Knowing that you would have wanted it this way
I do believe I'm feelin' stronger every day
"Feelin' Stronger Every Day" by Peter Cetera and James Pankow
On January 23, 1978, Chicago guitarist and singer Terry Kath died from an accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Various accounts have been published of this incident, so it's important to get the facts right. To begin with, Kath was not, as some reports have it, "playing Russian Roulette," which is easily determined since he was killed with an automatic pistol, not the sort of cylinder-loading gun needed for the deadly game.
"He was at my place the night before he died," recounts James Pankow. Kath, the trombonist recalls, "had been having a major hassle with his lady," had been awake for a couple of days, and "had been doing substances." A gun collector and aficionado, Kath was on his way to a shooting range. "He wasn't incredibly depressed, but he was bumming, and he was tired," Pankow says. "I said, 'Terry, do yourself a favor and lie down and get some sleep, man.' " Kath said that, after shooting his guns at the range, he would be going to stay at the house of Chicago keyboard tech man Don Johnson.
Johnson is the sole witness to the shooting, and Pankow provides his account of what happened. "He loved shining his guns, taking them apart, and putting them back together," says Pankow. "Evidently, he had gone to the shooting range, and he came back to Donny's apartment, and he was sitting at the kitchen table cleaning his guns. Donny remarked, 'Hey, man, you're really tired. Why don't you just put the guns down and go to bed.' Terry said, 'Don't worry about it,' and he showed Donny the gun. He said, 'Look, the clip's not even in it,' and he had the clip in one hand and the gun in the other. But evidently there was a bullet still in the chamber. He had taken the clip out of the gun, and the clip was empty. A gun can't be fired without the clip in it. He put the clip back in, and he was waving the gun around his head. He said, 'What do you think I'm gonna do? Blow my brains out?' And just the pressure when he was waving the gun around the side of his head, the pressure of his finger on the trigger, released that round in the chamber. It went into the side of his head. He died instantly. Only Terry knows what he was thinking at that moment."
While the incident itself seems accidental, the circumstances leading up to it are more difficult to assess. "He was an unhappy individual," Pankow acknowledges. "His relationship was not going well. He was also certainly more dependent on chemicals than he should have been. He wasn't addicted to anything, but he was abusing drugs. We were all doing drugs at that stage of the game. But if you're incredibly unhappy and depressed and doing the drugs on top of that, it compounds the situation."
A part of Kath's dissatisfaction was professional, according to Pankow. "He was also unhappy because Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page, all the English guitar players were getting all the credit, and Terry Kath was a monster," Pankow says. "He was making his guitar talk and make animal noises before Jimi Hendrix knew what he was doing. We were working clubs in Chicago, and Terry was banging his guitar against amplifiers and making it talk, and then the Jimi Hendrix Experience comes out, and this guy gets all the credit, and needless to say, Terry Kath idolized Jimi Hendrix. When we went on the road with him as his opening act, they spent hours together talking shop. But Terry never got credit for being probably one of the most inventive rock 'n' roll guitar players in history. The press overlooked him."
“I do not believe, nor will I ever believe, that Terry was suicidal," Pankow says, “Terry was a very strong individual, and he had never alluded to any notion of suicide, and Terry and I were very close."
“Terry was really a passionate element in the chemistry of the band - passionate and energetic and imaginative," says Robert Lamm, who calls Kath his best friend. "He was an original thinker. He was an inventor, in many ways. He invented the way he played his guitar. He was the kind of guy that could probably teach himself to play almost any instrument. He had ability to really work hard. So, in a band with as many pieces as this band had, for there to be only one guitar player, that's a big job, because he was playing rhythm and lead. I don't think there's ever been a better rhythm player. And then, Terry's leads are, for that day especially, world class stuff."
“Terry Kath was a great talent," says Jim Guercio, who worked with him on a solo album that was never completed. "The most supportive guy was Terry. Terry's the big tragedy of the whole thing for me. He was the best guitar player. Hendrix idolized him. He was just totally committed to this band, and he could have been a monster [as a solo]. He never could get it together. The guy was the leader of the band. He had an incredible amount of talent. He had a great vocal potential. I knew him the longest. We grew up together."
