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- Posted on Apr 30th 2010 5:00PM by James Sullivan
But Chicago essentially has had two phases: the Terry Kath years and everything after. In its first decade, the group was more than capable of kicking some pretty serious tail, largely due to the singing and playing of this unsung virtuoso.
Born in -- where else? -- Chicago in 1946, Terry Kath grew up playing surf rock covers, like many young rockers his age. In the mid-'60s, the self-taught whiz kid met up with a bunch of classically trained musicians from DePaul University. They called themselves the Missing Links, then the Big Thing. By the time they met Jimi Hendrix while playing the Whisky a Go Go in L.A., the oversized group -- featuring seven original members -- was known as the Chicago Transit Authority.
After seeing the band, Hendrix delivered the ultimate compliment to saxophonist Walter Parazaider: "Your guitar player is better than me." The guitar god invited the unsigned group to open for him on a European tour with Janis Joplin, and years later, Kath would write 'Oh Thank You Great Spirit' for the late axeman.
With several songwriters and three vocalists, including the growling Kath, capable of singing lead, the new band was incredibly prolific right out of the gate. After shortening the name to Chicago when the actual Chicago Transit Authority threatened to sue, the group's first four releases were all double albums.
The band's 1969 debut featured an impromptu Kath instrumental, 'Free Form Guitar,' that might have sounded at home on a Hendrix -- or even a Sonic Youth -- album. Their second sent two Kath vocals, 'Make Me Smile' and 'Colour My World,' into the Top Ten; another high-charting single, '25 or 6 to 4,' showcased his wild guitar skills on both rhythm and lead. That album also featured the four-part song suite 'It Better End Soon,' which took a hard stance against the Vietnam War.
In 1973, Kath acted in and wrote soundtrack music for 'Electra Glide in Blue,' a cult biker film starring Robert Blake and produced by Chicago's manager, Jim Guercio. By the mid-'70s, however, the band was moving away from the acid-rock intensity and complex orchestral arrangements that defined its first several albums in favor of chart-friendly love songs, mostly sung by bassist Peter Cetera ('Just You 'N' Me,' 'Call on Me').
Kath, meanwhile, sang lead on another big hit, 'Wishing You Were Here,' with backing vocals by the Beach Boys. A hard drinker and a gun enthusiast, the guitarist was by this time battling weight problems. In 1977, he began working on a prospective solo album; band members would later say he probably would have been the first to leave the group.
One evening in January, 1978, Kath and his wife, Camelia, were partying at a roadie's house in southern California when the guitarist began joking about playing Russian roulette. He put an unloaded .38 up to his head and pulled the trigger several times.
Then he took a semiautomatic 9mm pistol and put in a clip. "Don't worry, it's not loaded," he told his wife (who would later marry Kiefer Sutherland). The one bullet in the chamber killed Terry Kath instantly. He was 31.
Kath's bandmates were distraught, and briefly considered retiring the group. Instead they forged on, hiring Donnie Dacus, a collaborator with Crosby, Stills and Nash who had just been cast in the film version of 'Hair.' Chicago's first single after Kath's accidental suicide was called 'Alive Again.'
The life of Terry Kath will be celebrated with a tribute concert in (where else?) Chicago on May 27. Check out the details here.