Hillard “Sweet Pea” Atkinson, the singer most famous for being a member of Was (Not Was), has died. Billboard reports that Atkinson on Tuesday in Los Angeles, after suffering from a heart attack. Atkinson was 74.
Atkinson was born in Oberlin, Ohio, but he grew up in Detroit. As a young man, he worked in a Chrysler auto plant and spent his weekends singing in a local R&B group called Hi Energy. The producer and Was (Not Was) bandleader Don Was heard Atkinson singing in a Detroit rehearsal studio and invited him to join Was (Not Was) when the group came together in 1979.
Was (Not Was) had two lead singers, Atkinson and “Sir” Harry Bowens. But Atkinson, both raw and theatrical, stood out. Was (Not Was) started out as part of the mutant disco scene, releasing their 1980 debut single “Wheel Me Out” on ZE Records. Later on, Was (Not Was) evolved into a sort of funky cross-genre pop combo, and they scored their biggest hit with 1987’s “Walk The Dinosaur,” which peaked at #7 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Atkinson also led a group called the Boneshakers with Was (Not Was) guitarist Randy Jacobs, and he released two solo albums, 1982’s Don’t Walk Away and 2017’s Get What You Deserve. Over the years, Atkinson also spent 10 years in Lyle Lovett’s touring band and sang on records from Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, and Elton John, among many others. Below, watch some videos of Atkinson in action.