When Rolling Stone announced its list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time in 2003, there were plenty of letters and comments complaining about artists excluded (and some who were included). Yet there was one wholly inexcusable omission — Terry Kath.
Kath was the lead guitarist of Chicago until his untimely (and foolish) death on January 23, 1978. A gun hobbyist, Kath put a pistol to his temple, supposedly said, “Don’t worry, it’s not loaded,” and pulled the trigger. Thing was, there was a round in the chamber. But such a careless fate, barely a week shy of his 32nd birthday, does not diminish Kath’s guitar talents.
Chicago’s current reputation makes it easier to discount Kath. It became a relatively middle of the road, ballad-oriented group. But Kath was a driving force behind a harder rock tinge to its fusion of jazz and rock. In fact, Chicago keyboardist Bobby Lamm has been quoted as saying that Kath’s death cost the band it’s rock and roll heart and soul.
How good was Kath? Legend has it that Jimi Hendrix, for whom Chicago was an opening act, told others when the band was performing at an L.A. nightclub that Kath was a better guitar player than him. Take a listen to the guitar work on “Poem 58” or “Liberation,” extended pieces that close album one and album two, respectively, of the band’s initial release, Chicago Transit Authority. Or if you want a more familiar song, listen to the full length version of Chicago II‘s “25 or 6 to 4” (the single version cut most of Kath’s three minute guitar solo). I am among those, though, who exclude “Free Form Guitar” from the CTA album because even though it shows Kath’s ability to get sounds from his instrument, by itself it comes off as largely electronic noise. Kath was always at his best driving the band on rhythm or wailing away in the context of a particular song’s structure. Notably, the latter opportunities seemed to decline a bit with Chicago V and the other releases before his death as the band moved from longer tunes and suites to more radio friendly fare.
In addition to the fact Kath wasn’t as predominant on later albums as on the first three, there are a couple reasons Kath likely didn’t garner the attention and reputation he deserved. As a horn-based band, much of the public focus, particularly with singles, was on the horns and the vocals, not the rhythm section. Thus, he didn’t get the attention of Jimmy Page or Pete Townshend, who were up front in smaller ensembles. Instead, the focus was on a band sound, not particular players. This is particularly crucial when you consider Kath was the band’s only guitarist. Thus, unlike Hendrix or Eric Clapton or Keith Richards, Kath spent more time playing rhythm than lead. Yet even when playing underneath the lead, his style and performance add immensely to the feel and the sound. Consider two of the band’s hit singles, “Beginnings” and “Dialogue,” where Kath’s rhythm work is a hallmark.
The band recognized Kath’s talent in 1997 when it released a CD on its own label called The Innovative Guitar of Terry Kath (the cd pictured with this post). Perhaps reflective of the respect Kath earned among fans, because the CD is no longer produced, it sells for more than $40 on Amazon to $100 or more on eBay. Similarly, one of the most powerful of Kath’s solos on “25 or 6 to 4” appears on the band’s Live in Japan 1972. Also released on the band’s own in 1997 and unavailable now, it sells for more than $125 on Amazon and far more than that on eBay. (I have both and would part with neither.)
Kath also had excellent vocal talents. Endowed with a bluesy, husky voice, Kath could surprise with his range. It’s hard to believe that the same guy who belts out “Make Me Smile” is also the one singing “Colour My World.” His songwriting may have been a weaker spot and he tended to balance songs of love and loss, particularly on the last three or four albums he cut with the group, with somewhat lighter pieces, such as “Jenny,” a song about his dog, or “An Hour in the Shower.” Outside that spectrum, he truly scored with “Introduction,” the opening cut on Chicago Transit Authority, which really does serve as an introduction to the range and scope of the band at that time.
Undoubtedly, I am influenced by the fact I was a Chicago fanatic until shortly before and about the time of Kath’s death. The first real rock concert I went to was when two friends and I snuck off to Minneapolis for a weekend in 1972 to catch the band at the old Met Center. I would see the band on each of its next two tours and one other time before Kath’s death. I’ve seen them twice since but, to me, the heart is gone.
Sadly, Kath has now been dead nearly as long as he was alive. And even though the more recent versions of Chicago certainly tinge people’s views of the band, it should not reflect on Kath’s immense contribution to the band in its power years or his talent. Whether viewed from the standpoint of ability or influence, Kath is undoubtedly one of the most overlooked and underrated guitarists of all time.
But then again
So sad but true
There’s always someone waiting
Just to shit on you
“Jenny,” Chicago VI