The Upshot: The Detroit singer and erstwhile mic shaker of Was (Not Was) deserves to be considered as part of an ongoing soul continuum—and, indeed, one of the very best of the best.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
Sweet Pea Atkinson should be a legend. The Detroit singer has a career going back to the 70s, with one prior solo album to his name (1982’s much sought-after Don’t Walk Away), a long stint as one of the lead singers for inexplicable soul/rock band Was (Not Was) and an even longer stint as a background vocalist to the stars, including an especially prominent tenure with Lyle Lovett. He also served as frontman for W(NW) guitarist Randy Jacobs’ blues rock band the Boneshakers. His instantly recognizable voice – the one that powered Was (Not Was)’s biggest single “Walk the Dinosaur” – cuts through any amount of sludge surrounding it. (Let’s not forget “Knocked Down, Made Small” and the astounding accompanying video. —Funk Ed.)
Yet he’s never truly found the fame and notoriety his talent deserves. It’s not his fault. He may have helped Was (Not Was) into the top 10, but it was with a novelty song that unfairly tarred the entire enterprise as a big joke. The Boneshakers may have had fiery guitar and Atkinson’s distinctive voice, but they didn’t have any real songs. His work as a background singer was just that – background. Ultimately, though, he may have been held back by his aesthetic – he’s an old-fashioned soul singer who came to prominence right as his style of gritty, blues-informed vocals and tasteful accompaniment was being supplanted by electrofunk and the nascent hip-hop and new jack swing scenes.
In 2017, however, the tide has turned. Hip-hop, programming and samples still rule the R&B roost on the charts, but a less slick, horn-enhanced, vocal-driven style of soul is once again in vogue, thanks to Amy Winehouse, the Daptone family and, however unintentionally parodic they may be, blue-eyed soulsters like St. Paul & the Broken Bones. That’s a style that’s perfect for a singer like Atkinson – his gritty croon and urban howl slip into the confines of 60s and 70s rhythms, chunky guitars and tasteful horn charts like sore feet into warm slippers. All this is evident on Get What You Deserve, the first Atkinson solo album in 35 years.
Working with producers Don Was and Keb’ Mo’, Atkinson sounds like a man unleashed at last. That’s not to say he goes for the histrionic jugular – years of singing backup, not to mention Was (Not Was)’s weird compositions, have given the vocalist a taste and control that should be the envy of soul throats who think over the top is better. But he sounds happy and comfortable here, finally given the chance to sing what he’s best at and bringing every ounce of talent and experience he has to the party.
Listen to the way he glides through the melody of Bobby Womack’s funky smooth “You’re Welcome, Stop On By” – it’s less seduction than plea, even as Atkinson retains his dignity in his insistence. Or how he asserts his masculinity in Freddie Scott’s sly “Am I Grooving You,” sounding manly without being macho. He takes a similar trip on Keb’ Mo’s “Just Lookin’,”’ an irresistibly danceable funk rocker that features a strong guitar solo from his Boneshakers/Was (Not Was) bandmate Randy Jacobs. He sounds right at home on “Are You Lonely For Me Baby,” another Scott tune given a timeless arrangement that could have come from the fifties, sixties or now. He leapfrogs back to his eighties heyday with the title track, an hard-grooving electrofunk track composed by Mother’s Finest bassist Jerry “Wyzard” Seay that prominently features rapper Leven Seay and backing singer Vida Simon.
Atkinson is truly at his best with a couple of songs originally associated with artists who could be his peers. “Last Two Dollars,” written by the great George Jackson and originally recorded by soul legend Johnnie Taylor, is just the kind of midtempo R&B tune that Atkinson can dig into and make his own. The most ambitious track finds Atkinson taking on Bobby Blue Bland’s immortal “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City,” keeping tight control over his magic larynx to deliver a riveting performance of a classic tune.
More than a comeback, Get What You Deserve confirms what longtime fans have long known: what Sweet Pea Atkinson deserves is to be part of a soul continuum as one of the very best of the best.
DOWNLOAD: “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City,” “You’re Welcome, Stop On By,” “Last Two Dollars”