On Sweet Pea Atkinson’s Get What You Deserve — the legendary vocalist’s first solo album in 35 years — Blue Note Records chief Don Was spotlights an increasing rarity.
“Singers like Sweet Pea are an endangered species,” says Was, who first noticed a shift in the ‘80s from soul/funk’s heyday of the ‘60s and ‘70s. “That’s when guys like Prince and Rick James, incredible soul singers, began approaching it with a clearer tone and a whole different kind of phrasing. Things change.”
Referencing the recent loss of Charles Bradley, Was calls the late soul singer “one of the last proponents of the genre. I suppose you can go into the churches and hear it. But it will really be a sad day when there’s no one who sings like that.”
Music fans, however, can still witness an R&B/soul master at work. In a video premiering on Billboard today (Oct. 18), Atkinson belts his way through the Freddie Scott gem “Are You Lonely for Me Baby.” The track, also a hit in the ‘60s as a duet by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas, is one of three that Was produced for the 10-track Get What You Deserve. Modern bluesman Keb’ Mo’ produced the remaining seven, including covers of fellow bluesman Bobby Blue Bland’s “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City,” Bobby Womack’s “You’re Welcome, Stop on By” and original Temptations member Paul Williams’ “Just Another Lonely Night.”
Watch “Are You Lonely for Me Baby”:
Getting down in the video with Atkinson inside the ‘60s-era Vox Recording Studios in Los Angeles are veteran session men Was on bass guitar, James Gadson on drums, Michael Bearden on piano and Randy Jacobs on guitar. It was in this setting that Was produced his two additional tracks: “Am I Grooving You,” a second Scott hit, and the obscure funk anthem “You Can Have Watergate,” credited to James Brown and recorded by Fred Wesley and the JB’s.
“Watergate” is among Atkinson’s self-proclaimed favorites on the album. The track features the album’s only guest star, sax player Mindi Abair. “She can play the hell out of that horn,” gushes Atkinson during a phone interview from his L.A. home. He also gives a shout-out to the aforementioned Williams song and “Slow Down,” the title track from Keb’ Mo’s Grammy-winning 1998 album on which Atkinson provided background vocals. “I told Keb, man I want to do ‘Slow Down’ for my album. I like it because it has a lot of oomph to it.”
This also isn’t the first time that Detroit natives Atkinson and Was have worked together. Music aficionados know the always nattily attired Atkinson first gained notoriety in the ‘80s as one of the lead singers (along with Sir Henry Bowens) of the funk/rock band Was (Not Was). The group scored its biggest hit in the late ‘80s with the campy “Walk the Dinosaur.”
After releasing the Was Brothers-produced Don’t Walk Away, his first solo album in 1982, Atkinson stayed busy over the next 35 years as a member of Lyle Lovett’s band and handling backup vocal chores on projects by artists such as Brian Wilson, Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. Meanwhile, Don Was etched his production imprint on albums by the Rolling Stones, Raitt, Garth Brooks and others before taking the Blue Note helm in 2012. But the idea of reuniting for another Atkinson solo album was always in the offing.
“There’s no rhyme or reason for not doing an album in the interim or for why we did one now,” muses Was. “But with me working at Blue Note, it seemed like we had the opportunity to do something. Keb’ Mo’ did a beautiful job of distilling Sweet Pea’s essence.”
While Was hears Atkinson “as more of a soul shouter like Wilson Pickett,” the singer himself names the Temptations’ Williams and Marvin Junior of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame soul group the Dells as his vocal heroes. “I wanted to sing like them,” says Atkinson. “Paul [Williams] could sing his butt off, while Marvin could hold a note for so long.”
Pleased with how Get What You Deserve turned out, Atkinson credits the creative camaraderie between Was and Keb’ Mo’ (who calls the artist “one of the last great R&B/soul singers”). “We’re trying to get Don to do another Was (Not Was) album,” says Atkinson. “He’s been talking about it himself. But the man is so busy, I don’t know the last time he slept in his own bed.”
But thankfully Was found time to school a new generation about Atkinson’s soulful magic. “The cool thing about this album is that we got both sides of Sweet Pea: the shouter and the crooner,” says Was. “He has the voice I’d always wished I was born with; he’s the epitome of everything I wish I was and that I’m not.”
When told of Was’ compliment, Atkinson erupts with a raspy laugh. “Why would he wish he was me? I’m just a broke-ass man who doesn’t drink, smoke or take no shit.”