Kath's death devastated Chicago, and the band considered breaking up. “Right about there was probably what I felt was the end of the group,” says Peter Cetera. "It seemed to me like that was a good point to end it all right there and begin again. Doc Severinsen [of "The Tonight show"] was of those who said, 'There's just too many people out there that would miss the music.' I don't know, I think we were a bit scared about going separate ways anyhow, and we decided to give it a go again. It wasn't easiest thing I'd ever done."
Ironically, "Little One," a Seraphine/Wolinski song with Kath's lead vocal, was released as a single around the time of the guitarist's death. It would be a minor hit in the late winter of 1978, followed by the elegiac "Take Me Back To Chicago," which by now seemed as much about Kath as about Freddy Page.
If the band was going to continue, it would need a new guitarist, and auditions began in earnest (or perhaps in desperation, given the band’s mood and the pressure of an upcoming tour) in the spring of 1978.
"We were looking for anything at that time, I think," says Cetera. "We felt that we were being left behind by the new music, and we thought what we needed was a young guitar player with long hair. One of the worst things you can do is interview new people, and that's what we had to do. We sat through I don't know how many guitar players, it seemed like a thousand but I'm sure it was 30, 40, or 50 guitar players. Right toward the end of our tether, Donnie Dacus showed up, and we weren't really in any proper frame of mind - everybody was so fed up with interviewing people and listening to different guitar players try and play our stuff. Donnie had actually had practiced a bit and came and played a couple of song right and with fire, and we thought, 'Why, my God, he's got long hair, let’s go and that's how he was in the group."
"The hardest thing that we've ever done is having new people band," says Lamm. "Donnie Dacus was impossible, which is why he’s history. That kid is good. He's a good singer, a good player. But he never got that he was an equal member of the band, that we were trying to welcome him and his music and his approach into the band."
For the moment, however, Chicago had a new guitarist, and it went to work on a new album. The band went to Miami's Criteria Studio with producer Phil Ramone. "Hot Streets was a scary experience,” says Pankow of the album even band members occasionally slip up and call Chicago XII, "'cause Guercio was no longer in the picture, and neither Terry. But Phil Ramone was a team player, and Phil believed in the band from the beginning. He was very familiar with the band. He was a producer in terms of knowing horns. He was the logical choice. Hot Streets was a credible album. It was a departure. But for what it was, and for where we were, having to keep the career going and being caught with our pants down at the same time, especially recoverlng from an enormous tragedy. I think we did a damn good job on that album." "I think it's one of our best albums," adds Lamm.
Perhaps the album's most notable song is the uptempo 'Alive Again," which was also the first single. "Lyrically, on the surface, it's a relationship," says its author, James Pankow. "I used a relationship as a vehicle. If you read between the lines, it's tribute to Terry Kath's passing, and the fact that we've got the ball. That's the first song we recorded subsequent to Terry's death. It's the band saying that we're alive again and we have a new lease on life, and Terry's looking down on us with a big smile."
Cetera, meanwhile, contributed to the album's second single, "No Tell Lover," along with Lee Loughnane and Danny Seraphine, and wrote the third single, "Gone Long Gone." In discussing the latter song, he uses it as an example of the stylistic difference he had evolved from his band mates, and anticipates his eventual departure from Chicago, which would occur seven years later. "If you look at a 'Gone Long Gone' or a 'Wishing You Were Here' or 'In Terms Of Two,' I think you can see that, musically, I was somewhere else from where the other people were at," he says. "But I could never get the guys to play the songs the way I heard them, let's just say, and I think, in the end, that's what really started driving us farther and farther apart."
It was perhaps inevitable, given the split with Guercio and the perceived need to start over, that Chicago would dispense with the album design and titling sequence conceived by their former manager. But they found that the die had been cast. A small, monochrome photo of the band had been included on the cover of Chicago VI, but Hot Streets marked the first time that a picture of the group was the dominant feature of a Chicago cover. It was also the last time. "We wound up doing a Burkhardt survey," says Pankow, "and 90 percent of the people surveyed [didn't give] a shit about what we looked like, much to our chagrin. They wanted to see the logo. The music has always spoken for itself, and the logo has as well. It's like Coca-Cola: When you see it, you know what it is. So, we had to put our ego in a bag and bury it in the front lawn."
