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Dead Unsung Heroes in Music: Terry Kath

From top: Inside of "Chicago Transit Authority", front covers of "CHICAGO LIVE", CHICAGO V, CHICAGO VI, CHICAGO XI, & Bottom front gatefold CHICAGO X.
Brett Brezniak

Jimi Hendrix famously said in an interview with Dick Cavett that he wasn’t “the best guitar player”. Much less famously he said to Walter Parazaider of the band Chicago “Your horns are like one set of lungs, and your guitarist is better than me”. He expressed interest in making an album with the horn section sometime in the future. Chicago’s guitarist and bandleader, Terry Kath did end up with a longer career than Jimi Hendrix. He did, however tragically die in 1978, after leading the band through eleven albums starting with “Chicago Transit Authority” in 1969. Band members claim he was shaping feedback into organized noise, and making his guitar talk long before any of them knew of Jimi Hendrix. Chicago is a true supergroup that is wrongfully overlooked and underrated among legendary rock artists of the sixties and seventies. Perhaps the most glaring omission of mainstream rock history is not only the innovation of this group, but the extraordinary talent of guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Terry Kath. His daughter Michelle has announced there is a documentary in the works entitled “Searching for Terry: Discovering a Guitar Legend”. My hope is that the project is completed and becomes a great success that inspires more people to take a closer look at Chicago, and listen closer to the guitar playing of Terry Kath.

Chicago has had a long history of critically panned albums that sold millions. In fact, their first album went to #17 on the album charts in 1969 without good reviews or a hit single at all! They sold their albums by touring colleges throughout the country. They were an underground success at the advent of album-oriented radio. It wasn’t until their second album in 1970 had hit singles starting with “Make Me Smile” (#9) and “25 or 6 to 4” (#4) that they released first-album songs as singles “Does Anybody Know What Time it Is?” (#7), and “Beginnings” (#7). “Questions 67 & 68” only hit #71 in 1969, but it’s re-release in 1971 landed it at #24. “25 or 6 to 4” featured Terry’s extended, soaring guitar solos. “Questions 67 & 68” features overdriven, ripping leads by Terry weaving in and around the horns-dominated track. Terry also sang the lead vocals on his own songs as well as songs written by other band members. Keyboardist Robert Lamm and bassist Peter Cetera were the other primary vocalists in the band. Unlike bands (like The Beatles) where the writer of the song is usually the lead vocalist, Chicago had a different approach. James Pankow (trombonist/horn arranger) would audition the lead singers in the band including Kath, Lamm, and Cetera. Kath usually sang his songs, but Lamm’s songs could be sung by himself, Peter, or Terry, as he wrote for their voices as another instrument in the band. Pankow would on later albums end up singing a few of his own tunes. Peter Cetera usually sang his own songs with few exceptions, like “Wishing You Were Here” (from Chicago VII), which features Terry on the verses. This happened actually by accident as it was already recorded in a lower key than Peter could sing. Perhaps as consolation to Cetera, he fulfilled a lifelong dream of his and “sang with the Beach Boys”, as some of them sang the background vocals.

One of Terry’s greatest compositions is the masterpiece “Introduction”, which is the lead off track on “Chicago Transit Authority”. Here, he speaks for the band with the lyrics “...we’re a little nervous...sit back and let us groove....we’ve all spent years preparing...let us play for you.” After the verse, at 1:15, a series of chord changes begin. At 2:26, the tempo slows down for a trombone solo. Then at 3:00, they’ve gone to a lounge sound, and there’s a Miles Davis-like (warm sounding) trumpet solo. At 4:00, the tempo speeds up again for the guitar solo. At 4:58 the horns are in unison bringing the section to a climax. At 5:44 the opening chords are played by the organ, this time with drum fills. At 5:51, the vocal comes back, with Terry again speaking for the band with “Now we’ve put you through the changes...and turned around the mood...”, then leading to the CODA and end of this exciting song.

Another Terry Kath highlight from “Chicago Transit Authority” is “Poem 58”. This Robert Lamm composition was written as a showpiece for Terry Kath’s guitar. The song begins with Terry setting the groove, then joined on the repeat by bass and drums only. At :50, the beat opens up for the guitar solo. At 2:18, the dynamics drop a little, and at 2:48 start building up again. By 3:42 the guitar is still wailing away, hitting it’s highest notes until 4:48 when the bass starts a new groove. Guitar answers, and then the horns answer repeating the same three notes. This repeating of notes is a device used frequently with Chicago, and it is one of the elements that make their music so exciting. At 5:10, the guitar starts a new riff, and the keyboard finally joins in. At 5:22, the first verse is finally sung! Robert Lamm’s lead vocal is accompanied by vocal harmonies, each note successively higher answering “”. Then at 5:57 there’s another guitar solo (over the new groove). At 7:43, there’s another verse, and then at 8:23 the repeated notes return to end the song.

