Much was made at the time ... and has been made ever since ... regarding the eerie Lynyrd Skynyrd album cover for their "Street Survivors" LP, picturing the group engulfed in flames. Ironically, the LP was released just three days before the fatal plane crash that killed three members of the band. MCA moved quickly to pull the album off the shelves, replacing it with a solid black background in respect to the band.
But did you know that the inside gatefold cover of the Chicago XI album depicted Terry Kath with a bullet going through his head? Photographer Reid Miles had instituted a running gag over the past four LPs showing the band in various comedic confrontations with the police ... but on the band's eleventh album, the last to feature Terry Kath on guitar, released shortly before his death, the photo showed Terry being shot in the head by a policeman's bullet!
Reports regarding the exact circumstances surrounding Terry's fatal pulling of the trigger that night of January 23, 1978 ... just eight days before his 32nd birthday ... have varied any number of times over the years. The only eye-witness to the accident, Don Johnson, the band's keyboard technician, has kept pretty quiet about the incident, perhaps helping to fuel even more speculation.
At various times, reports have circulated that Terry had been depressed regarding any number of things ... a bad romantic relationship ... some low self-esteem regarding the fact that he was considerably overweight and couldn't live up to the "sex symbol" personna of a big-time rock star ... the fact that he had never really received the proper recognition and respect for his guitar-playing abilities that he deserved ... added to the fact that he had been consuming more and more drugs at the time ... I can confidently say that based on all of these factors (and any other inner demons that Terry may have been harboring), I don't know that anyone can truly speak accurately about Kath's actual state of mind at the time of his death.
Producer James William Guercio says that he and Terry had been working on a solo album ... and that if any member of the band was poised to step away from the group and pursue a successful solo career, Kath would have been the most likely choice. (Ironically, it was bassist Peter Cetera who managed to do so several years later.)
Other reports have circulated that Terry had been playing around with another gun at the kitchen table that night ... one that really was unloaded and was missing its magazine chamber ... and that several times he had put it to his head in mock Russian Roulette fashion. (Since Don Johnson was the only eye-witness to the shooting, this is either a story he had to have told somebody that was then repeated "out of school" ... or complete fabrication ... as no one else could possibly have known what went on that night, simply because they weren't there to witness it.) Most agree, however, that Kath had an affection for guns and loved to shoot them, play with them and clean them. He was also known to stay up for days at a time, partying hearty before he'd ultimately collapse from exhaustion into a deep (and often drug-induced) sleep. Despite not knowing any of the principle players in this crazy circus, I still feel quite confident in saying that I'm willing to bet that more than once or twice over the past 33 years, it must have crossed Don Johnson's mind that he could have just as easily been the victim that night as the witness if Terry was, in fact, twirling a loaded gun around the kitchen table in haphazzard fashion!
After first playing around with the gun that was missing its magazine chamber, Kath then picked up the other gun ... which, unknown to anyone at the time, still contained one bullet in its chamber ... and started waving it around the air when it misfired, sending the bullet
straight through his head. Others have stated that the gun that ultimately killed Terry was known to have a faulty trigger and had misfired in the past. Some say he was so tired (and / or high) that night that he didn't even realize what he was doing. Official reports called it an "accidental shooting", stating simply for the record that Terry Kath had died of "self-inflicted gun shot wounds".
Regardless, the heart of Chicago was gone. The band figured this was it ... it was over ... but thanks to support from several other artists and musicians, (most notably Doc Severinsen of The Tonight Show!), they were ultimately convinced to continue ... as Terry would have wanted them to.
The band truly was at a crossroads ... their star lead guitarist was gone ... their long-time manager and producer was gone ... and for the first time in ten years, Chicago was going to have to go through the process of interviewing potential new band members. No one really knew for sure what the future held for this incredibly successful band.
---> More tomorrow in Forgotten Hits