Lost but not least! Sweet Pea Atkinson – Dance Or Die (ZE Records)
Give ‘Dance Or Die’ a listen, and you’ll find some instant family affair feeling. This with Detroit mutant Disco band Was (Not Was) if ever familiar with them of course. With Sweet Pea Atkinson standing among their singers along with Harry Bowen and Donald Ray Mitchell. And Donald and Don Was being the producers of the infectious ‘Dance Or Die’ along with Jack Tann.
“Dance or die, no need to question why you gotta dance or say goodbye…”. A statement that says it all, with all the ingredients to get you dancin’ your ass off until the morning lights. In other words those fused ingredients that made Was (Not Was) quite apart. In other words excentric, deliberately firing and quite avant-gardist as well for the time being.
‘Dance Or Die’ is pretty much Disco (not Disco), Funk (not Funk). This with a twist of Rock (not Rock) and Elctro (not Electro). In a style described by Detroit’s Metro Times as “an endearing mess… a sausage factory of Funk, Rock, Jazz and Electronic Dance Music, all providing a boogie-down backdrop for a radical (and witty) political message of unbridled personal freedom and skepticism of authority.”
Unmissable… You’ll just dance or die on it, if not doin’ both…
When Sweet Pea Atkinson got discovered singin’ at a Detroit UAW Hall back in 1978, he already had like a bunch of different lives. As a bodyguard but also an assembly line worker in addition to various things speakin’ of whuch it seems better no adding further developments.
As a matter of fact, he found himself young enough at the time to have missed the era of great Soul shouters such as Bobby Blue Bland and Marvin Jr. of The Dells. And, in the meantime, already too old to be luped-in with the smoother, higher-pitched Soul stylists who became popular in the early 80’s like Prince and Rick James.
Luckily enough, he ended up findin’ himself a niche. This as the lead singer of Detroit mutant Disco band Was (Not Was). Eventually co-writing the title-cut of their 1988 ‘What Up, Dog?’ album. But also releasing an album – ‘Don’t Walk Away’ – on his own with production work courtesy of Was (Not Was). With the latter featuring the memorable ‘Dance Or Die’.
Movin’ to Los Angeles, CA, in the early nineties, he came to perform on recordings for countless luminaries. From Willie Nelson to Bob Dylan and Bob Seger. This in addition to Solomon Burke and Michael McDonald to name a few. And for the last two decades, he has recorded and toured as the lead singer of Randy Jacobs & The Boneshakers. 2017 seeing him putting an end to a 35 years hiatus. This with the release of his second album – ‘Get What You Deserve’ – on Blue Note.
– Was (Not Was)… Say wot? Quite a strange name to a certain extend. But the one from the association between David Weiss and Don Fagenson who adopted the David Was and Don Was stage names. With the “Not” coming from a habit which Fagenson‘s son to play with contradicting expressions like “Blue” and “Not Blue” by the time he was beginning to talk. I suppose, although without of course knowing it, he couldn’t have been more prophetic. With Was (Not Was)‘s music being pretty much a blend of Disco (Not Disco), Funk (Not Funk) and Jazz (Not Jazz). If ot ‘Rock (Not Rock)! With this being for much on its originality. But also the fact that famous label ZE Records happened to first sign them in America, and Island for the rest of the world.
A quick look at their origins brings us back to the Detroit, MI. And, by that, illustrates one more time the versatility of the local scene. Even though they moved to Los Angeles, CA soon after their formation. Weiss and Fagenson teamin’ up with vocalists Harry Bowens and Sweet Pea Atkinson. With Donald Ray Mitchell whom Ray Parker, Jr. had discovered, joinin’ them later on.
‘Wheel Me Out’, their debut-single, saw the light back in 1980. With Elizabeth Elkin Weiss, an actress and a radio pioneer but also David‘s mom providing the so to say spoken word performance. And their eponymous album followed the year after, featuring the seminal ‘Out Comes The Freaks’. Meanwhile 1982 saw them producing Sweet Pea Atkinson‘s debut-album, ‘Don’t Walk Away’ featuring the memorable ‘Dance Or Die’.
Was (Not Was) released their second album – ‘Born To Laugh At Tornadoes’ – in 1983. But they would have to wait for another 4 years to score their biggest success. This by the likes of ‘Walk The Dinosaur’ and ‘Spy In The House Of Love’, although to a slightly lesser extend. Two of the definitive highlights of their ‘What Up, Dog?’ album which hit the streets the following year.
The band released another album – ‘Are You Okay’ – back in 1990. Featuring a memorable cover version of The Temptations’ ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’, it would preceed a long period of silence. Was (Not Was) resurfacing 13 years later with ‘Out Comes The Freaks’ (the album although more of a compilation). And another five years before the release of their fifth (and last) studio album to date, ‘Boo!’, on Rykodisc. The latter including ‘Mr. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More’, co-written some twenty years before or so along with Bob Dylan.