A rock 'n' roll Camelot
My personal homage to Terry Kath and early Chicago
One of my favorite, and most embarrassing, high school memories is running down a quiet suburban street late at night with a bunch of friends and singing Chicago songs at the top of our lungs. I’m talking early Chicago and songs like “I’m a Man” (below).
We weren’t drunk or high. We just revered Chicago and wanted to share its brilliance with the “square” neighbors who didn’t know what they were missing.
Annoying as we undoubtedly were, we weren’t wrong. Chicago during its initial era as a rock band—I’m talking 1969 to 1975—was, in my view, a “brief shining moment” in rock ‘n’ roll history. A rock ‘n’ roll Camelot, if you will, when musical lightning was captured in one album after another.
Nothing had sounded like it before, and nothing has sounded like it since, including Chicago itself. The band hit the top of the easy listening chart in 1976 with “If You Leave Me Now” off its Chicago X album, marking the beginning of a new pop ballad era that only intensified with the departure of Chicago’s long-time producer Jim Guercio and the death of guitarist Terry Kath.
In fact, as we learn in a revealing documentary called The Terry Kath Experience made by his daughter, Michelle Kath Sinclair, Kath was making plans to leave the band and make a solo album when he accidentally shot himself in early 1978. According to his partner at the time and Michelle’s mother, Camelia Lynne, Kath didn’t like Chicago’s music anymore and was planning to start a new band called Cook County to play “hard-core soulful music.”
It appears that Kath wanted to return to the complex jazz, soul, and funk-inspired rock that Chicago played when it began and when he was its undisputed musical leader, and there’s no denying the success of that music. All eight albums put out during its rock era—including four double LPs and a live quad LP—went platinum or multi-platinum in the U.S. From a debut album that reached number 17 on the Billboard 200, by its third album the band was consistently jumping straight to the top of the charts. Chicago was the first band to sell out a week of concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York, and, incredibly, its entire catalog of seven albums was on the Billboard 200 simultaneously in 1974.
Not too shabby for a group of guys from Chicago whose founding members (Kath, drummer Danny Seraphine, and saxophonist Walter Parazaider) were fired from Jimmy Ford and the Executives when that band wanted to merge with Little Artie and the Pharaohs. Thank you, Jimmy Ford, for that “executive” decision.
You could write a dissertation on the various factors that contributed to the straight-out-of-the-gate success of Chicago, but I want to argue that one factor was critical to this early success, and that factor was the musical and spiritual leadership of Terry Kath.
The question you have to ask, right off the bat, is why guys who had not insignificant musical chops themselves would elect to follow the lead of a self-taught guitarist like Kath. After all, keyboardist Robert Lamm had studied music at Roosevelt University and Parazaider, trombonist Jimmy Pankow, and trumpeter Lee Loughnane at DePaul University. Drummer Danny Seraphine had tutored privately at DePaul, and Peter Cetera had already made a name as a bass guitarist, having toured extensively and recorded with the Exceptions and played on folk singer Dick Campbell’s album for Mercury Records.
It’s true that Kath was self-taught and didn’t read or write music. But by the time the band formed in 1967, he had already played in four other bands, the final one, the Missing Links, having toured the Chicago club and ballroom circuit. He had served as band leader for the Executives and done the cover song arrangements for the Missing Links. Coming from a musical family, he had also experimented with a number of instruments, including the drums, and through practice and experience mastered both the lead and bass guitars. “Mastered” being the operative word.
To see is to believe. Take a look at Kath’s guitar solo during a performance of one of their most highly regarded songs, “25 or 6 to 4,” at Tanglewood in 1970:
Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra called Kath “the fastest I’ve ever seen,” and Joe Walsh (James Gang, the Eagles) described him as “a monster on guitar.” Steve Lukather, guitarist for Toto, considered Kath’s piece “Free Form Guitar” on Chicago’s debut album to be “way ahead of its time,” called Kath an “unsung guitar giant hero legend,” and claimed “there’s been no one like him since.”