Hot Streets was released in September, 1978. It was certified platinum before the end of October, and produced two top 20 singles in “Alive Again" and "No Tell Lover," while "Gone Long Gone" was also a minor chart entry. "It got us over the hump," Parazaider says, "and we proved to ourselves we could go on and sell records, and things went on. They were never the same, let's face it."
The band went on the road to support the album. "We did a concert tour where, in major cities, we played with a mini-symphonic orchestra conducted by Bill Conti," says Lamm. "It was a very musical, fairly demanding tour, and it was meant to be a real definite, positive statement that Chicago was gonna go on. But I think that it showed us that, however vital the chemistry in terms of music was with Terry Kath, both as a family and as a band, there was no way that we could simulate that, and we were gonna have to make room for another brother, which on a musical level was okay, but on a personality level, that's where Dacus ran into trouble. It was touring where we learned about that, 'cause that's when you are in the trenches."
The personnel problem was compounded by a musical one: As the late '70s wore on, the sophisticated, pop-oriented style of bands like Chicago was being squeezed by disco on one side and punk/new wave on the other, each of them making the band seem (however temporarily) unfashionable. "We really didn't know where to turn," says Cetera. "Once we had Dacus in the group, I think, after a tour or so, we started to realize that it was a terrible mistake, because here we were trying to do something else."
Dacus was still with the band for its next album, Chicago 13, recorded, again with Ramone, at Le Studio in Montreal. "When we hit the thirteenth album, everybody was writing, and I think everybody got a song on that album," Parazaider says. "I'd have to say that album could have been conceptually a little disjointed, although I think the material was good."
"I thought 13 was a pretty decent album," says Pankow. 'Street Player' was our two cents' worth for disco. We wanted to get on the radio, but it didn't really do anything. But I thought it was a relatively intelligent approach to disco."
Chicago 13 was released in August, 1979, along with a single of "Must Have Been Crazy" written by Donnie Dacus. (This record is notable for containing Chicago's only non-LP B-side, "Closer To You," which had actually been recorded at the Hot Streets sessions.) The single barely made the charts, and the LP peaked at Number 21, lasting a mere ten weeks. It was certified gold in December, but, according to Parazaider, "hit the wall at 700,000" copies, a good sale for some, but very disappointing by Chicago's standards. "We realized that we couldn't show up at the studio and belch on record and have hits," is the way Parazaider puts it.
And then there was "Street Player," about which not all the members retain as positive a memory as James Pankow, especially since, when it was released as a 12-inch single, it failed to chart and - horror of horrors - was burned at a "death to disco" rally at the Chicago White Sox' Comiskey Park organized by a local radio station. If they were burning Chicago records in Chicago, where could the band turn? “All of a sudden, we start feeling like, where is our place in the whole scheme of this?" says Parazaider.
Amazingly, one thing that Chicago did at this point was to sign a new, multi-million dollar record contract with Columbia. "We sat in a meeting room at Jeff Wald Productions," Pankow says, naming Chicago's manager of the time, "and the Columbia veeps were on one side of the table, and Wald and us were on the other side of the table, and [Wald] negotiated a deal that was enormously out of proportion. They said okay."
"There was no way that we should have made that deal," says Lamm. "It created a lot of animosity at the company, and it was the wrong time in our career and in the music business at that point. We knew that, and those guys [the Columbia representatives and Wald] knew that, so I think they got into some weird ego thing, which is not unusual."
Chicago also came to a parting of the ways with Donnie Dacus, and hired Chris Pinnick, initially as a sideman, to play guitar. "Chris Pinnick came closest to Terry's rhythmic approach," says Lamm of the guitarist who would work with the group through Chicago 17.
Having apparently settled things for the moment, the band turned to recording Chicago XlV, this time at the Record Plant in Los Angeles with Tom Dowd, who had produced many of the '60s R&B records that inspired the group early on.
