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Hillard “Sweet Pea” Atkinson (1945–2020), singer for Was (Not Was)

by Linnea Crowther

Hillard “Sweet Pea” Atkinson was the co-vocalist for pop funk band Was (Not Was), singing on hits including “Walk the Dinosaur” and “Spy in the House of Love.”

Was (Not Was) and beyond

Atkinson was singing with a Detroit band when he met Don Was, one of the founders of the arty dance band Was (Not Was). Recruited as co-lead singer alongside Harry Bowens, Atkinson performed and recorded with Was (Not Was) throughout the 1980s and into the ‘90s, returning for occasional reunions. Was (Not Was) first found success in dance clubs, then broke through to the mainstream with their 1987 album “What Up, Dog?” Lead single “Spy in the House of Love” rose to No. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100, then “Walk the Dinosaur” surpassed it and peaked at No. 7, driven by the song’s catchy chant and frequently played video.

Atkinson also released two solo albums, in 1982 and 2017, and formed the band the Boneshakers alongside Was (Not Was) session guitarist Randy Jacobs. He toured and recorded with other artists including Lyle Lovett, Bonnie Raitt, Elton John, and George Jones (1931 – 2013).


What people said about him

“He was the most flamboyant character I ever met. 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. He was pretty lit, and talking a mile a minute, and it was hysterical. He had the most incredible stories.” —Don Was

“I am so thankful to have gotten a chance to know such a talented artist and  true friend as Sweet Pea Atkinson.  Sweet Pea and I were like brothers and the best of friends. He got the name ‘Sweet Pea’ because he was a sweet gentleman who truly cared about people. He was a gift to the world and he will be missed by all who knew him.” —Chris Tian, producer and writer

Full obituary: Billboard

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