Tuesday, January 23rd marks the 40th anniversary of the death of legendary guitarist Terry Kath of the band Chicago.
If you just said, "Who?," I promise not to hit you upside the head, as chances are that you come by your ignorance honestly.
Sadly, there are generations of music lovers - including even Chicago fans - who don't know the name Terry Kath. So we'll start here - with 25 or 6 to 4, from Chicago's legendary 1970 concert at Tanglewood in Lenox, MA.
(It takes a minute for the song to kick in - drummer Danny Seraphine has trouble with a cymbal, so lanky keyboardist Bobby Lamm gives him a hand while Terry - the denim-clad dude with the Strat - plucks some intro notes. Turn it up, because the intro's great - dig how the bass, keyboard and drums snake in with the guitar. Then, suddenly, Terry blows in like a 454 'Vette engine …..)
That, my friends, was Chicago. Guitarist Kath, bassist Peter Cetera (yes, that Peter Cetera), keyboard man Robert Lamm, drummer-extraordinaire Danny Seraphine and the kick-ass horn section of James Pankow (trombone), Walter Parazaider (woodwinds) and trumpeter Lee Loughnane. A hot rock band with horns. Decidedly not the ballad-driven band they became.
Their sound was transcendent, smokin' hot alchemy. As Terry wrote in his song Introduction, "With heaven's help, it blended /And we do thank the Lord."
Along with Parazaider and Seraphine, Kath was one of the founding members of the band, which (after the addition of Lamm, Loughnane and Pankow) began in the mid-1960's as The Big Thing. Peter Cetera eventually joined from another local band, The Exceptions, and they morphed into Chicago Transit Authority/CTA, then, simply, Chicago.
They hit in the Midwest in the late 60's, but hit it big-time-nationwide after being moved to Los Angeles in 1968 by their wunderkind producer, James William Guercio. Ten years and 11 iconic albums followed, anchored by the center of their musical centrifuge, the inimitible Terry.
All seven were unquestioningly masters of their craft. It was an embarrassment of riches. The band boasted three strong songwriters - Lamm, Kath and Pankow (with Cetera in the on-deck circle) and three great singers - Cetera's unique high tenor, Lamm's mid-range and the deep, soulful Kath. Evocative of Ray Charles, Kath's voice had a warmth and wail that gave the band's sound gravitas.
Kath was at once a simple and complex man. Married, with a baby daughter, he was beloved by his bandmates, funny, dug the outdoors, animals and motorcycles. He also had a fierce appetite for drugs and drink and an obsession with firearms.
On the surface, Chicago had a squeaky-clean image, but over time, became as drug-sodden as any band of its era. Eventually they all adopted a straighter lifestyle, with the exception of Kath. Drummer Seraphine details in his compelling book, Street Player (available at amazon.com) the band's alarm at Terry's increasing cocaine use and gun obsession. He would only tell his bandmates that he'd be OK, that he had it under control. It was 180 degrees from the truth.
Kath died on January 23, 1978, one week shy of his 32nd birthday, in an accidental shooting at the home of a friend. His death was the sad result of drugs and ignorance. He was coming off a bender and fooling with a 9mm semi-automatic; to his friend's chagrin, he put the gun to his head in jest and pulled the trigger, thinking it was empty, as he'd removed the clip. It was not, and the bullet left in the chamber killed him instantly.
(Note: it was often reported that Terry was suicidal and his death resulted from his intentionally playing Russian roulette with a revolver. Not so; at the time of his death, friends and family all agreed that he was not suicidal and was even writing songs for a solo project. Further, the gun was not a revolver; Kath simply had no idea a bullet remained in the pistol's chamber. His death was ruled accidental.)
The tragedy nearly tore Chicago apart, but they chose to find another guitarist and soldier on. But no one could begin to fill Kath's shoes; the magic was gone. Their next album, Hot Streets, featured hotshot Texas guitarist Donny Dacus, a talented player but ultimately a bad fit. Several more guitarists came and went, Cetera left in the mid-80's and forged a successful solo career, and in a spectacularly bad move, drummer Seraphine - one of the band's founders - was fired in the early 90's.
Yet Chicago continues performing to this day, still with four original members and nearly 30 years after its last charted hit. Its hard rock days are long over, even as Robert Lamm has expressed ennui at being a power-ballad band. Lamm and Kath were close, and he feels to this day that Kath continues to watch over the band. He wrote a great song about it, Out of the Blue; it cleverly evokes old-school Chicago near tune's end.
The Terry Kath Experience, the long-awaited documentary by Terry's daughter, Michelle Kath Sinclair, was recently released to the public after receiving laud at the 2016 Toronto Film Festival. Michelle was only two years old when he died, and the film proved as revelatory to her as to his fans. It's a must-see for anyone interested in this incredible performer.
In the guitar-god pantheon, there are Hendrix, Santana, Beck, Page, Clapton, Gilmour, Vaughan, Van Halen and so many others.
And now you know, at his rightful place amongst the very best, there is Terry Kath.
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