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Rock Legends Chicago Recall the Shocking Death of Guitarist Terry Kath

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The band Chicago has boasted more than its share of talented musicians over the last five decades, but few matched the rock and roll grit of Terry Kath. The searing guitar virtuosity heard on early hits like “24 or 6 to 4” and “Make Me Smile” was enough to impress even Jimi Hendrix — who, according to legend, rated Kath as a better axe-man than himself.

Kath’s guitar was silenced forever on Jan. 23, 1978, while he cleaned a semiautomatic 9 mm pistol after attending a party in Los Angeles. When a friend urged him to be cautious, he removed the clip to show that it was empty. As a joke, he then playfully put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger. He didn’t realize that a bullet remained in the chamber.

Kath was killed instantly. He was just 31 years old.

Though his songs are famous, Kath’s name is usually absent from the roll call of guitar gods. But now two documentaries will shine a light on the Chicago co-founder. His daughter Michelle Kath Sinclair, who was only 2 when he died, recently completed The Terry Kath Experience, and on Jan. 1 CNN Films will premiere Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago. In the detailed television special, Kath’s bandmates recall his extraordinary life and tragic premature death.

For Chicago trumpeter Lee Loughnane, the loss was especially hard. He had been making music with Kath since he was a freshman at DePaul University in the mid-60s. Long before their string of golden albums, the young band — originally known as The Big Thing and then Chicago Transit Authority, before adopting their familiar moniker — had a very different path in mind.

“Our initial idea was to bring it to Vegas and be a show band,” Loughnane, 70, tells PEOPLE. “You know, you walk into the casino and you hear these bands playing in one of the bars as you walk by. Not even the main showroom — we weren’t even thinking main showroom then!”

According to Loughnane, Kath played a major role in their image change. “We only lasted about six months before Terry came onstage at Barnaby’s on State Street one night and ripped the suit right off of his back. And it was t-shirts, jeans and long hair from then on!”

The shift in style turned out to be a sound decision. Their 1969 self-tilted double-disc debut kicked off a unparalleled streak of success. Chicago ultimately sold over 100 million records worldwide — with 23 gold, 18 platinum, and 8 multi-platinum albums — and in the 1970s they had more charting singles than any other band in the United States.

The pressures of superstardom quickly wore on Kath, who felt it stifling to stick to a regimented set list and the same set of solos during concerts across the globe. To relieve the tension, he sought solace in drugs and alcohol.

Loughnane noticed parallels between Kath’s behavior and that which proceeded Hendrix’s death in 1970. “At the end of Jimi’s career, he wasn’t happy with how he was playing. The same thing happened with Terry. He was tired of the same licks he was playing.” Today he wonders whether Kath would have continued playing with Chicago. “I’m not sure if he would have stayed with the band or figured out something new that could make him happy musically. But he never had to make that decision, unfortunately. We lost him way too early.”

The news of Kath’s shocking death was nearly enough to dissolve Chicago for good. “Terry was the musical leader of the band,” Loughnane explains. “But as you see with sports teams all the time, you don’t know how good the bench is until you start putting them in. And we got a pretty good bench.”

Vowing to carry on, the remaining members convened in the studio to record what became their 10th original album, Hot Streets. “I think we realized that Terry was gone, but the rest of us were still alive and viable. Terry would have wanted us to continue.” Multi-instrumentalist Donnie Dacus picked up lead guitar duties that would have fallen to Kath. “The hardest thing was trying to replace Terry, which was impossible. So we did the best we could with it, and started writing music and going in to record.”

The album includes the track “Alive Again,” written as a nod to their fallen bandmate. The song was Chicago’s first hit after Kath’s death, breaking into the Billboard Top 20.

Chicago continued to have hits throughout the ‘80s, including “You’re the Inspiration,” “What Kind of Man Would I Be?” and the twin number ones “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” and “Look Away.” In 2016, on the eve of their 50th anniversary, the band were inducted into prestigious Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Loughnane, as well as the rest of the group, kept Kath in their hearts and minds as they received the honor.

“If he had stayed with us, I think he would have enjoyed it as much as we did,” he says.

CNN Films’ Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago premieres Jan. 1 at 8 p.m. ET.