Although mainly remembered today for her sassy 1986 hit, Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ on But the Rent, Gwen Guthrie was one of the most talented vocalists in early 80s RnB.
Having cut her teeth in the 1970s as a backing vocalist and then co-writing songs such as Love Don’t You Go Through No Changes On Me for Sister Sledge, Guthrie began her solo recording career on Island Records with her eponymous debut in 1982.
But it was on her second album, Portrait, recorded in the Bahamas, where it was all going on.
She was backed by the Compass Point All Stars, the group that worked out of Chris Blackwell’s Nassau studio set-up. Arguably equal to the Chic rhythm section and Motown’s The Funk Brothers, the ensemble centred on the bass playing of Robbie Shakespeare and the metronomic snap of Sly Dunbar’s drums.
Aside from Guthrie, they worked with, among others, Tom Tom Club, Black Uhuru and, most notably, Grace Jones. Portrait has all the angular, machine-driven propulsion of their very best recordings, but their settings never get in the way of Guthrie’s sensual, emotional voice.
Portrait contains three Guthrie classics: Padlock, Seventh Heaven and Peanut Butter. Slinky and seductive, they are pitch-perfect examples of dance music in 1983. Guthrie singing “spread yourself all over me like peanut butter” against Wally Badarou’s bubbling synthesiser is an awe-inspiring moment.
Seventh Heaven, however, is the one; a slithery dancefloor masterpiece with keyboards and bass locked in a seemingly never-ending reverie. DJ Larry Levan’s dubby, beautifully off-kilter mix of it became a staple at the Paradise Garage, the fabled New York club where Guthrie was known as its queen.
Only the conventional ballads on Portrait work less well. Oh What a Life and You’re the One sound decidedly out of place, less futuristic than the rest of the album.
Although Gwen Guthrie was to enjoy bigger hits, the eight tracks on Portrait represent her very best work. She only recorded intermittently until her tragic death at the age of 48 in 1999. Portrait is a fabulous way to remember her.
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