Wipe Off The Dust: Gwen Guthrie & The Garage

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Glam soul boy Sam Sparro shared his love for and paid tribute to the iconic New York City club, Paradise Garage by way of his recent release, Return To Paradise. The concept of the album's whole is a loving ode to the club, it's dwellers, the era, and Paradise's navigator---legendary DJ Larry Levan. Judging from multiple reviews, this concept --- Sparro's homage to a personal inspiration --- flew over the craniums. Possibly because this is an era that was short-lived (from 1976 to 1987) and lived by a marginal few, yet Sparro knows full well that without the Paradise Garage and its disciples, his musical being wouldn't exist, the whole core of dance music today would be a little less imagined. Levan and the Paradise Era contributed to the Dance scene in a big way when it arrived in the late 70's, and it picked up the shards of mirrored balls when the 80's rolled in and kept the party going till mid-way in the decade, when the club itself closed its doors.

When Levan passed away in 1993, VIBE wrote a fantastic tribute piece about the life, hard times, and non-stop music party of Levan. From reading, Levan had such a passion for the groove and was tirelessly dedicated to having his domain be a non-stop party. His whole essence as a DJ was because of this need for being 'in the moment' which is the process on how he spun his shows as he melded one song after another, and with his eclectic style, his sets always lent itself to being a surprise at who was going to get spun next. Levan is essential to this era of dance formulation, as is Gwen Guthrie. Pretty much, you can't go into a conversation about Levan without at least mentioning Ms. Guthrie, a brazen dame of song out of New Jersey who received plenty of spins at the Paradise Garage during it's hey-day, a course that led her to be dubbed the First Lady of Garage House --- and rightfully so.

Guthrie is of the special brethren whom worked behind the mic and the pen for other artists, and then who went onto to finding themselves at the forefront. While some background vocalists and songwriters never get their solo careers off the ground, Guthrie was of the rarities that took flight.

Guthrie began here career singing back-up for the likes of Aretha Franklin, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, Peter ToshKenny LogginsBen E. King, among many others. Her songwriting career began when, alongside King, she penned the bulk of Sister Sledge's debut 1975 album, Circle of Love. Tunes like "This Time I'll Be Sweeter" and "God Don't Like Ugly" that were penned by Guthrie, also became notable hits for Angela Bofill and Roberta Flack respectively.

Though her Reggae flavored 1982 self-titled debut did little to attract attention, it was when Guthrie began really flirting with the budding synth-dance movement to where Guthrie found her niche. One toe dip into the movement happened when she did backing vocals on a very essential dance record of the early 80's --- Madonna's 1983 self-titled debut. Yet, Guthrie had a prize win of her own in '83 when she stuck her whole foot into her sophomore set, the excellent, Portrait. The album made her a permanent fixture as a dance club queen, in-line with such acts like Jocelyn Brown and Jenny Burton.

Unlike Brown, and Burton, Guthrie wasn't negated to 'hook girl' status as her albums were solely hers and were padded with hits crafted from her own pen. Portrait, led Guthrie to have four club anthems --- the guitar crackling "Peanut Butter", "Padlock", "Seventh Heaven", and space-y "Hopscotch" --- all of them superb in their own ways. Levan was responsible for re-crafting "Padlock" into the seminal dance hit that it was, as he turned it into a seven-minute in groove-a-thon heaven. Also on deck for Portrait were Reggae enthusiasts, Sly Dunbar & Robbie Shakespeare, whom refined the set into a compact eight-track instant party with their signature Reggae edge (heard much more noticeably in down-tempo tracks like the superb peek-a-boo of "Younger Than Me"). It is also interesting to note that Sly & Robbie also worked wonders with Grace Jones around this time, and a similar chill sound oozes out of Guthrie's material as well. Though Guthrie had the better pipes, both Jones and Guthrie could snake their way around the productions Sly & Robbie concocted, and on Portrait it is obvious that this unique blend warranted the best from the singer.

Following Portrait, 1985 brought Guthrie to work with Eumir Deodato on Just For You. A lot of the Paradise Garage vibe is unmistakably scarce as she challenges Madonna and Shannon to a duel as she pops her rocks on a number spirited synth-pop gems. The kinetic opener, "Love Is In Control" and "Joyriders" are pure showstoppers, as are "Feel It No More" and sunny "Love In Moderation". Even when she goes into pensive balladry like on the beautiful guitar laden "Oh Donny No", Guthrie charms and entices with much assurance.

By 1986, the Paradise Garage era was in its last gasps,  but Guthrie was riding high with her self-produced fourth album, Good To Go Lover and arguably one of her biggest hits, "Ain't Nothin' Goin' On But The Rent". The same rubberband snap of witty words, funk and soul rattled throughout the album, making it a recall to her "Peanut Butter" days, yet the album as a whole failed to really latch onto the same magic as it is riddled with filler tracks (save for the brilliant synth workout "I Still Want You") and less taunt ideas.

Still "Ain't Nothin'" anchored the album, especially with it's tag-line: "Ain't nothin' goin' on but the rent/you've got to have a J-O-B if you wanna be with me". With priceless lyrics like that from Guthrie's pen, it was no wonder this song was a smash, as when wit and groove collide, Guthrie took no prisoners. Also in the mix was her lovely cover of the Carpenters' "(They Long To Be) Close To You" as well as the pulsating quiet rumble of "Outside In The Rain" ---both of which were also scooped up as charting hits.

1988's Lifeline, and 1990's Hot Times followed there after, but Guthrie's boisterous dance sound was long-gone as she traded things in for lighter quiet storm fare that failed to make dents in the charts. It seemed that when the Paradise Garage closed it's doors in 1987, Guthrie's lost her spunk as her later material became quite uneventful. Sadly, Guthrie succumbed to uterine cancer in 1999, but --- and as cliche and corny as this will sound --- her contributions to the dance movement of the early 80's still endure as without her, the 1990's House movement wouldn't have been as massive, with dames like Crystal Waters, CeCe Peniston, Adeva and Ultra Nate carrying the tradition of soulful women having a firm place among the strobe lights and packed dance floors into later years. So Larry Levan was pretty much right all along, an eternal non-stop party is ideal, especially when you have the crowned Queen of Garage, Gwen Guthrie at the helm.


  1. Thanx for giving Gwen her just due. Padlock stays in heavy rotation for me.

    1. You're welcome :) I'm all about giving props to our originators.


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