Terry Kath, original lead guitarist for the rock group Chicago, might have been turning 65 years old today if he had played spin the bottle the week before his 32nd birthday instead of spin the gun chamber ... but, sadly, that's not what happened.
His loss was immediate ... and it's still felt today, all these years later.
Never fully appreciated for the guitar skills he possessed, Kath was, at the time of his death, not a "happy man".
When Chicago first headed out to The West Coast in the late '60's (as Chicago Transit Authority), they opened for any number of headliners, trying to make their mark on the music scene, including guitar legend Jimi Hendrix.
From our Forgotten Hits Jimi Hendrix profile:
CHICAGO CONNECTION: Back in late 1968 / early 1969, Jimi Hendrix happened across a band performing at the famed Whiskey A Go-Go out in LA. That band just happened to be The Chicago Transit Authority (known later simply as Chicago), who had just moved out to the west coast trying to get a record label deal. According to saxophonist Walt Parazaider, "This guy came up very quietly and tapped me on the shoulder. He says, 'Hi, I'm Jimi Hendrix. I've been watching you guys and I think your guitarist is better than me.'" That guitarist was Terry Kath, one of Chicagoland's greatest musical casualties ... he died playing Russian Roulette in 1978 ... and that was quite a compliment indeed. In fact, HENDRIX invited CTA to open for some of his shows, most famously at the LA FORUM, April 26, 1969. Parazaider goes on to say, " ... that's how we got in front of big audiences." By year's end, their first LP was out ... and that was some 25-or-6-(to 4)-plus albums ago.
(You can read the whole piece here: Click here: Forgotten Hits - Jimi Hendrix)
Ironically, early on Kath was often described by critics as a "Hendrix wannabe" and accused of mimicking Hendrix's sound and technique ... but Terry had been doing amazing things with feedback, distortion and free-form guitar solos for years. No less a critic than Hendrix himself remarked "I think your guitarist is better than me."
Initially, after Terry's death, the band considered breaking up ... it was that traumatic. Friends since college (and with eleven albums already under their belts, ALL of which had previously gone gold or platinum ... with album sales of somewhere near 20 million at the time!), they just couldn't imagine going on without Kath, one of their musical and spiritual leaders. While it may have been some of the other members of the band that gave Chicago their jazz influence ... and others still that insured that their sound remained "pop" enough to keep them on the charts ... Kath was, without question, the "rocker" ... a progressive, heavy rock guitarist with a sound that should have propelled him to the top of all the critics' lists. (To this day, Chicago still doesn't get the respect they deserve ... witness their omission from The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame!)
Kath died at a critical turning point within the band ... they had just dismissed their long-term producer / manager / mentor / (and some would say Svengali) James William Guercio. If band mates Peter Cetera and Robert Lamm were considered the principle lead vocalists for the band, Kath outdid himself on their eleventh album, handling the vocals on four of the LP's eleven cuts.
Much like the long-rumored Mama Cass story about choking to death on a ham sandwich, the members of Chicago insist to this day that Terry did NOT die playing Russian Roulette ... although this is the way the story of his death has most often been portrayed. According to Ben Joseph's book "Chicago: Feelin' Stronger Every Day", Kath "was not at a party with other members of Chicago present ... Kath was sitting at the kitchen table of Chicago's keyboard tech, Don Johnson, cleaning his guns and, while waving one too close to his head, it went off and took his life."
This isn't to say that Kath wasn't having a difficult time dealing with his own inner demons ... the books goes on to make several other comments:
"He was at my place the night before he died," remembers James Pankow. "He had been having major hassles with his old lady and had been doing substances." Pankow claims that Kath had been awake for a couple of days before the incident. "He wasn't incredibly depressed, but he was bumming and he was tired. I said 'Terry, do yourself a favor and lie down and get some sleep, man.'"
Joseph describes Kath as "a gun collector ... an aficionado" who would often go out to the shooting range to practice with his pistols. While keyboard tech Don Johnson was the only witness to Terry's death, he declined to comment for Joseph's book. Jimmy Pankow says that after they came back from the shooting range, Terry sat at the kitchen table, cleaning his guns. Johnson told him, "Hey, man, you're really tired. Why don't you just put the guns down and go to bed." Terry said, "Don't worry about it" and he showed Donny the gun. He said, "Look, the clip's not even in it" and he had the clip in one hand and the gun in the other. But evidently there was still a bullet in the chamber. He put the clip back in and began waving the gun around his head. "What do you think I'm going to do?", he asked ... "Blow my brains out?" And, at that moment, the gun went off.
Terry Kath died instantly. Pankow says "Only Terry knows what he was thinking at that moment. I do not believe, nor will I ever believe, that Terry was suicidal. Terry was a very strong individual and he had never alluded to any notion of suicide ... and Terry and I were very close."
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