"I wrote a song called, '[The] American Dream,' which lyrically was much better than it was musically," recalls Pankow. "It was taking shots at Capitol Hill, and the general mistrust of government that was pervasive in that day and age. Robert wrote a song called, 'Thunder And Lightning,' which I love."
Lamm also wrote the driving "Manipulation" and a song called "Doin' Business" that was cut from the album before it was released. "I had been listening to some punk bands, and I was trying to see where that fit into what Chicago could do," he notes. "Both 'Doin' Business' and 'Manipulation' are Chicago's version of what was going on in 1980."
Cetera also contributed several compositions, among them the lovely "Song For You." "I love 'Song For You,' and I'm actually thinking someday that I'm gonna re-record that," he says. As his comment indicates, he's not satisfied with the version found on Chicago XIV "To be perfectly frank, I think we gave Tom [Dowd] more than he could handle," Cetera says, "'cause we were more than we could handle, definitely, and we just beat everybody into the ground at that point."
Chicago XIV was released in July, 1980. It reached Number 71 in the Billboard chart during a nine-week run, and two singles were released:
"Thunder And Lightning," which peaked at Number 56, and "Song For You," which did not chart. "That album went aluminum, maybe plywood," says Pankow, "and that's all the better for me, because we were not cohesive at all on that album. There was no central theme, there was no focus.
“Everything is cyclical," says Parazaider, "and we had run out of the cycle.” The failure of Chicago XIV, at the end of a long line of personal and business problems, led to profound changes in Chicago that eventually brought the group back to enormous commercial success. But there were still a few bad patches to go through first.
“I think our love affair with Columbia was just about at the final ebb," says Parazaider, which is hardly surprising, given that the label now felt saddled with an enormous contract unjustified by Chicago's modest sales, while the band felt unsupported by the label.
The inevitable happened. "They bought us out of the remainder of the contract," explains Parazaider. "They gave us a settlement. We gave them the fifteenth album, which was a greatest hits. We took that money and bankrolled the sixteenth album, changed managers, and basically said, "Let's make the best record we possibly can, and shop it."
Chicago turned to producer David Foster for help on Chicago 16, and he took as strong a hand as Jim Guercio ever had, co-writing eight of the resulting album's ten songs. "David Foster had wanted to do [ChicagoXIV] with us," Lamm notes, "and we did talk to David Foster, but when he came to meet us and talk about what we could do, he was a little jive, a little too smooth. Something jarred us or turned us away from him, and we thought, 'Let's go with a warhorse like Tom Dowd.' I guess Tom Dowd was coming off a big Rod Stewart album, so we thought this guy might be hot, rather than taking a chance with a new guy like David Foster."
Chicago 16 was turned down by every label that considered it, eventually being issued on Full Moon, the label run by Chicago's managers, Irving Azoff and Howard Kaufman, and distributed by Warner Bros. The result was a million-selling Top 10 album and a chart-topping single in "Hard To Say I'm Sorry."
"Resurrecting the career was one of the happy moments in my life, when 'Hard To Say I'm Sorry' was number one," says Peter Cetera, who remains philosophical about Chicago's temporary decline. "I think that happens with a lot of artists," he notes. "You part your ways with the record company. They want to move on to new talent, and so, you have to get out of it somehow. I have mixed emotions about all the past things. I'm a little sour about the business dealings and being naive guys from Chicago and being taken for granted, and on the other side we had a lot of good years with Columbia, and that's always something I'm proud of." (Cetera left Chicago in 1985 and has since pursued a successful solo career.)
Robert Lamm, still with Chicago (and preparing a second solo album), is also philosophical. "We have the luxury of looking back a decade now," he says, "and we're all real comfortable with where we are as the result of what happened then."
There's every reason why they should be. Chicago has been through more than its share of triumphs and tragedies since the days when a group of young musicians scattered around the Windy City found a shared musical identity and headed West.
They may not have achieved all the goals set for them by their visionary ex-manager, but they did succeed in a number of ways in their first 25 years: they had enough hits to make them one of the most popular acts of their time; they pleased millions at their concerts; they did get at least a little of Stravinsky and Monk and Miller on the radio; and they made a lot of music that continues to stand among the best popular music of its time. Just listen.
Notes by William James Ruhlmann
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