“Don’t worry, it’s not loaded.”
The haunting last words of [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Terry Kath[/lastfm], a founding member of [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Chicago[/lastfm], stand alone as the ultimate cautionary tale, as well as the world’s shortest fable, the lesson perhaps being: don’t presume your destiny before looking down the barrel.
Thirty-three years ago today (Jan 23), Kath was spending time with his wife, Camelia, and his friend/Chicago technician Don Johnson at Johnson’s home in Malibu, CA when Kath, a noted gun enthusiast, put a semi-automatic pistol to his head and pulled the trigger. While Kath had shown the empty magazine to his concerned wife and friend, he neglected to realize that a bullet rested in the chamber; the bullet was fired, killing him instantly. Had the gun not discharged, eight days later Kath would have turned thirty-two years old.
Kath, during his Chicago years, was known for his guitar skills, which were so excellent, in fact, that [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Jimi Hendrix[/lastfm] once commented to Chicago sax player Walter Parazaider, “Your guitar player is better than me.”
Kath helped record Chicago’s first twelve albums, with perhaps some of his finer work coming on tracks “25 or 6 or 4,” “Make Me Smile,” “I’m a Man,” “Free,” and “Wishin’ You Were Here.” With Kath as both a guitar player and capable vocalist, Chicago had a certain versatility that put them above almost every other working band of that time.
If you want to measure how prolific Chicago has been since their 1969 debut, The Chicago Transit Authority, consider how they started: their first four albums, all with Kath, were double albums. If Chicago was a rabbit, in terms of sheer output, everyone else during that four-year span may have been the tortoise.
The loss of Kath was so tragic that when he prematurely departed, so did Chicago’s soul, their funk, their jazz. They’ve released twenty-two albums (including live and compilations) since Kath’s death, but if you take some time with that discography, most of post-Kath Chicago just doesn’t compare, in this writer’s opinion. No one can deny the numbers: Chicago has come out with a lot of hit singles and albums over the last thirty-three years, but even now, something is missing. Something is lost.
P.S. If you need a reminder of what a talent Terry Kath was, here’s a video of the band performing “Make Me Smile” in 1970.