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Gwen Guthrie 1950 - 1999

Lifespan: 1950 - 1999

Related: American music - black music


Gwen Guthrie (July 14 (some sources say July 9) 1950 - February 3, 1999) was an American singer and songwriter, who sang backing vocals for Aretha Franklin, and wrote songs for Ben E. King.

She is probably best known for her 1986 dance anthem "Ain't Nothin' Goin' On But The Rent," a self-written track which expressed all the greed and selfishness which are often associated with the 1980s, with lyrics such as: No romance without finance, you've got to have a j-o-b if you want to be with me.

She died in 1999 of cancer. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gwen_Guthrie [Sept 2005]

Padlock EP

1982/1983 The mixes Larry Levan does for Island with Sly and Robbie and Gwen Guthrie are among the most exciting records of that era. The Padlock mini-LP which was released in 1983 on the Garage label includes 'Hopscotch', 'Seventh heaven', 'Getting hot', 'Peanut butter' and ends with the brilliant title track 'Padlock'. The sleeve of the German Island pressing was done by Tony Wright, who was also responsible for Lee Perry's 'Return Of Superape' album.

Ain't Nothin' Goin' On But the Rent (1986) - Gwen Guthrie

Ain't Nothin' Goin' On But the Rent (1986) - Gwen Guthrie

Bill collectors at my door What can you do for me Hey

No romance without finance
No romance without finance

Boy, nothin' in life is free
That's why I'm askin' you what can you do for me
I've got responsibilities
So I'm lookin' for a man whose got money in his hands

`Cause nothin' from nothin' leaves nothin'
You got to have somethin' if you wanna be with me
Oh, life is too serious, love's too mysterious
A fly girl like me needs security

`Cause ain't nothin' goin' on but the rent
You got to have a J-O-B if you wanna be with me
Ain't nothin' goin' on but the rent
You got to have a J-O-B if you wanna be with me

Selected discography

  • Island rds
    • 12IS106X Gwen Guthrie Hopscotch remix (1983)
    • Gwen Guthrie - It Should Have Been You (Island Positively 4th St. Comp. LP
    • PRO-444 Gwen Guthrie - Ticket To Ride (1987)
  • Garage rds
    • ITG 2001 Gwen Guthrie Padlock (1985)
    • ITG 2001 Gwen Guthrie Getting Hot (1985)
    • ITG 2001 Gwen Guthrie Peanut Butter (1985)
    • ITG 2001 Gwen Guthrie Seventh Heaven (1985)
  • Warner Brothers rds
    • Gwen Guthrie - Rocking Chair (0-20971)1988))
    • Gwen Guthrie - 'Ain't Nothing Goin' On But The Rent' 1986 422-855106-1
  • Polydor rds
    • Gwen Guthrie - Outside In The Rain (Polydor 12' 885 362-1(1986))
    • Gwen Guthrie - Close To You (Polydor 12' 885 528-1(1987))
  • new external link: elvispelvis.com/gwenguthrie.htm Fuller Up: The Dead Musician Directory

    GWEN GUTHRIE 1950-1999:

    <<”When I think of Gwen Guthrie’s voice, I think of crystal -- pure and clear. There was no denying her soulfulness, but it was her resonant tone that always got to me. Her songwriting always reflected her unique way of looking at things. There was always a sense of humor to it -- ‘Padlock,’ ‘Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ On But the Rent,’ ‘Supernatural Thing.’ Gwen said it just the way the sisters wanted to say it to their men.” VALERIE SIMPSON>>

    GWEN GUTHRIE made a lifetime out of conveying the joy of music and the truth of life. This collection is the first ever to bring together her progressive collaborations with reggae rhythm geniuses Sly and Robbie and her self-produced international R&B hits. As such, it’s the full portrait of a woman who could do it all -- way before the media or the industry gave any recognition for that. In retrospect, Guthrie’s career in music was trailblazing on every level: as she became a session singer, a songwriter, a recording artist, and then a producer, she succeeded immediately and repeatedly. And as a commentator on love relationships and life’s foibles, her voice will remain timeless.

    Born in Newark, New Jersey, Gwen was taught piano by her father at age eight, and sang in local groups including the Ebonettes, alongside another future star session singer, Brenda White; and the Matchmakers, with drummer and Cameo frontman-to-be Larry Blackmon. In the spring of 1973, Gwen was an elementary school teacher. But she accepted a call to substitute for a sick backup vocalist on an April recording session for Aretha Franklin, and harmonized in her very first go-round with Cissy Houston, who had revolutionized background vocals, as the leader of the Sweet Inspirations in countless late-Sixties Atlantic R&B classics. The song was “I’m in Love,” eventually Franklin’s fifteenth Number One R&B hit. “This is how I made my big break into the business,” Guthrie later said: “Right at the top.”