Side Three of “Chicago Transit Authority” begins with the nearly seven-minute long acappella guitar solo entitled “Free Form Guitar”. The album notes describe the piece as one performance recorded live, and using no special effects. Terry shapes some amazing sounds out of feedback which at times sound like a high-speed race car. Some may think this is all Jimi Hendrix-inspired, and while he was a big fan of Hendrix, many testify to the fact that he was playing this kind of stuff long before any of them knew of Hendrix. When they played on the same bill as Hendrix, Terry and Jimi reportedly spent many hours talking shop.

After “Free Form Guitar”, Terry’s guitar, again sets the groove for the blues song “South California Purples”. This features some blazing leads by Terry, which were further expanded upon in their live performances. By the time they recorded “Live at Carnegie Hall” (after their third album), the song would lead to a jam similar to “Poem 58”, with just bass, drums, and organ jamming under Terry’s improvisational guitar explorations. After the verses are all sung, the jamming really begins! The beginning of the jam starts with Terry’s guitar leading by slowing everything to half-tempo by use of repeated licks, then bringing it back up with Danny Seraphine’s free-form beat on the drums. The groove eventually forms into a solid funky beat, before relaxing to a straight rock beat, swinging through a jazz beat, and everything that the band does so well: seamlessly blending all the styles into one of their own. And, remember this is just the rhythm section of the band! Throughout the tempo and dynamic changes of the jam are largely led by Terry’s guitar. At the end, it breaks down to a snare drum roll, and Terry turning up the speed of his playing to the most extreme peak, while remaining crystal-clear focus and definition. Here we basically have a guitar-drum duel/duet, or simply put a guitar and drum showcase finale. Terry’s technique displayed here was perhaps unmatched in the field of rock music at the time. Finally, the final chords of the turnaround cadence are played with the horns.

“Chicago Transit Authority” closes with an instrumental which was a big showpiece for the band live. After the intro at 1:26 is an extended guitar solo accompanied only by bass, drums, and keyboards. This stays in the same key, but goes through at least eight different grooves before slowing down and opening up at 7:49. At 8:30, the guitar starts to play faster until the tempo becomes faster at 8:57. The bass starts breaking free with runs, and the guitar and keyboard buildup. At 9:39 it breaks down to acappella guitar feedback, and dissonant freestyle keyboard and drums. At 10:29 the horns start to sound like traffic with honking and siren sounds. It sounds like complete chaos which finally leads to two seconds of silence, and at 11:24 Terry again leads the band into another groove with quiet, clean chords, as the drums enter quietly. At 11:56 there are long, sustained horn chords, and stops, and another intense build-up. At 13:18 the guitar leads the band into double-time. At 13:56, there’s a drum solo, and finally the horns end the song.

Chicago’s producer for all their early albums was James William Guercio. He encouraged them to write extended works. Certainly, their first album had many ambitious songs as above noted. By the second album, they put together their first suite, or collection of songs with a unifying theme. “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon” (by James Pankow) has remained very popular throughout their career, and the two big hit singles from the suite (“Make Me Smile” and “Colour My World”) both feature Terry on lead vocals. Both his rough side and soft side are represented respectfully.

On Chicago III (1971), there are three suites: one by Robert Lamm, one by James Pankow, and one by Terry called “An Hour in the Shower”. The lyrics are typically personal, and many musical ideas are compressed into under seven minutes. The five movements are as follows:

  1. A Hard Risin’ Morning Without Breakfast (1:58)
  2. Off to Work (:45)
  3. Fallin’ Out (:48)
  4. Dreamin’ Home (:56)
  5. Morning Blues Again (1:03)

The first, third and last movements are all based on the same country/folk chord progression played on acoustic guitar. The second movement is a bit of a rocker with electric overdrive and power chords. The fourth movement brings in the jazzy/impressionistic chords and vocal harmonies. This basically compresses all the primary musical styles of Kath and Chicago into one thematic narrative.

The opening track “Sing a Mean Tune Kid” is another highlight of Chicago III. It is a Robert Lamm composition about pop figures that don’t get the full appreciation they deserve, and appropriately features extended guitar solos by the band’s own underappreciated guitarist.

