was). Sweet Pea played the starring role with co-lead singer Sir Harry Bowens. Was (Not Was) hit the pop top 10 in 1988 with the irresistible, groovy “Walk the Dinosaur”—silly but sung with effortless gusto and soul by Atkinson and Bowens.

But I loved Atkinson’s final solo album, Get What You Deserve, released on Blue Note Records in 2017 with little fanfare. The record largely was produced by the terrific blues guitarist-songwriter Keb ‘Mo, with some tracks produced by Don Was, for Blue Note Records where Was serves as president. (More on that album below.)

Don Was told Rolling Stone that when he first met Atkinson late at night at a recording studio—and Atkinson’s suit, socks and shoes were all the same color of bright orange. Was (Not Was) also made the pop top 20 with the even more 1980s-sounding “Spy in the House of Love,” from What’s Up, Dog?, the same 1988 album that included “Dinosaur.”

The group made five albums in all, returning in 2001 for the more timeless sounding album Boo!, which even incorporated country and “beach music” elements. Atkinson also sang in the Was brothers’ more jazz-oriented group, Orquestra Was.

Lyle Lovett’s fans will remember Atkinson and the other fine singers in the Large Band for their unforgettable performances, which helped make some of Lovett’s recordings and concerts so unforgettable.

He’d sung with Lovett at least since 1992’s Joshua Judges Ruth, on which Atkinson sings prominently on the tongue-in-cheek gospel hymn to Sunday hunger, “Church.”

Also among Atkinson’s best with Lovett: From 1996’s The Road to Ensenada, Lovett’s best studio album in my view, the original version of “That’s Right (You’re Not from Texas)” (co-written with the late Willis Alan Ramsey of the Uncle Walt’s Band, one of Lovett’s main influences). The song is an extra-long, hilarious soulful, swinging romp.

There’s also 1999’s Live in Texas, which features a great concert version of “That’s Right (You’re Not from Texas),” bawdy early blues woman Ida Cox’s “M-O-N-E-Y” and a live version of “Church.” It’s also the concert record that features the brilliant Francine Reed belting out her signature performance of Ida Cox’s 1924 classic “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues” (popularized by Bessie Smith).

Atkinson also sang backup for many other top talents, including Solomon Burke, Taj Mahal, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Kris Kristofferson, Michael McDonald, Brian Wilson, Marc Cohn, Elton John, Ivan Neville, Khaled, Keb’ Mo’, Stephen Bruton, Bob Seger, Iggy Pop and the Austin band Storyville.

And he sang backup on the Don Was-produced Rhythm Country and Blues, one of my favorite albums, pairing country and R&B stars for duets such as the Rev. Al Green and Lovett on Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away,” Aaron Neville and Trisha Yearwood for Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces,” the late Little Richard and Tanya Tucker rockin’ out on “Something Else,” and B.B. King and George Jones on Clarence Carter’s country-soul Muscle Shoals classic, “Patches.”

Atkinson made his solo album debut on 1982’s, Don’t Walk Away, backed by Was (Not Was) with covers of songs by General Johnson, Eddie Rabbit, and Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

He joined Was (Not Was) guitarist Randy Jacobs in the Boneshakers, making two albums as a band and in recent years becoming the backing group for saxophonist Mindi Abair.

Sweet Pea Atkinson and Lyle Lovett

Atkinson even sang backup on George Jones’ 1979 duets album My Very Special Guests, produced by Billy Sherrill and Brian Ahern, featuring Jones singing with Mavis and Pops Staples (for “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”), Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, James Taylor, Emmylou Harris (on Rodney Crowell’s “Here We Are”), Linda Ronstadt, Elvis Costello and more.

Some of Atkinson’s last, best performances

Atkinson’s final album of his own was splendid. One of its highlights is the opening cut, a knockout remake of Freddie Scott’s marvelous 1966 No. 1 R&B hit “Are You Lonely for Me Baby?,” and may actually top the original, at least in terms of Atkinson’s vocal performance. The track was written by Bert Russell (best known as Bert Berns—see details below) and by Scott himself, some believe.

But there are many other memorable moments on this album of artfully chosen cuts, many lesser-known soul classics among them.