    The pay scale of sessioneering was certainly a lure to her: with typical candor, she told journalist Vince Aletti in her first solo album’s liner note: “Don’t get me wrong...teaching was very rewarding, but the money was ugly.” She paid more attention to this new line of work, writing songs with her friend Patrick Grant, a bass player. On a blizzardy day that winter, they encountered veteran arranger/producer Bert deCoteaux, and his partner, Tony Sylvester, from the vocal trio the Main Ingredient. Sylvester recalls: “Gwen and Pat were shopping their songs, and they happened to walk into our office on Broadway. She hardly was dressed for the snow -- she had a summer dress with a bunch of sweaters on! They had simple songs that, when she sang them, became great songs. We were very impressed...I said: ‘Let me tell you something: A year from now, you’ll be riding in your own car, and it will probably be a Mercedes-Benz.’”

    The partnership launched Gwen’s songwriting career almost immediately. “About three months after we signed them to our publishing company, Ahmet Ertegun asked us to produce four cuts on Ben E. King. We’d come up with a rhythm track for (Little Willie John’s) ‘Fever,’ (but) after we cut it, we decided it wasn’t ‘Fever,’ after all. We called the kids in and asked them to write to the track and the next morning they had it -- the song was ‘Supernatural Thing.’ We flipped when we heard it. Benny cut that song reading it off a piece of paper, in one take. We had string and horn charts, and we didn’t use any of them. We just went with the rhythm track, and Gwen and her sisters doing background. They shipped the manufacturing parts the same day, and the following morning we had records.”

    Just that fast, and within a year of her debut backup session, Gwen Guthrie and Pat Grant were hit songwriters, with “Supernatural Thing” (No.1 R&B, No. 5 Pop) and then Sister Sledge’s first single, “Love Don’t Go Through No Changes on Me” (No. 31 R&B; No. 95 pop). Their ballad “This Time I’ll Be Sweeter” was an instantly-acknowledged pop-R&B standard that drew repeated covers and seemed to reward every conceivable interpretation: Linda Lewis’ charming teen-group version, accompanied by Gwen and Deniece Williams on backups; Marlena Shaw’s more worldly reading; a typically tortured delivery by Isaac Hayes; Roberta Flack’s genteel treatment, and Angela Bofill’s idealistic, deeply devotional performance.

    The top producers in pop and R&B gravitated to Gwen for her vocals, including Quincy Jones, Mtume and Reggie Lucas, Bob James, Ralph MacDonald, Gregg Diamond, and Phil Ramone (who’d engineered that lucky first session for Aretha). Her backup can be heard on records by Roberta Flack, Ray Charles, Madonna, Carly Simon, Stephanie Mills, Kenny Loggins, Phoebe Snow, Billy Joel, Maxi Priest and many others. She also sang commercial jingles, often alongside another lifelong admirer, Valerie Simpson, for Chevrolet, Avon, Kentucky Fried Chicken and a list of companies just as long as her recording client roster. At the 1978 sessions for Jones’ album Sounds...and Stuff Like That!! Gwen buddied up with Luther Vandross, another emerging session singing star who would later become the definitive ballad singer of our generation. “I was always an album cover reader and anybody whose name was on an Aretha album was always of interest to me,” Vandross recalls. “I wanted to know what her voice was like and found out through the grapevine that she was a soprano. Patti Austin hired us (to sing a duet on) Quincy’s version of the Doobie Brothers’ ‘Takin’ It to the Streets,’ and she was great.”

    To be highly rated by Luther Vandross -- let alone a preferred collaborator -- easily speaks volumes about Gwen’s talent. “She was either first or second soprano, the top or the second note in the chord, depending on how we distributed the parts,” says Luther. “She was very ear-tuned...ear-smart. She could pick up anything she heard once and assimilate it into a style. Her technique was basically identical to mine -- first you hear it, then you own it. She was not afraid of the elongated note: some singers, especially sopranos, are afraid to do anything but punch and jab vocally. Gwen could hold the note for a long time if that’s what it required. There was a gorgeous tone to her voice, identifiable right away, even in the background vocals.”

    Eventually, Guthrie, Vandross and fellow former Ebonette Brenda White were singing together “all week long; we’d call each other for sessions and sing backgrounds for basically everybody. All of those sessions were great.” Their work together was often stunningly beautiful and creative, as on the last Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway duet, “Back Together Again,” and their mutual artistic support made them close friends: Vandross recalls many fun chit-chats on the phone after work, gossiping good-naturedly about how much money their other session-singing friends might be making. Gwen was chronically late, according to him: “Her phrase was always, ‘Oh, those trains, oh, those trains...’ But she was quickly and easily forgiven because what she brought to the sessions was so undeniable.”

    Musically, however, Gwen in no way behind, and in fact, was starting to pull a good few steps ahead of the field. She’d been working regularly in Jamaica since 1978, particularly for Peter Tosh, and developed a close relationship with two members of Tosh’s band, Word, Sound and Power, drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare. “Dat my singah,” she heard them say fondly of her. Their creative partnership was so prolific that when they convened with co-producer Steven Stanley at Compass Point Studios to cut what was to be a Sly and Robbie album with Gwen on lead vocals and co-writing, they all acknowledged midway that the project was turning into Gwen’s album, and Gwen Guthrie was released on Island in 1982.

