Was (Not Was)
Was (not Was) is without question one of the most unique groups of the past two decades. Not really soul, not really rock, they came up with their own lyrically bizarre, usually humorous, brand of dance music that established for them a small, fanatical following and, for awhile at least, some across-the-board success.
The band's origins were in the primarily African American/Jewish Detroit suburb of Oak Park where David Weiss (David Was) and Donald Fagansen (Don Was) spent high school alternating between their interests of movies, comedy and dance/soul music. They grew up in Oak Park during a particularly creative era in that small town that also saw their high school as the home of the punk pop group the Knack (Doug Feiger) and future Spiderman director Sam Raimi.
After college, David moved to Los Angeles and became the jazz critic for the L.A. Herald Examiner, while Don remained in Michigan. They wrote music together from afar and in the early 80s reunited in Detroit with the hope of recording as a band. They recruited local Detroit soul singer Sweet Pea Atkinson, veteran soul crooner Harry Bowens and former MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer and created Was (Not Was), an appropriately oddball name based on a mispronunciation by Don's young son. Their self-titled debut album on Island Records showed the group's fondness for hot dance music but also a bizarre sense of humor that was immediately embraced by some and not understood by others. It did land three club hits, the most notable of which was "Out Come the Freaks," but didn't make a dent outside of the club circuit.
Their second album, Born to Laugh at Tornados, was the first to make noise internationally. Tornados was an acquired taste for many, as in addition to the funky cuts recorded with Atkinson and Bowens, the Was brothers created a variety of comically odd numbers and used a diverse group of guest vocalists, from Mel Torme to Ozzy Osbourne on the disc.
Outside projects of David and Don led to a five year gap before the group's third disc, What Up Dog? It was a monster album that moved Was (Not Was) from niche act to popular smash, as two dance hits, "Spy In The House of Love" and "Walk the Dinosaur," topped the dance charts and crossed over to the Pop top 20. Their follow up disc, 1990's Are You Okay? didn't fare as well, as only the group's remake of the Temptations' "Papa Was A Rolling Stone" hit the charts.
Increasing outside pressures caused the group to split up in the early 90s, with Don Was becoming perhaps the hottest producer in the world, as artists from Bonnie Raitt to Bob Dylan sought his assistance on major albums. David spent the decade principally working on the music for a number of movies. In 1999, the greatest hits compilation Hello Dad...I'm In Jail was released and The Collection was released in 2004.
By Chris Rizik