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Why Terry Kath Was Vital to the Band Chicago

Chicago Terry Kath

Chicago is one of the biggest-selling bands of all time. Starting out as “The Big Thing” in 1967, the group changed their name to “Chicago Transit Authority” for their debut then rebranded again as simply “Chicago” in 1970. One of the philosophies the group relied on during their ride through fame was that Chicago was a democracy. There were no leaders; everything was equal. They had three different lead singers, all members were songwriters, and royalties were divided evenly. But on Jan. 23, 1978, during a rare break and just hours before starting work on his first solo album, guitarist Terry Kath died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The band was never the same again. Kath’s demise was subject to years of speculation, but one thing was clear: if there had been an unofficial leader, now he was gone. The hole Kath’s loss created has been patched many times throughout the band’s subsequent career but never filled. Here is what made his contributions so vital.

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He Pushed the Band to Write Original Material
One night after a club owner yelled at the band to play something “soft” so that he and his date could dance, Kath lost it and tore into a Mothers of Invention tune. The irate owner fired the band and they lost their paying gig playing covers. As the story goes, that night Terry convinced his bandmates that in order to be really successful, they should write their own songs and control the set list. As a result, all of the band members began writing songs, including incoming singer-bassist Peter Cetera. The newly conceived collective ended up having so much good material that their first three studio albums were all double LPs. We have Kath to thank for that.

He Was Beloved by Hendrix
It was no secret that Kath enjoyed Jimi Hendrix’s work. Less well known is that Jimi Hendrix was a fan of Kath’s, too. After hearing Chicago play at the Whisky a Go Go in LA, Hendrix said, “That’s the best guitar player I’ve heard. He’s better than me.” Indeed Hendrix loved him so much, he had the band open up for him on tour before they’d even secured a record deal. Although Kath shreds on almost everything he plays, his best work may be on “25 or 6 to 4” (1970). Listen to his solo as he furiously yet melodically runs up and down the fretboard while still staying in rhythm and driving the band.

He Introduced Chicago to the World
The aptly named “Introduction” — the first track of Chicago Transit Authority — is written by none other than Kath. Employing multiple times and tempos while mixing big band jazz with progressive rock, Kath sings the tale of how the band came to be, showcasing each member in the process. What’s most amazing is how Kath, a self-taught musician, figured out everyone’s part in his head then got the band’s trombonist James Pankow to write the charts out on his behalf. (A scholarship in Kath’s name was set up at DePaul’s music dept after he died because, although he didn’t study music there, several other band members did.)

He Jumpstarted Chicago’s Top 40 Career
None of CTA’s singles charted during the album’s initial release, but the first single from Chicago II sure did: part one of the “Ballet” suite entitled “Make Me Smile” may have been written by Pankow, but its Kath’s vocals that ensured that it was a hit. No one else in that band could sell the lyrics’ juxtaposition of youthful innocence and a need to be loved. This three-minute opus was Chicago’s first bona fide hit and climbed all the way to Number Nine, thereby kicking off an incredible run of twenty Top 40 hits that lasted until late 1977 with “Baby What a Big Surprise.”

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He Made Your School Dance Better
…or prom or wedding or bar mitzvah. And he did it with another section of Pankow’s “Ballet” suite, the Bach-inspired “Colour My World.” Simple, unintimidating, and easy to dance to, this is the perfect song for approaching that girl who you’ve been staring at all year. And when she accepts, you lock hands — right arms out, left hands on hips — then both rock back and forth as the notes ascend then descend. And something amazing awaits: Kath’s voice will come in with “As time goes on, I realize just what you mean to me…” and she’ll step in closer, relax her arms, and put her head on your shoulder. Yes, in 1971, “Colour My World” was the perfect song to fill the space between two awkward teens. So why is Kath not more well known as a composer, singer, and guitarist? Well, critics such as Robert Christgau and magazines such as Rolling Stone seemed to think any rock band with horns was too square to be considered seriously. We disagree. Just turn on “25 or 6 to 4” right now. The fact of the matter is that between 1969 to 1977, Chicago cooked. And Kath was the head chef.

Erik Mattox

Photo Credit: Chicago band members Pete Cetera, James Pankow, Lee Loughnane, Terry Kath, Walter Parazaider, Danny Seraphine and Robert Lamm by Ian Showell/Keystone/Getty Images

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Erik Mattox is one of the founders of 103.3 Asheville FM, a low-power FM radio station in Asheville, NC. Since its inception in 2009, Erik has hosted "The UnCola" every Tuesday playing "Forgotten Pop from the Last 50 Years" and "The WestCoast Breeze" every Thursday since 2015. He is writing his first book called "How The West Was Smooth: The History Of West Coast Music" and lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with his wife, Lisa and two children, Lucy and Theo.

22 comments on “Why Terry Kath Was Vital to the Band Chicago

  1. Avatar
    George Rivers

    I really liked Chicago and remember seeing them perform at Auburn University, in the 70’s. At the end of the concert my friend was on stage with the band shaking Terry Kath’s hand.
    There is a cover band of Russian musicians who do a very good cover of Chicago tunes, Leonid and Friends.