One of the best here is Atkinson’s bluesy cover of “Last Two Dollars,” a poor man’s lament by Fame Studios and Muscle Shoals songwriter George Jackson. Although it speaks of a poor man spending his only remaining greenbacks to go hear some down-home blues, has a similar melody and shuffle to O.V. Wright’s “I’m Going Home to Live with God”--a decidedly differently message, but the alternate side of the two-faced coin often found in blues and life itself. Jackson, the songwriter, was a Mississippi native who first recorded with Ike Turner and later co-wrote hits for the great soul singer Candi Staton, Clarence Carter, James Brown, and even Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll.”

Atkinson’s cover of “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City” by Dan Walsh and Michael Price is more upbeat version than Bobby “Blues” Bland’s funkier, string-laden, urgent 1974 original, which made the R&B top 10.

On “Slow Down,” Atkinson convincingly implores a friend to take it easy on the drugs and booze, and the lyric resonates with modern life, at least pre-COVID-19. It’s a groovy number was written by John Lewis Parker, a pianist who worked with Papa John Creech and co-wrote major pop hits such as Chicago’s “Hard Habit to Break."

And there’s a cover of “Am I Grooving You?” by Bert Russell and Jeff Barry, another hit for Freddie Scott, who also had a minor soul hit with Berns’ “(You) Got What I Need,” later made infamous by Biz Markie in the 1980s.

A bit about songwriters Berns and Barry: Berns co-founded Bang Records with the Ahmet and Nshui Ertegun and Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records fame. He went on to write or co-write such classics as the Isley Brothers’ and Beatles’ “Twist and Shout,” “Cry to Me” and “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” made famous by Solomon Burke, “Under the Boardwalk” by the Drifters, and “Piece of My Heart” by Erma Franklin and also Janis Joplin. Berns even recorded Freddie Sxott’s “Are You Lonely for Me Baby?”

Berns died at the age of 38 from a heart condition brought on by his rheumatic fever suffered as a child. He was just 38. (See the biography, Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues, by Joel Selvin.)

As for Jeff Barry, he co-wrote Manfred Mann’s “Do Wah Diddy Diddy,” Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High” and The Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar,” and even the theme for The Jeffersons. He and worked with his then-wife and producer Phil Spector to perfect the “girl group” sound by writing The Crystals’ "Da Doo Ron Ron,” The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” The Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love” and “Iko Iko,”and The Shangri-La’s “Leader of the Pack.”

Now back to Sweet Pea Atkinson: “You Can Have Watergate (Just Gimme Some Bucks and I’ll Be Straight)” is a nice cover of the song written by James Brown for his backing band The J.B.s’ 1973 album Doing It to Death, its funky undercurrent prefacing much of hip-hop, with some beautiful sax work perhaps by Maceo Parker. Atkinson’s version features Mindi Abair on sax and the rap refrain, “Freddie’s dead, no he ain’t!.” The title cut of The J.B.’s album, sung by James Brown, hit No. 1 on the R&B charts.

Atkinson holds his own on “You’re Welcome, Stop On By,” a rock-and-soul number written by 1970s soul great Bobby Womack (one of the genre’s best singers, himself perhaps an inspiration for Atkinson) and Truman Thomas, who played with sax great King Curtis. But it’s hard for anyone to top Womack’s original.

The tasteful, quieter “Just Another Lonely Night” from Atkinson’s album was written by Ivy Joe Hunter—not to be confused with piano master Ivory Joe Hunter. A musician and writer for Motown in the 1960s, Ivy Joe Hunter co-wrote the Four Tops’ “Ask the Lonely,” and co-wrote Martha and the Vandellas’ classic “Dancing In the Street” with William Stevenson—who was known for writing Mitch Ryder’s “Devil with the Bless Dress” among others.

The closer and title cut on Atkinson’s record, “Get What You Deserve,” is a funky, acoustic guitar-and-synth bass return to a sound not unlike Was (Not Was), written by Jerry Seay of Mother’s Finest and Carl Carlton’s band (known for the disco-soul hit “Everlasting Love” and the funky 1980s R&B smash “She’s a Bad Mama Jama”).

Sweet Pea made some fine music, added lots of soul to Lyle Lovett’s repertoire and added a lot of music to my life, to so many of our lives.

Sweet Pea Atkinson, right, with Don Was

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