Sweet Pea Atkinson

Sweet Pea Atkinson

    Don Was first saw Sweet Pea Atkinson perform with a band called Energy in late 1970s Detroit. The band consisted of Atkinson and a band made up of auto workers. Was recalled being struck by Atkinson’s total package – his voice, his bearing and the suit that Atkinson wore. The vocalist sported an orange suit, hat, socks and shoes that blended in with the orange shag carpeting that covered the walls. It was the 70s, you had to be there.

    Eventually, the shag carpeting came off the walls, and Atkinson’s sartorial selection – while remaining stylish – got toned down a bit. Atkinson’s voice remained the constant, and Don and David Was knew that had something.  The vocalist’s long association with Was (Not Was) resulted in Atkinson singing on the band’s 1981 self-titled debut and his tragically overlooked 1982 solo album Don’t Look Away all started in that rehearsal hall.

    Atkinson and the band’s biggest hit came with the release of the album What Up, Dog? in 1988. Atkinson and Sir Harry Bowens shared vocal duties on that record, most famously on the funk track “Walk The Dinosaur,” a tune that became a top 10 Hit and a MTV mainstay due to its imaginative video.

    The Was Brothers moved on to work on different projects in the 1990s. Atkinson also remained active, though mainly as a much in demand backing vocalist. He did find time to be a lead singer when he linked with guitarist Randy Jacobs to release three albums with an outfit called The Boneshakers. Don Was became the president of legendary jazz label Blue Note in 2012, and he never forgot about Atkinson’s talent and he brought the singer and his gritty and soulful baritone to sing lead on a record of blues and soul covers titled Get What You Deserve.

    Was and blues guitarist Keb Mo produced the 10 tracks, and the pair did a good job of selecting tunes that fit Atkinson’s gravely but still powerful and soulful voice. The band features musicians such as Mindy Abair, who blows on a cover of the JBs “You Can Have Watergate.” Jacobs’ guitar is heard throughout an album that features blues and classic soul staples such as Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Ain’t No Love In the Heart of  the City” and Bobby Womack’s “You’re Welcome, Stop On By.” 

    Get What You Deserve is a record that showcases the diversity of blues and classic soul music, while also confirming that the blues can hold its own with any genre when it comes to spinning a great story that contains strong lyrical content. The record features the driving blues funk of the Keb Mo penned “Slow Down,” and Atkinson’s gravely baritone brings humor and wisdom to a number that finds him reflecting on the advice he ignored and took as he moved from reckless youth to family man.

    The mournful blues/country ballad “Just Another Lonely Night” serves, as ballads often do, as a test to determine of Atkinson retains his vocal chops. Bringing the tempo of a song down puts weakness in the vocal game on full display. And while Atkinson can’t reach the soaring heights of his younger days – go back and listen to Atkinson add butter to his remake of the do-wop classic “So In Love” from his 1982 solo debut – the singer retains a great deal of vocal elasticity. “Last Two Dollars,” is a life weary blues number that is the perfect vehicle for a man who has seen it all and a voice that has sung it all. The cut is a classic blues story of a guy lending an ear and a couple of bucks to a woman who blew through her cash at the local casino while looking for her straying man.

    Naming an album and song Get What You Deserve serves as a reminder that there is a force in the world, called God by some and karma by others, ensuring that history’s long arc does indeed bend toward justice. Atkinson is a great backing vocalist, but it didn’t seem like justice that he’d never get a chance to be the lead singer on a major label release, and he makes the most of it. Recommended.

    By Howard Dukes

    Available Music