Thursday, July 21, 2011

...who deserves a place alongside Clapton, Page, Hendrix, and all the rest...

Jimi Hendrix went on tour with this man's group. He told one of the band members, "hey, your guitarist is better than me". Better than Hendrix? Of course musical styles, being a subjective topic, are always open to interpretation; just because someone says someone else is great doesn't mean he'll sound great to you, but within the general parameters of Guitar Proficiency, this cat was a monster.

So may I introduce Terry Kath of the group Chicago, the big horn band that topped the charts in the '70s and '80s. Unfortunately, Terry wasn't around for the '80s decade. He was a gun buff, and one night, while playing around with a gun, accidentally shot himself, back in early 1978. I saw the Original Lineup of Chicago twice in concert, and he was in motion all of the time. A big group like Chicago didn't allow for as much "solo space" for guitar because, well, there were all those other instruments as well...trombone, trumpet, saxophone plus keyboards in addition to drums and bass. So mostly, Terry added texture to the band's sound with lots of heavy rhythm guitar playing, which won't make one stand out as a guitar-god, but nonetheless he contributed heavily to Chicago's output between 1968 and 1977.

To hear a great example of Terry's solo stylings, all you need to do is hear Chicago's big hit, "25 or 6 to 4", which is played all over Oldies radio stations. Encased within the four minutes of the Album Version, Terry was the best guitarist in the Universe. He puts it all on display here; low notes, high notes, heavy rhythm chops, delicate single-note playing and crushing guitar rhythms. Other great songs he played on were "I'm A Man", "Make Me Smile", "Old Days", and "I Don't Want Your Money" (from "Chicago III"; not a hit); if you like raw electric guitar, seek out that song. That's as raunchy as Lead Guitar Gets, and as we all know, Raunch is an important commodity when bashing out chords and scorching the ears with those high, eardrum-shattering "leads".

He not only could rock,he could play jazzy, he played delicate patterns on acoustic guitar, and in addition, he wrote a number of Chicago's tunes and was one of the band's lead singers. It's his voice you hear, for example, on "Colour My World", "Make Me Smile" and the two-part song, "Dialogue" in which he alternates lyric lines with then-bassist Peter Cetera. Kath had a soulful voice, and some have compared his vocal stylings to Ray Charles. Unfortunately, as the '70s progressed, loud guitar rock was giving way to pop balladeering, and Terry's presence on Chicago's Big Hit songs diminished, although he continued to back his band up any way he could. You can hear his rhythms on "Just You And Me", for instance. But in that song, he's way in the background, but you can hear what he's doing if you Really Listen.

It must be stated, though, that on each Chicago album recorded during his lifetime, he was still writing songs, and playing Extremely Forceful guitar on his own songs, which, on those latter albums, provided the necessary roughness to balance out wimpy ballads such as "If You Leave Me Now" or "Baby What A Big Surprise", a song I absolutely DESPISE. There's a really spiffy track on "Chicago VIII", a song titled "Hideaway" in which Peter Cetera actually Rocks Out, if you can believe that, and Terry's hammering away on his guitar in sort of an "All Right Now" (a song by "Free") manner. It should be pointed out, though, that he contributed a gentle acoustic ballad, "Till We Meet Again" to that same album. Even rough-and-tumble Terry had a gentle side.

I just absolutely loved Chicago's sound. It was a band that really ROLLED; there was so much going on, so much music by so many top-notch musicians in the Original Lineup, and although Terry couldn't read music, he was an Absolute Natural. You can see that if you go to Youtube and call up one of Chicago's songs. He was, for a long time, the Driving Force of Chicago; some have called him the "heart" of the group. He could sing a lounge ballad or rough things up, a true Group Player. It's sad that he died waay before his time. A personal story: I was working in a radio station in Spokane, Washington in early 1978; I was on the overnight shift. All of a sudden, DING-DING-DING went the teletype, announcing some kind of emergency, and it was then I learned about Terry's death. And there I was, banging my fists on the tabletop, screaming, "No, No, NOOOOO!!!"

Most all of Chicago's albums were titled with Roman Numerals; Terry played on "Chicago Transit Authority" (the group had to shorten the name; the City of Chicago's own Transit Authority threatened to sue), up through "Chicago XI". There's a great Chicago concert posted on YouTube; they played at 'Tanglewood' in 1970, and it's a really great performance.


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