Lex Neon on Terry Kath (Chicago)

Lex remembers Terry Kath’s lead vocal and guitar work on the Chicago classic “Make Me Smile” as one of his first musical memories. We celebrate Terry Kath, whose birthday lands on January 31.

It’s 2008, but I can still see the poster of Chicago, which came inside their second album, on the wall of the family music room. I see that poster in my mind’s eye, and my favorite Chicago tunes come flooding back; “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is,” “Beginnings,” “Questions 67 & 68,” “25 or 6 to 4,” “Fancy Colours,” “Wishing You Were Here,” “Dialogue,” and my personal favorite, “Make Me Smile.”

On January 23, 1978, I came home from a family trip to Disneyland to the news that Terry Kath had died. It did not sink in immediately. My uncle Kenny explained to me that Kath was the guitarist that I used to emulate when I was younger. His sound made me “air guitar” before the term was invented. Chicago was BIG among my uncles, the musicians. They were horn players, and loved taking apart Chicago’s song arrangements (before Chicago X).

As a young musician, I dug Terry Kath and wanted to play like him. He was also one of three lead singers. His voice was gruff, gritty, and laced with rhythm and blues.

His guitar playing was equally gruff and gritty, but also elegantly expressive. He gave their sound a soulful edge that made me listen to the guitar. Even Jimi Hendrix, after witnessing Kath’s guitar prowess at a Chicago gig at Hollywood’s Whiskey Au Go-Go, told the press that Kath was the best player he’d ever seen.

Want proof? Dig Kath’s solo(s) on Chicago II: the unedited album version of “25 or 6 to 4;” or how about the groovy wah wah sound that paints everyone’s favorite “trip” in “Fancy Colours.” “Make Me Smile” is just a small piece of my favorite Chicago song, a musical suite called “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon.” It’s my favorite performance by Terry Kath. “Buchannon” also features another great Kath vocal moment, “Colour My World.” When I first started to sing lead, I’d start with “Smile” to warm up. I’d try not to imitate Kath’s soulful vocal, but I couldn’t help myself. I still proudly try to mimic that fluid, bluesy wail.

Now I need you more than ever
No more crying; we’re together
Tell me you will stay
Make me smile

I know I’m gonna sound like a bitter, old, 30 something musician. I’ll say it, and have done with it. I just cannot wrap my brain around the soft pop sound that Chicago perpetuated from ’76 onwards. I’ll always remember them as a rough and ready 7 piece, horn-driven, guitar-wailing rock ensemble that made me move and groove.

And Kath? He may be gone, but he still inspires me, and makes me smile.

(Lex Neon is the musical mastermind behind the music of indie sunshine pop / rock band Poppermost.  For more info, go to http://www.poppermost.com/)

Note: The date listed on the album shown below is for the remastered version. The original was released January 12, 1970.

Currently listening :
Chicago II (Repackaged)
By Chicago
Release date: 16 July, 2002

~ by Poppermost on September 6, 2008.

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