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Was (Was Not) vocalist Hillard “Sweet Pea” Atkinson dies of heart attack aged 74

Sweet Pea Atkinson performing
Hillard Sweet Pea Atkinson had a long career that spanned many decades. Pic credit: WasNotWasVEVO/ YouTube

Rolling Stone reported that Hillard “Sweet Pea” Atkinson has died in Los Angeles of a heart attack; he was 74. The singer, best known as the vocalist for pop-rock group Was (Was Not), passed away on May 5.

Was (Was Not)’s 1987 hit single Walk the Dinosaur was their highest charting and most famous song.

He had a long and varied career spanning many decades, which included playing with the Boneshakers and releasing two solo albums, Don’t Walk Away in 1982, and, more recently, in 2017, Get What You Deserve.

Sweet Pea Atkinson collaborated with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson

Atkinson also collaborated with a ton of musical greats, such as Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Elton John, Brian Wilson, Willie Nelson, Iggy Pop, Jackson Browne, Kris Kristofferson, George Jones, Bob Seger, Paula Abdul, Michael McDonald, Solomon Burke, and many others.

He was seen as a very flamboyant character known for wearing sharply tailored, wide-lapelled suits with a fedora. This image, combined with his smoky, gruff, and soulful voice, helped him build a formidable reputation in the music industry.

As per Billboard, Was (Not Was) co-founder Don Was stated Chris Blackwell of Island Records “wanted to make a comic book where Sweet Pea was the main character because he was larger than life guy — which is how I still think of him. I don’t think of him as a regular human.”

Don Was added that the first time he saw Atkinson was in a late-night club in Detroit when the singer appeared “wearing this orange ensemble; hat, shirt, socks, and shoes all matched the exact same shade of orange. It looked like he was on fire.”

Was said, “he was the most flamboyant character I ever met.”

Born in Ohio in 1945, Atkinson moved to Detroit at an early age, where he began working on an assembly line for Chrysler cars.

In his free time, he sang with fellow United Auto Workers members in a local band called Hi Energy, which was the start of his musical career.

His friend, producer-writer Chris Tian said he got the nickname “Sweet pea” because he was “a sweet gentleman who truly cared about people.”

Tributes are coming in on Twitter for Sweet Pea Atkinson

Twitter users have been posting their favorite songs by Atkinson.

One Twitter user described attending a Was (Was Not) concert as “one of the most enjoyable yet strangest gigs I ever experienced.”

They then added, “the world is a brighter and funkier place for their eclectic and eccentric music, Rip Hillard’ Sweet Pea’ Atkinson.”

Also announced today was the death of Brian Howe, the lead vocalist for Bad Company who died in Florida at 66-years-old. A cause of death has not been confirmed, but he is known to have suffered a heart attack in 2017.

Also this week, country-pop singer Cady Groves passed away at just 30-years-old. A cause of death has not been released, but her brother stated she died of natural causes.

May they rest in peace.


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