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Time flies when you’re becoming one of the most celebrated soul singers of your generation even as you’re mostly working on other people’s projects. Atkinson’s talents have not exactly lay fallow over those decades, or his genius gone unnoticed. He’s best known as one of the lead singers of Was (Not Was), whose top 10 hit in America and the UK with “Walk the Dinosaur” made the sartorially sharp Detroit native the unlikeliest and nattiest of 1980s MTV stars. In subsequent years, he’s made his way more as a featured backup vocalist, spending a decade on the road as the most recognizable member of Lyle Lovett’s band and appearing on records by Brian Wilson, Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Bob Seger, Kris Kristofferson, George Jones, Jackson Browne, Solomon Burke, Richie Sambora and scores of others. He’s also been an intermittent lead singer for his side project, the Boneshakers.
Get What You Deserve includes seven tracks produced by the great modern bluesman Keb’ Mo’ and three produced by Don Was. It was Was who signed Atkinson to a label deal, in the veteran producer’s still fairly fresh capacity as chief of Blue Note. “It’s not hyperbolic for me to tell you that one of the great honors of my life has been to work with Sweet Pea,” says Was. “One of the beautiful things about being the president of Blue Note Records is that you can give a nod to something that just touches you deeply inside-even if it flies in the face of fashion.” But, Was adds, “it was Keb’ Mo’ who really dug in with Sweet Pea and turned that nod into something brilliant.”
Atkinson first met Keb’ Mo’ when he was singing backup on one of his records in the late ‘90s, and he obviously made a fast and lasting impression. Says the bluesman/producer: “Sweet Pea is one of the last great R&B/soul singers. He’s a man of charisma and style, a timeless talent who’s greatly respected by his peers, and the epitome of cool. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore. While listening and watching him work, like most people, you immediately know that he is his own man. I want the world to know what a kind and compassionate gentleman Sweet Pea is, adored by everyone that knows him. It’s what’s behind the voice that reaches the hearts of the people.”
It’s not an album that needs a lot of bolstering by famous guest stars. The only featured fellow artist is sax player Mindi Abair, who’s featured on “You Can Have Watergate,” a fairly obscure track credited to James Brown and recorded by Fred Wesley and the JB’s in 1973; it’s a funk workout that brings some ensemble action to an otherwise Sweet Pea-centric album. Abair was a natural to bring in, since the two of them recently collaborated on a record she has coming out in conjunction with Atkinson’s side project, the Boneshakers.
The real featured guests on the album are ghosts, though: all the funk, soul, blues, and R&B greats to whom Atkinson is paying implicit homage, if hardly emulating. “I love blues — Johnnie Taylor and Johnny Guitar Watson and Bobby Blue Bland,” he says. This album’s “Last Two Dollars” is a song Taylor recorded late in his life, in 1996. Far better known is Bland’s 1974 hit “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City.” Then there’s the smoother influence from Motown and other purveyors of the vocal group sound. “I’m a singer like Paul Williams of the Temptations and Marvin Junior of the Dells,” Atkinson says, assessing his own niche as a vocalist. “When Paul Williams came along and started singing ‘Don’t Look Back’ and ‘Just Another Lonely Night’” — the latter a 1965 smash to which Atkinson brings new life on this album — “that’s when I said, ‘I want to sing like them.’ And when Marvin Junior did ‘Stay in My Corner,’ man, I ain’t heard nobody sing a song like that before in my life. That man can hold a note for so long, I go, ‘Damn, breathe, man!’ Marvin Junior, it’s hard to sing like. Paul Williams is a little easier.”
While Keb’ Mo’ did all the initial production for the album, Was wrapped it up by getting Atkinson to sing two Freddie Scott hits, “Are You Lonely for Me Baby” (which was also a hit in the ‘60s as a duet by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas) and “Am I Grooving You.” The producer was inspired by driving around with Keith Richards and hearing his tape of Scott songs, the latter of which was covered in the ‘70s on a Ron Wood solo album that Richards played on. Was had his reasons for steering Atkinson in this direction. “Keb’ Mo’ did an amazing job of manifesting Sweet Pea’s vision,” says Was. “and Sweet Pea envisions himself as a lover and a soul crooner…which is all well and good!” he laughs. “But I think part of his greatness is as a belter, so we just cut a couple more songs to really show off that side. His voice is so unique – you don’t have to AutoTune Sweet Pea, and there’s really no point in punching in words here and there. He’s never going to sing it the same way twice, ever. There’s nobody else around like him.”
|Are You Lonely For Me Baby|
|Am I Grooving You|
|Ain't No Love In The Heart Of The City|
|You Can Have Watergate|
|You're Welcome, Stop On By|
|Just Another Lonely Night|
|Last Two Dollars|
|Get What You Deserve|