    • Avatar
      Joe Chambers

      I was there too. They opened the concert with “Listen”. Terry starts the song with a G note holding it with feedback. I’ll never forget that concert. It was the first of many that I went to until Terry passed. I did follow them in the late 80’s when they played Starwood in Nashville. Still a great band but different without Terry.

    • Avatar

      Terry had a reputation of being friendly and outgoing and loved to connect with fans. Those early Chicago shows must have been something else. They were very powerful on stage.
      And thanks for the tip about Leonid & Friends. I’ll have to check that out.

  2. Avatar
    Allen Mulhall

    Asheville is home to one of my other favourite guitarists / singers / songwriters. I wonder what Warren Haynes thinks of Terry Kath. Any thoughts?

    • Avatar

      I would love to think that if things were different, Terry would have been a part of Warren’s annual Hometown Christmas Jams. If I ever get a chance to meet Warren, I’ll ask him.

  3. Avatar

    Chicago is the reason even today that every high school band has a jazz band/group. Every band leader wants their jazz band to sound like Chicago.

  4. Avatar

    Terry Kath was one of the most melodic guitarists ever. He WAS Chicago. Great band, but never the same without him.

  5. Avatar

    Terry was a pure musical genius…..as has been said, he is the only player in history that could sing and play rhythm and lead, all at the same time! Check out their Tanglewood show on youtube….mindblowing. Miss you Terry. Hope to see you jamming again someday in the heaven realm….when it is our turn.

  6. Avatar

    I am a musician from back in that era of the late 60s early 70s and I had a 12 piece group with three horns and for female back up singers. We used to follow the group being booked in the same clubs right after they left. The comment or note I’d like to make is, when I noticed that your article stated that the band’s previous name was “The Big Thing”, I was surprised that you didn’t mention that it was also, at one point called, “The Exceptions”. Not a big thing but I thought it was worth mentioning. I am very pleased That through your article, Terry had received his proper true tribute. Thank you.

    • Avatar
      Glenn Cotler

      The Exceptions was a different band, it was the band that Peter Cetera was in before joining The Big Thing.

  7. Avatar

    Though Chicago was commercially successful, Terry Kath made a huge contribution to the band and truly a missing piece of CHICAGO!!!!????

  8. Avatar

    The day after Hendrix died, I bought Chicago’s 2nd album…I sensed some sort of connection between the two groups, especially with Terry Kath on guitar..never knew until years later that they toured together..

  9. Avatar

    Not a serious band because they had horns? Robert C was mistaken. I had stronger words but demurred.

  10. Avatar

    Great article Erik!!! Your writing reaches the level of Kath’s talent and shows it in the light it deserves.

  11. Avatar
    Kevin MacNutt

    It seemed around 1974, Chicago started really chasing the ‘top 40″ dragon and, at least on record, tried going for a more middle of the road sound featuring less Terry Kath and more Peter Cetera. While I don’t have anything against Cetera, I feet this shift started to really squander Kath’s talent as a guitarist. I am not sure if it was a matter of devotion to his fellow band mates or maybe self doubt, but I never knew why he did not try to go solo earlier in his career? Kath could have easily seen the same success of other guitarists like Eric Clapton, Terry Reid, Robin Trower and Rory Gallagher to name a few. With those chops and that voice, he should have really been leading his own band, kind of a Terry Kath Experience, so to speak.

  12. Avatar
    Buff Walker

    I first saw Chicago live in Knoxville in August of 1971…it was the fastest sellout ever (at the time) at the Civic Coliseum. The band was simply incredible. They “introduced” a new song, called “Saturday In the Park”. 🙂 They didn’t even record it until the next month, September, 1971 and didn’t release it until July, 1972.
    They played “Beginnings” and it received such an overwhelming response that Lamm said as they went to intermission that they may have to play it again (they didn’t). Highlights for me STILL include “It Better End Soon” and the encore, which brought the house down…”Free” and “25 or 6 to 4”, with Terry’s incredible solo!

  13. Avatar
    Jean Kutzer

    I thought Steve Winwood wrote Introduction at age 16

    • Avatar
      Glenn Cotler

      Winwood wrote I’m a Man when he was in the Spencer Davis Group, Chicago covered on CTA.

  14. Avatar
    Buff Walker

    The song, “Introduction”, is a Terry Kath original, with him singing the lead vocals as well. It is the first song on Chicago’s first LP (the Grammy Hall of Fame LP, “The Chicago Transit Authority”). Chicago still performs the song on tour…it is truly an “Introduction” to this historic band.

  15. Avatar

    The band was Terry, Danny and Pete, when Terry passed it lost its direction, when Danny was dismissed it lost its energy and when Pete left a voice and bass, Terry and Danny were a team Terry would encourage Danny’s playing. I still listen to Chicago every day in the car but not Foster’s crappy pop tunes only original Chicago

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