THE LIFE AND DEATH OF A ROCK AND ROLL LEGEND By Sandra Castillo
There’s a portentous scene in the 1973 crime drama, Electra Glide In Blue, which takes place at the finale between the driver of a VW van and his passenger (David “Hawk” Wolinski and Terry Kath, respectively) exchanging dialogue and a mutual uneasiness after having been pulled over by motorcycle officer John Wintergreen (superbly crafted by actor Robert Blake) for a moving vehicle violation. The film, set in the panoramic dream scape of the high desert, unfolded as a kind of modern day Western, of sorts, with the Arizona Police Department and those living on the outer fringes of society, including a coalition of long-haired hippies and various outcasts, in battle with one another. Electra Glide In Blue was revolutionary in so many ways and considered a cinematic precursor to the advent of MTV, where its employment of the visual aesthetic awash in stunning Technicolor, with Monument Valley as the central backdrop, and the inclusion of a musically diverse soundtrack, turned it into a perennial cult film for the ages. Director James William Guercio successfully combined these pertinent elements and details to buttress a script and storyline that ended very tragically for lead character Wintergreen, whose sole mission as an enforcer of the law was to find and apprehend the murderer of a man who staged his victim’s death to “make it look like a suicide.” It also allowed Kath, whose rogue, shades-wearing character uttered the refrain, “Take it easy, Hawk. Take it easy,” before he pulled the trigger on the shotgun that blasted a massive hole in the chest of Blake’s Wintergreen as he rolled on down the highway, the chance to show movie-goers that he was not a one-trick pony when it came to acting, working his mojo magic as lead vocalist and guitarist in one of Rock and Roll’s most acclaimed bands…Chicago.
Terry Alan Kath was born on January 31, 1946 in Chicago, Illinois to Ray and Evelyn Kath. His was a musical family, where his mother played the banjo and his brother kept backbeat on the drums. His own foray into music witnessed the young talent flex his artistic muscle on the six-string as a teen-ager, which served him well in his later years as his involvement with music grew. His early influences included The Ventures, Dick Dale and Howard Roberts. As his skills and dexterity on the guitar flourished, he was turned on by the power-and-persuasion of such musical stalwarts as George Benson, Kenny Burrell, Mike Bloomfield, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix.
A graduate of Taft High School, Kath wasted no time in honing his craft by joining several bands, namely garage-rock ensembles donning dapper suits, ties and a penchant for tunes wrapped in high-voltage energy and reverb. In the early ‘60s, he was a member of The Mystics, a band that recorded the fruits of their labor on vinyl. Once he united forces with The Missing Links, as the bassist, it was there he teamed up with Walter Parazaider and Danny Seraphine, who provided the salvo-and-ammo by way of the saxophone and drums, respectively, and later aligned with Kath in the band Chicago.
The year was 1967, and as the aural landscape of music transformed considerably from the world domination of the Beatles and their meteoric rise as former mop-top teen idols to revered, seasoned musicians exploring the universe and its wonders around them, the scene became a fertile stomping ground for those searching for soul and the meaning of it all through innovative experimentations in the recording studio. When Kath and a small armada of musicians from Chicago, Illinois left the Windy City for Los Angeles, California, at the behest of James William Guercio, who acted as their manager/producer, the band stopped calling themselves the “Big Thing” and re-christened their moniker as “Chicago Transit Authority.” It was after they had resettled on the West Coast, their creative stretches reached new, exciting heights, and as a result, CTA’s music found its way into heavy rotation on mainstream radio.
In the beginning, Chicago Transit Authority found itself in the not-so-enviable position of having to convince the suits what they were sonically all about. The group was a hard act to categorize, because their genre of music was a challenge to pigeonhole. With the band’s unique, musical hybrid, an amalgamation of R & B, Jazz, Classical, Pop and hard-driving Rock that consistently parlayed its multi-faceted dimensions into recording sessions and live performances, CTA’s trademark groove had the good fortune of ascertaining its merit, based on its rock-solid musicianship and explosive popularity with the masses. Kath could easily be thanked for that, as he more than proved himself as a raging virtuoso on guitar and one of the best singers around at that time, with his robust, soulful vocals. He would eventually be recognized by music critics and fans, alike, as the genius who played like a mofo and sounded like Ray Charles, even prompting Jimi Hendrix to once proclaim to Parazaider after a Chicago concert in Los Angeles (as Rock lore would come to immortalize the moment),
“Your guitar player is better than me.”