. Terry is the voice of consciousness in the song “Dialogue Part I & II”, which serves as the side-one closer, and anthem of Chicago V (1972). In “Part II” Kath is wailing away on the guitar freely as Lamm and Cetera chant the repeated choruses. Then, Kath steps out to ad lib lead vocals over the choruses until the end. To close the album, Terry again is speaking for the band in “Alma Mater” with the lyrics “Looking back a few short years where we made our plans and played the cards the way they fell...” The song basically tells you they made their dreams come which were “meant to be”. This album marks a turning point in their career where the band started working with more compressed musical ideas, which led to shorter songs overall. It is also the first Chicago album not to be at least a double album. Their fourth album “Live at Carnegie Hall” was a four-record set.

Chicago VI (1973) has Terry’s song “Jenny” which in addition to his soulful vocal, has a sweet clean-chorused guitar sound very similar to Hendrix’s underwater guitar sound of the “Axis:Bold as Love” album. There are no horns on this track. On Lamm’s “Rediscovery” Terry is featured playing subdued, yet sexy clean wah-wah guitar against Lamm’s Rhodes electric piano accompaniment. “What’s This World Coming To?” is a great high-energy funk jam with trade-off lead vocals from Lamm, Cetera, and Kath.

Chicago VII (1974) found the band stretching out with a double album once again. Apparently, the band (with the exception of Cetera and producer Guercia) wanted to do an all-jazz album. It ended up being about half predominately instrumental jazz, and the other half ballads. Of the several instrumentals, Terry’s guitar tone is predominately jazz-like, with little or no distortion. He plays eloquent chord voicings and clean, flowing solos. The band goes into musical territory previously unexplored to this degree. What were previously side excursions within songs became more developed improvisations in which all the members of the band took their turns standing out, yet still played interesting parts when they were in the background. The album closer is a beautiful acoustic ballad called “Byblos” by Kath completely absent of horns.

Chicago VIII (1974) features two songs by Terry. “Till We Meet Again” is an acoustic ballad with no horns or drums. “Oh, Thank You Great Spirit” is a soulful ballad with a dreamy intro and clean, flowing electric guitar chords in the verses. It is a tribute to Jimi Hendrix. The song builds up in tempo and volume for an extended wailing guitar solo.

Chicago IX (1975) was a greatest-hits compilation. Chicago X (1976) opens and closes with Terry Kath compositions. The album is their first gatefold cover that requires opening to see the complete picture which is an opened chocolate bar with the Chicago logo. The album is dominated by songs about love. Different aspects of love (including heartbreak) are explored in each song. The album opener “Once or Twice” finds Terry exploring the initial attraction, and suggestion of the beginning of a relationship. The album closer “Hope for Love” deals with healing heartbreak, and looking to opening one’s heart again to love.

It seems a little odd that one of Terry’s earlier songs (“Mississippi Delta City Blues”) finally shows up on Chicago XI (1977), which is the last Chicago album before his untimely death. Terry’s funk-rhythm chops are on full display here. Any wailing guitar soloing that may have been missed there is found later on the track “Takin’ it on Uptown”, which Kath wrote the music and sang the lyrics by Fred Kagan. The closing tracks on the album, “Little One (Prelude)/Little One”, are songs co-written by Danny Seraphine and David “Hawk” Wolinski, and feature lead vocals by Kath. The lyrics perhaps reflect on behalf of all the members of the band who experience the joy of being with their children, and feeling sorry that they are not around for them due to their touring dates of 2-300 shows a year.

Terry died of a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. Though he was said to have battled depression, and substance abuse, the gunshot is believed to be accidental. He claimed there were no bullets in the gun , and waved it around his head saying “What do you think I’m gonna do? Blow my brains out?” Unfortunately the chamber had a single bullet in it, and the pressure from waving the gun with his hand on the trigger caused it to fire.

James William Guercio, who produced and managed the band through their first eleven albums also parted ways with the band shortly before Terry’s death. The band considered calling it quits after his death, but continued on with subsequent guitarists who have been great players and songwriters. And while Chicago are today still most well-known for their beautiful hit ballads, their live shows continue the band’s long-time tradition of grooving and jamming. The band continues to pay tribute and acknowledge the innovative guitar virtuoso, soulful singer, and bandleader that was Terry Kath.

I have created a YouTube playlist for music mentioned in this article. It contains "Chicago Transit Authority" (Full Album), plus live and studio selections written by or featuring Terry Kath spanning their first eleven albums.


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