Born July, 1950 in Newark, NJ, (died Feburary 4, 1999 in Orange, NJ); married Donald Wakefield (died 1995); children: Kamilah Ross and Iyana Wakefield.
During her nearly quarter-century career in music, Gwen Guthrie scored a series of R&B and dance-chart singles distinguished by their potent grooves and well-crafted lyrics. Her best-known song, "Ain't Nothing Goin' On But The Rent," brought her to a large pop audience in the United States for the first time. Known for her songwriting flair and independent spirit, she co-wrote most of her hits and managed to combine both American and Jamaican elements in her music. At the time of her passing at age 48 in February of 1999, she was remembered by her peers as a strong-willed artist who contributed much to the contemporary R&B scene.
Born in Newark, New Jersey, Guthrie began piano lessons at age eight and sang in the choir of the Mount Zion Baptist Church. In high school, she was a member of the Ebonettes, an all-girl vocal quartet that sported matching gowns and elbow-length gloves. She also performed with the Matchmakers alongside future Cameo lead singer Larry Blackmon. She went on to graduate from Newark State College and took a position teaching first grade in the New York City school system. During this time, she helped to establish herself in the music business by writing and singing commercial jingles. "Doing commercials is good and bad," she told writer Brian Chin in an interview for Billboard years later. "Financially, it's good. But you lose your imagination.... Later, you find it's all you can do. Now, I have my imagination back, and I don't want to lose it again."
Guthrie's career took a major leap forward when she sang background vocals on Aretha Franklin's 1974 hit "I'm In Love." Further singing assignments with Roberta Flack, Isaac Hayes and other artists followed. The mid-1970s also saw her active as a songwriter, composing Ben E. King's 1975 number one R&B single "Supernatural Thing." Around this time, CBS Records signed her as an artist, but disagreements between Guthrie and the label led to the cancellation of her album's release.
In 1978, she relocated to Jamaica and became involved with some of the island's top reggae musicians. She enjoyed a long working relationship with Jamaican singer/songwriter Peter Tosh, contributing vocals to his Bush Doctor, Mystic Man and Wanted Dread And Alive albums. The last-named album included a Tosh/Guthrie duet, "Nothing But Love." It was through Tosh that Guthrie met the famous reggae session duo of drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare, who asked her to sing lead vocals on an album they were recording for Island Records. The album was eventually released by Island in 1982 as Guthrie's self-titled solo debut. Combining American R&B with Jamaican production touches, Gwen Guthrie earned both pop and R&B airplay with the songs "It Should Have Been You" and "For You (With A Melody Too)."
Portrait, a second album recorded with Dunbar and Shakespeare, followed in 1983, yielding the singles "Hopscotch" and "You're The One." A number of Guthrie's most dance-oriented tracks were gathered together on the 1983 EP Padlock, which included such dance club hits as "Seventh Heaven," "Peanut Butter" and the title number. The recordings found on Padlock were remixed by Larry Levan, a DJ at the popular Paradise Garage club in New York. Guthrie's music was such a favorite at that venue that she became known as the "First Lady of Paradise Garage."
During the recording of her 1985 album Just For You, Guthrie had a falling out with Island president Chris Blackwell over creative control. The album failed to do as well as her two previous ones, and she left the label after its release. Looking back a year later in a Musician interview with Havelock Nelson, she claimed that Blackwell "tried to hold me back, not letting me realize my full potential. I don't believe in that. That's why I left. Slavery is over, honey."
Guthrie took a break from recording after the birth of her second child, Iyana. Signing with Polydor Records, she returned to record-making in 1986 with Good To Go Lover. Co-producing the album with David "Pic" Conley of the R&B group Surface, she was able to build upon her reggae and dance music base to reach a broader pop audience. The breakthrough track from Good To Go Lover was "Ain't Nothin' Goin' On But The Rent," a sarcastic look at the financial aspects of male/female relations. Released as the album's first single, it became a number one R&B. It also reached number 46 on the pop charts as well. The song was inspired by a phrase her grandfather used to say, Guthrie told authors Adam White and Fred Bronson in an interview for The Billboard Book of Number One Rhythm & Blues Hits. She added that "the two biggest arguments in relationships are usually money and children. So I think people just related to it. And it had a good beat.... I was just saying it takes two. That both parties should be productive."
Though "Ain't Nothin' Goin' On But The Rent" became her only major pop hit, Guthrie enjoyed further dance club success with her remake of the Beatles' "Ticket To Ride" in 1988, and ventured back into reggae with "Friends And Lovers," a duet with singer Boris Gardner. Her work also appeared on soundtracks for such 1980s films Jumpin' Jack Flash and Disorderlies. In 1990, she moved in a more mainstream R&B direction with her debut album for Reprise, Hot Times. Though "Miss My Love" and the album's title track failed to do well as singles, she bounced back with the hit "Sweet Bitter Love." In 1993, she topped many of the international reggae charts with a Jamaican-produced single, "Girlfriend's Boyfriend."
Guthrie's career was sadly cut short when she was diagnosed with cancer in 1998. She passed away on Feburary 4, 1999 in Orange, New Jersey. Among those who recalled her with affection and respect was singer/producer Isaac Hayes, who told Billboard's Aliya S. King that "with her passing, a definite void has been placed in many of our lives. She loved this business, and she loved performing. When R&B music became mostly crossovers, Gwen remained a true R&B artist."
by Barry Alfonso
Gwen Guthrie's Career
Wrote hit single for Ben E. King, "Supernatural Thing," released in 1975; released duet with Peter Tosh, "Nothing But Love," in 1981; released debut album Gwen Guthrie on Island, 1982; released dance-oriented EP Padlock, 1983; signed with Polydor, released Good To Go Lover,1986; signed with Reprise, released Hot Times, 1990; released reggae hit single "Girlfriend's Boyfriend," 1996.
- Selected discography
- Gwen Guthrie , Island, 1982.
- Portrait , Island, 1983.
- Just For You , Island, 1985.
- Good To Go Lover , Polygram, 1986.
- Hot Times , Reprise, 1990.
- Larkin, Colin, editor, The Encyclopedia Of Popular Music, Muze, 1998.
- White, Adam and Bronson, Fred, The Billboard Book Of Number One Rhythm & Blues Hits, Billboard Books, 1993.
- Billboard, August 23, 1986; January 5, 1991; February 20, 1999.
- Musician, October 1986.
- Garage Net Spotlight, http://www.garagenet.ndirect.co.uk/spotfebmar99 (June 9, 1999).