February is officially Black History Month in the United States. Throughout the month, the Jamaica Observer will acknowledge the contribution of African-Americans to Jamaican pop culture.
FOR Peter Tosh's Mystic Man album in 1978, producers Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare wanted a feel that would make the singer's edgy music more marketable.
"We wanted an American backup vocalist to get a different sound," Dunbar recalled.
That different sound came from Gwen Guthrie, a New Jersey singer who had worked with Roberta Flack, Carly Simon and Quincy Jones.
When the Mystic Man sessions wrapped, Sly and Robbie kept in touch with Guthrie. They invited her to Island Records founder Chris Blackwell's Compass Point studio in Nassau, Bahamas, where they were recording in 1981.
"She came down an' did some background vocals but she keep telling us how she loved the Bob Marley song, Is This Love, so we recorded a version with her," said Dunbar.
Blackwell eventually heard Guthrie's cover and signed her to Island which released her self-titled debut album which was produced by Sly and Robbie. It included the hit song, It Should Have Been You.
The Riddim Twins also produced her 1983 follow-up album, Portrait. Three years later, they played on Guthrie's massive hit, Ain't Nothin' Goin' on But the Rent, the working woman's anthem.
Gwen Guthrie earned her stripes as a harmony singer for much of the 1970s alongside Luther Vandross and Cheryl Lynn. She was also a talented songwriter, having penned ballads like This Time It'll be Sweeter for Linda Lewis and God Don't Like Ugly for Flack.
She also wrote soul singer Tyrone Davis's funky Supernatural Thing.
The throaty Guthrie's finest reggae moments came with Sly and Robbie. One of their outstanding collaborations was Nothing But Love, her infectious duet with Tosh. She returned to the pop mainstream in the late 1980s and most of the 1990s, singing on big hits like Madonna's Borderline.
Gwen Guthrie died from cancer at age 48 in 1999.