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Tribute to Terry Kath of Chicago


REC – “Ripe” (from The Sunshine Seminar)

Welcome to WEEK 266 of MUSIC is not a GENRE (Video #92 & S4Ep37)

Death is DUMB Volume 9: Terry Kath – The Spirit & Sinew of Chicago

Every band has a different dynamic, both for music and for business. Mick Jagger was right business-wise when he called the Beatles the “four-headed monster”, but on the music side they really just had the two heads. Most of U2’s music is driven by two heads as well, but Larry Mullen Jr. started the band, so my guess is business-wise there’s more equality overall. Fleetwood Mac has almost always been a complete mess on both sides, which makes their longevity & artistic success even more striking. Nirvana was that one troubled head for music, and likely pretty equal on the business end.

Chicago was a special case. (I say was because they’ve been a shadow of themselves for a long time now, and more on that later.) They morphed. For their musical direction & business decisions to have changed so much and so often, you’d think their personnel did too. Nope. For all of their classic period, they were the core seven (and for a short stretch percussionist Laudir de Oliveira). After the death of Terry Kath & some growing pains (about which more below), their breakout comeback early 1980s period had six original members plus Chris Pinnick & Bill Champlin. After Peter Cetera left, he was seamlessly replaced with Jason Scheff, and Dawayne Bailey took over for Chris. When Danny Seraphine bowed out, Tris Imboden took over & stayed longer than any other drummer. And for the 1990s and almost all of this century, it’s been the core four, Tris, Lou Pardini on keys, and a bunch of other changes. In the last few years, with Walt Parazaider retiring, it’s down to three originals, Lou, and a handful of others who seem to be sticking around so far.

Why do I go into that much detail? Two reasons. One, to show how much change a stalwart band needs to endure to have a career this long. And two, to show how this week’s subject – the death of Terry Kath – made more of an impact on both the business & music trajectory of Chicago than any other event in their history.

For those of you unfamiliar, a quick history. Terry was one of the greatest guitarists of all time. Top ten in the minds of many. He was also one of the principal vocalists & writers of the band. His passion & dedication to expression above all else gave Chicago a huge part of their initial raison d’etre, and their depth & groundedness. Then in 1978, he died of an accidental, self-inflicted gunshot to the head. From that point on, Chicago was never the same. And in many ways never as good.

You could say that the death of any core band member changes a band forever, but that’s a sliding scale. Bonham’s death ultimately ended Led Zeppelin, but I’d argue it didn’t do a whole lot to change their music. The Who’s sound did change when Keith Moon died, but they’ve always really been another two-headed monster. Cobain’s death of course ended that band. As for the recent death of Taylor Hawkins, the impact remains to be seen.

With Chicago & Terry Kath, the results were more complex. They’d already been moving away from their jam band roots, recording more concise songs & emphasizing ballads over anything else. We can’t really know what Chicago would have been like if Terry had survived. Maybe he would have left the band to continue down his own path, and Chicago would have ended up largely the same. Or maybe he would have stayed and helped to shape their sound in ways more consistent with their origin. Or some combination of both. What we can know is that his death shifted everything so seismically that you could almost say Chicago became another band entirely. To the point where people who knew them in the 1960s/70s were probably not thrilled with their work after that. And those who discovered them in the 1980s had little to no idea they did anything before that.

In my previous podcast on Chicago, I laid out what I saw as the several phases of their career. It might be more accurate to say that Chicago has had several distinct identities. I loved their 1980s work. It absolutely influenced me. But when I discovered their 1969-77 work, everything else paled in comparison. Every band member has contributed something of value. Every band member has shaped what Chicago was & is. Terry’s death was Chicago’s death, ripping away their spirit & sinew, and setting the stage for their rebirth, with minor personnel & major business changes that resulted in an entirely different band.

I’ve mentioned Chicago’s influence on my music before. Their layered power balladry has shown up in so many of my songs. As for their Kath-era work, you can hear some of that sprawling, progressive, funky, dramatic, quasi-spiritual influence in a song like this:

REC – “Ripe” (from The Sunshine Seminar)

Where do fall on the Chicago spectrum? Do you prefer their work with Terry, their work after, or both? Were you old enough to remember Terry’s death, and if so, how did it affect you? Do you think other band members deserve credit for sustaining Chicago’s heart & soul? Discuss dammit!


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