Today is the birthday of the late Terry Kath, who was a founding member the jazzy pop-rock group Chicago, and whose guitar style and penchant for songwriting and arrangements helped propel that band into becoming one of the biggest acts of the 1970s. Kath died in tragic circumstances when he fired a pistol into his head which had one bullet in the chamber, thinking it was unloaded and just simply fooling around in front of a roadie/band technician who worked for Chicago, on January 23, 1978.
All but pretty much forgotten about in today’s climate by name, the sounds and songs and distinctive vocals of Terry Kath live on. Fans of the band may remember hearing the man’s strong presence, albeit in snippets and quick flashes, like his vocal on “Make Me Smile,” or the high school prom staple ballad of the early 1970s, “Colour My World.” They may remember his tightly played, colorfully and highly memorable solo on “25 or 6 to 4” or a myriad of songs showcased on Chicago’s first self-titled album, (released in 1969 and when they had the stretched out band moniker as “Chicago Transit Authority”) like “Introduction” and his well known jangly acoustic guitar on the track “Beginnings.”
Continue reading for much more and to check out some of Kath’s work.
That very first song on that very first album, “Introduction,” may possibly stand as Kath’s tour-de-force and peak. The song itself contains Kath’s bass-heavy vocalizing, and a guitar solo by him which stretches through a bridge of arrangements that go from light jazz, to pop, to a little Latin, to out and out hard rock seamlessly and effortlessly, largely due in part to the genius of Terry Kath’s sharp ear and conscious musical mind, which fit like a glove and was perfect simpatico with the rest of the band: Bass player/singer Peter Cetera, Keyboardist/vocalist Robert Lamm, the Brass section of Trumpeter Lee Loughnane and Trombonist James Pankow, Woodwind player Walter Parazaider and and the Buddy Rich-esque drumming styles of Danny Seraphine.
Kath was a polished pro, a consummate guitar player and song writer who owned 20 guitars at one point; he was one of a few select group of his guitarist peers who played a 1969 Les Paul model, one which sported low-impedance pickups and which no doubt helped give him his signature sound, a sound which sometimes seemed at once to be heard in high and low registers when he played. He liked to play it straight, didn’t rely too much on special tunings, but liked to use the wah-wah pedal frequently, and some distortion, especially on the track (again off of the band’s highly innovative first album) “Free Form Guitar” which is essentially a wall of noise, created by Kath, almost in a way an early version of what Lou Reed was to do six years later in 1975, on his also ambient and white noise record “Metal Machine Music.”
Chicago today is best remembered and lauded and still touring as an ensemble unit which has both feet planted in the soft rock/pop department, a by-product of the all-together different success they had in the 1980s, when they started to focus more on creating songs that would scale the pop charts. By that time of course, Kath was gone, and it is possible that if he had lived, the band might never have taken that direction at all. But there’s certainly a crossroads of the band at the point of where Kath died. When he was in the band, they too had huge success which got bigger and bigger with each subsequent release, but still had a roots entrenched in a rock sound. After Kath, the focus and main modus operandi was more on making the songs as slickly crafted as possible. The band certainly ended an era and forged ahead creating a new one, when Kath perished 35 years ago this year. In his personal life, he had some demons which may have been exacerbated by heavy drug and alcohol abuse, prompting even Peter Cetera to reflect that if Kath had lived, “he may have been the first one to quit Chicago.” That indeed did happen, but by way of tragedy, and not by choice.
But the legacy of Terry Kath lives on, in every radio station that still plays those early Chicago hits, like “Saturday in the Park,” “If You Leave Me Now,” “Wishing You Were Here,” “Call On Me” and plenty more, and the unknown songs that the early Chicago records were chock full of, (in fact the first four Chicago albums are double record sets and in the instance of the fourth record, a live performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall, a QUADRPULE record set) which the early generation of Chicago fans still remember and revere to this very day.
Here’s to Terry Kath today, a shadow in the limelight of more higher profile musicians who are still remembered historically, but a shadow that still stretches across the musical landscape, into the horizon, and beyond.