    Immediately, listeners recognized Gwen as the composer of Roberta Flack’s hit “God Don’t Like Ugly,” while “It Should Have Been You,” remixed by Paradise Garage DJ legend Larry Levan, made Gwen into a core artist for clubgoers worldwide. One side of the album was a non-stop dance jam, reflecting the innovative combination of reggae’s complex implied crossrhythms and state-of-the-art technology that made Sly and Robbie the most influential rhythm team in reggae history. Sly was a habitual listener of dance-oriented black radio (“strictly ‘BLS, right through the night,” he told me at the time) and both were well aware that their fusion was thoroughly distinctive, compared to “everyday” records, whether reggae or R&B.

    At that time, Robbie Shakespeare remarked to me: “Reggae depends on how you feel. It can remind you of the devil and his army; it can remind you of a thousand angels.” The Sly and Robbie collaborations with Gwen Guthrie certainly fall on the the side of the angels: over two albums, Gwen Guthrie and Portrait, songs like “Seventh Heaven,” “Peanut Butter,” “Peek-A-Boo” and “Padlock” bonded her forever with listeners and dancers. Gwen’s style was intimate without salaciousness, and frankly emotional but never overpowering. Gwen didn’t affect diva attitude; she didn’t need to, because she was already close, already touchable, already loved. Her brand of persuasion wasn’t about wailing or even insinuation, but rather about real empathy and mother wit; occasionally skepticism, but most often, the sheer bliss of the way her voice fell on the ear. (It’s telling to note now just how much Gwen has in common with the celebrated Lauryn Hill.) She was introduced as “the first lady of Paradise Garage” at the club’s closing party, and as journalist Jim Feldman puts it, she was the “user-friendly diva.”

    Despite the artistic merit of the two albums, they were moderate, not massive, hits in the R&B mainstream. Gwen’s relationship with Island cooled perceptibly when Kool and the Gang producer Eumir Deodato was commissioned to produce her next album in 1985, Just For You. She’d always remained touchy about creative control after a bitter disappointment at CBS, which signed her in 1979 to cut an album partly financed by her friend and supporter Roberta Flack. The label rejected her work and shelved the album. Now, her professional background would permit no backseat role in her own career. “As a session singer,” she told me in 1986, “you know who’s who; who the players are. I knew how I wanted the songs to be treated.”

    As luck would have it, Guthrie’s devoted club following would be the catalyst for a new deal. Padlock, a five-song mini-LP of Levan club mixes from the Compass Point albums, marketed by Island’s independent Mango subsidiary, had been released in 1983. After months of constant club play and unreported radio exposure of the title track, it was by far outselling the new album and single on Island. By autumn 1985, the mini-LP had sold over 120,000 copies and the “Padlock” single over 45,000. But at the same time, Guthrie’s option with Island had expired, and she signed with Polydor with the assurance of greater video and tour support -- and most importantly, a guarantee that she’d produce herself.

    In June 1986, her first self-production, “Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ On But the Rent,” zoomed into the No. 1 R&B spot and crossed top 10 pop in the U.K., as well. It was, Polydor said at the time, “a promotion man’s dream record...within three days of play, top 10 requests came in.” No one can really think of summer 1986 without thinking of Gwen, that record, or the controversy ignited by lyrics like: “No romance without finance,” or “You gotta have a J-O-B if you wanna be with me.” Like this year’s runaway hit, TLC’s “No Scrubs” (or for that matter, Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill,”or any Shania Twain song you can name), the slightest whiff of criticism triggered an off-the-hook reaction from male listeners and journalists, and Gwen spent a lot of time that year patiently explaining and re-explaining the song. Her comments in various published interviews ranged from: “Businesslike? Yeah, it’s businesslike! Ha!” to “I was just saying it takes two. That both parties should be productive.”

    The follow-up, a blissful mellow-funk cover of “(They Long To Be) Close to You,” also was a U.K. top 40 hit, and composer Burt Bacharach called it his favorite version of the song, ever. “My confidence is up,” Gwen told me in August 1986. “Doing commercials is good and bad. 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.”

    Gwen’s imagination is on full display in this collection. Her club-oriented material inevitably dominates, but the tuneful, truthful ballads here -- Oh, Donny, No,” “Oh, What a Life” and “Younger Than Me” -- present another side of her that’s just as rewarding, with beautiful multi-tracked vocal renderings, and the unmistakable viewpoint of the sisters.

    In her last live performance, an October 13, 1998 segment of In the Spotlight on Ashford and Simpson’s WRKS (Kiss-FM) New York drive time radio show, Gwen performed “Betcha By Golly Wow” and “Hold On, I’m Comin’” with them to Valerie’s piano accompaniment. No listener could possibly have guessed from Gwen’s vibrant sound that she was ill. Even at the time she passed on in early 1999, Gwen’s followers were still paying tribute to her music: “Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ On But the Rent” was on the No. 1 album in the country on February 3, the day of her passing, refashioned through sampling as “J.O.B.” on the second album by Foxy Brown.

    Gwen Guthrie’s gifts were many, and she paid a certain price for having them so early and valuing them so fully. But from her backup sessions to her songwriting, solo records and production, there wasn’t a J-O-B in music in which she did not distinguish herself.

    Brian Chin
    June, 1999

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