Chicago Transit Authority’s single, “I’m A Man,” was a cover of an original composed by Steve Winwood, keyboardist with The Spencer Davis Group, and American record producer Jimmie Miller, who worked with Traffic, Eric Clapton, Plasmatics and the Rolling Stones. By the end of 1969, Kath and company witnessed the eponymous Chicago Transit Authority, which produced the hits “Questions 67 and 68,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” and “Beginnings,” unfold as a gold-selling smash and their reign in the industry take flight. They also made the sagacious business decision to permanently eliminate the last, two parts of their title to steer clear of the possibility of legal repercussions from the city of Chicago’s transportation department and just be known as Chicago.
When Guercio purchased the legendary Caribou Ranch in 1972, located near Nederland, Colorado, and converted an old, weather-beaten barn on its grounds into a first-class recording studio, Kath sought solace and refuge there. He settled in at the compound for most of that year to enjoy the amenities and all that it offered him, aside from the laborious task of recording. Not only did the location afford Chicago the opportunity to crank out some of their biggest hits, the likes of Joe Walsh, Billy Joel, John Lennon, Elton John and “The King of Pop,” Michael Jackson, would eventually follow suite and flock to Caribou for its spacious, superlative recording facilities.
Kath’s invaluable contribution to Chicago, as the band’s lead singer, guitarist and architect of sound, which witnessed his essential layering of additional instruments whenever, wherever needed, put the stamp of approval on their balls-to-the-wall, guitar-laden, horns a-blazin’ glory. Namely, it’s his distinctive baritone that the world grooves to on all those albums, beginning with the 1970 release of Chicago ll, which spawned “Colour My World” and “Make Me Smile,” to Chicago XI, the 1977 record considered Kath’s “swan song” as this would be his last collaboration with the band before his untimely death in 1978. In 1972, Chicago recorded and released Chicago V, resulting in the group’s first Number One charting album. Kath went on to compose “Byblos” and “Songs of the Evergreens,” the latter sang by bandmate Robert Lamm for Chicago Vll in 1974. In 1975, he and the group released Chicago: Greatest Hits, its humorous front cover showcasing the paint-splattered musicians on a sideways plank that threatens to collapse under their combined body weight. That same year, the guitarist paid tribute to Hendrix with a bluesy, atmospheric, slow-hand jam, “Oh Thank You Great Spirit,” on Chicago Vlll. The band would finally score their very first Grammy with the 1976 smash hit, “If You Leave Me Now,” a track off Chicago X.
When Pignose Amps contacted Kath to take part in their marketing campaign, he obliged and became the face of the company, where he posed for an advertisement as a 1930’s Prohibition-type gangster, replete with pinstripe suit, white tie, black shirt and plush fedora positioned to his left. The Godfather-inspired slogan, printed across the photo, read-What PIGNOSE offers, you can’t refuse.
Kath may have been one of the integral forces behind Chicago’s massive appeal and world-wide, commercial success, garnering sales of more than 100 million albums around the globe, but he was also fueled by certain, insatiable lusts for life, which included the possession of fire arms and zipping around on his Harley-Davidson on the open road. He also developed a herculean taste for alcohol and cocaine that, ultimately, proved to be his undoing, along with making the decision to engage in a game of Russian Roulette, one winter’s day, some forty years ago.
It was January 23, 1978, when Kath was present at the Woodland Hills residence of Don Johnson, Chicago’s roadie and band technician, and entertained his impulses by messing around with his revolvers. In true gunslinger fashion, he slipped the cold steel on his finger, spun it around, placed the gun to his head and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. He was warned by Johnson to be careful. To reassure him, Kath grabbed a different gun, a “semi-automatic, 9-mm pistol,” and reportedly said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Look, the clip is not even in it.’ To prove his point, he showed Johnson the unloaded magazine, then replaced the magazine in the gun, stuck it next to his temple and squeezed the trigger. Although this time, the weapon held a round in its chamber. The bullet discharged, striking Kath in the head.
Tragically, he was only eight, short days away from his 32nd birthday, when he was accidentally killed by his own hand.
Kath’s reputation, as one of the most underrated, brilliant musicians in Rock and Roll, ultimately cemented his legacy in the pantheon of greats, and Chicago, the band that abetted him in his incredible journey, as a gifted vocalist and true pioneer-of-sound, was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2016, nearly fifty years after it all began.