Hillard “Sweet Pea” Atkinson, the fedora-wearing vocalist for Was (Not Was), has died at the age of 74.
The singer was known for hits including Walk The Dinosaur and Spy In The House Of Love, and also performed with Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt and Iggy Pop.
“He had the voice I always wished I had,” Don Was told Billboard magazine. “When I was writing songs, I was always writing with him in mind.”
The singer died of a heart attack in Los Angeles, where he lived, on 5 May.
Born in Oberlin, Ohio, in 1945, Atkinson moved to Detroit when he was young and worked on the assembly line for Chrysler cars.
At night, he sang with fellow United Auto Workers members in a local band called Hi Energy, and began scoring studio sessions as a backing vocalist.
He got the name “Sweet Pea” because “he was a sweet gentleman who truly cared about people,” said his friend, the producer and writer Chris Tian.
Shortly after appearing on Grace Jones’s 1979 LP My Very Special Guests, Atkinson bumped into David Weiss (David Was) and Don Fagenson (Don Was) at Detroit’s Sound Suite Studios.
“He was the most flamboyant character I ever met,” Was said. “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.”
After hearing him sing, the musicians recruited him to their surrealist art-rock project Was (Not Was), where his gruff, soulful vocals often brought gravitas to their more outlandish musical excursions.
On the band’s self-titled debut album, he sang the stand-out ballad Where Did Your Heart Go, and a year later the group backed him on his solo album Don’t Walk Away.
Walk The Dinosaur, a song as joyfully cartoonish as its title suggests, gave Was (Not Was) a global hit in 1987. Atkinson shared lead vocals on the track with Harry Bowens, but took centre-stage for the subsequent Top 20 smash Spy In The House Of Love.
“He was one of a kind,” Was (Not Was) guitarist Randy Jacobs told Billboard.
“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.”
After 1987, Don Was found himself increasingly in demand as a producer, and Was (Not Was) disbanded after 1990’s Are You OK? album – on which Atkinson and Bowens delivered an updated take on The Temptations’ Papa Was A Rolling Stone, producing another UK Top 10.
Over the next few years, Atkinson sang with The Boneshakers, and appeared on albums by Elton John, Brian Wilson, Willie Nelson, Paula Abdul, Michael McDonald and Solomon Burke. He also spent a decade on the road with country singer Lyle Lovett, who had nothing but praise for his talent.
“Just how natural he was and how soulful he was came through in everything he did,” said the star.
Atkinson’s most recent release was the solo album, Get What You Deserve, in 2017, which saw him cover soul classics by the likes of James Brown and Bobby Womack.
“But he’s not a mimic,” wrote the Wall Street Journal’s Jim Fusilli in his review. “It’s his gravel-edged voice and his ability to wring the emotion out of a lyric that place him in their stellar company.”
Atkinson is survived by three adult children, grandchildren, and a sister in Detroit.