Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma and raised in Newark, New Jersey. In school, she studied classical music, and her father began teaching her piano when she was eight years old. By the early 1970s, she had joined vocal groups such as the Ebonettes and the Matchmakers, meanwhile working as an elementary school teacher. When a backup singer scheduled to sing on Aretha Franklin’s 1974 single “I’m in Love” fell ill, Guthrie took the vocalist’s place beside Cissy Houston; thus Guthrie would happily state that her career on record began “at the top”.
Guthrie soon began moonlighting as a singer of commercial jingles, sometimes with her friend Valerie Simpson (of Ashford & Simpson fame). A songwriting partnership with her then boyfriend, trombonist/bassist Haras Fyre (professionally known as “Patrick Grant”) resulted in Ben E. King’s comeback single, “Supernatural Thing”, and “This Time I’ll Be Sweeter“, covered by numerous artists. Together they wrote seven tracks on the Sister Sledge’s 1975 album Circle of Love: “Cross My Heart”, “Protect Our Love”, “Love Don’t You Go Through No Changes on Me”, “Don’t You Miss Him Now”, “Pain Reliever”, “You’re Much Better Off Loving Me”, and “Fireman“. She was also the writer of Roberta Flack’s “God Don’t Like Ugly”.
As Guthrie’s solo career developed, she worked extensively with Sly and Robbie on dub-influenced club cuts, and began racking up dance hits. She was dubbed “The First Lady of the Paradise Garage” as several of her songs became anthems at the venue, helped by the frequent and dynamic performances she gave there. She soon teamed musically with famed Paradise Garage DJ Larry Levan, and recorded her first major landmark hit, “Padlock” in 1983 with the Compass Point All Stars in Nassau, Bahamas which became a club and radio hit two years later. She also sang back up on Madonna’s debut album from 1982.
Guthrie is probably best known for her 1986 dance anthem “Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ on But the Rent”, a self-written and produced track which garnered some controversy for its misandric and materialistic lyrics such as, “You’ve got to have a j-o-b if you want to be with me/No romance without finance”. A literal reading suggests a man only require the finances to make a relationship work. However, Guthrie’s lyrics intend to motivate her partner into being responsible for maintaining equality and financial stability.
“Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ on But the Rent” was later sampled by numerous dance and hip hop artists, notably by Foxy Brown in her 1998 song “JOB” featuring Mýa and by Utah Saints for the original version of their hit “What Can You Do for Me”. The song is referenced in the Eddie Murphy monologue “No Romance Without Finance”, in his Eddie Murphy Raw concert and film (also available on DVD). Guthrie also had a hit in 1986 with a cover of “(They Long to Be) Close to You”, which reached number twenty-five on the UK Singles Chart the same year.
Her single “Can’t Love You Tonight” boldly addressed AIDS at a time when the disease was a taboo subject. Guthrie was an ally to the gay community, and to people with AIDS long before the masses caught up. Proceeds from the single went to the AIDS Coalition.
Other club hits of hers include the Compass Point All Stars-produced “Seventh Heaven”, “Peanut Butter”, and “Peek-a-Boo”. “Padlock” was later covered by M People, who included it on their 1995 album Bizarre Fruit, featuring vocalist Heather Small.
Guthrie died of uterine cancer on February 3, 1999, at the age of 48, and was interred at Fairmount Cemetery in Newark, New Jersey.