Jimi Hendrix, whom many rate as one of the top guitarists, if not the best, of all time, went backstage at one of Chicago’s early gigs and, according to several sources, asserted that Kath was the “baddest” guitar player and “better than me, man.” Hendrix subsequently invited Chicago to open for him and became a mentor and inspiration to Kath and the band.
The question that begs to be asked here is, with all of these kudos from guitar rock royalty, why doesn’t Kath appear in all of the “best of” lists? Shouldn’t he, at the very least, be up there in the top 100?
One possible explanation: Chicago was an ensemble band and a so-called democracy, with everyone having an equal voice and no one member becoming the face of the band and standing out from the rest. If Kath wanted to make his mark, perhaps he would have had to showcase his own talents more. But Kath appeared to be more interested in providing a showcase for every member of the band, as witnessed by the first track on the debut album, called “Introduction,” in which he introduced the band in song and gave every member a spotlight solo.
[As a quick aside about Kath’s musical chops, producer Guercio considered “Introduction” a “killer piece” and Seraphine claimed it to be “the greatest challenge I’ve ever had musically.” It had both time and tempo changes, with the time signature changing from 4/4 to 3/8 to 19/8 and back to 4/4. When Kath verbally downloaded the song from his head so Pankow could notate it, Pankow could not believe that Kath had developed and stored this complex composition for seven separate instruments in his head.]
Perhaps another reason Kath never attained the same visibility as peers is that he was more interested in experimenting, improvising, and jamming in both writing and performing. He never followed a standard form of song construction, according to producer Guercio, and was known for bringing songs to an entirely new level of “ferocity” in concerts. You can see that abundantly if you compare the clips above with the album versions.
As someone who allegedly drove 90 in a 30 mile-per-hour zone, overturning his sports car, and who took to wearing a 38 revolver in a hip holster at Guercio’s Caribou Ranch (where the band hung out and recorded), Kath appeared to eschew the safer and more well-traveled paths to seek out constant stimulation and innovation. Writing a traditional or more formulaic hit song appears to have not been in his DNA. (Lamm, Pankow, and Cetera were the band’s consistent hit makers.)
The guy preferred to live in the fast lane. And yet, perversely, others describe him as the “artist” in the group who wanted to play for the joy of it and not with a focus on making more money or being more successful. As Lamm said, Kath didn’t want to play the game and keep singing the band’s hits in concerts, as the fans wanted them to do, and “he got more and more unhappy about it.” According to Seraphine, Kath was an unpretentious, down-to-earth guy who felted trapped by the trappings of success.
By that point in Chicago’s evolution, Kath and other members in the band were engaged in serious substance abuse (coke, pot, drugs), and Kath accused them of being hypocrites when they confronted him about his overindulgence in a band meeting at the ranch. Kath was already engaged in plotting his departure from the band at that time, but he was also isolating himself from other key people in his life, including his wife, and hanging out with the drug dealers and other leeches who attach themselves to rock bands and well-off celebrities. Oh, if we could only turn back time and have a talk with him. Or stage an intervention, as some wish they had done.
His band members credit his untimely death with saving their lives, as it shocked them into cleaning up their acts. It’s also clear from Sinclair’s documentary that, despite anything that went down prior to his death, they all miss the hell out of Kath and have to hold themselves back from sobbing when they talk about him. He was their friend and, indeed, the heart and soul of the band.
In my own way, I get how they feel. I never knew the man personally, but I cannot hear him singing Chicago’s big hits from the late 60s and early 70s in his remarkably soulful voice, especially “Make Me Smile,” without being swept with an incredible sense of nostalgia and yearning for the exuberance of that group and the youthful intensity of that special time. And yet, for me, his voice also has a timeless quality that gives me reassurance that, even now in these crazy and scary times, everything is, in the end, going to be alright. That’s a stunning gift.
Herewith, “Make Me Smile,” sung by the incomparable Terry Kath.
As a final note, if you want an expert’s take on just how good, and how innovative, this song is, take a look at Rick Beato’s video here.
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