January 23 we lost two classic rock guitarists, whose work is still heard daily by millions across the world: Terry Kath of CHICAGO, and Allen Collins of LYNYRD SKYNYRD.

In 1978,TERRY KATH, original guitarist, and founding member of CHICAGO accidentally shot himself dead. After a party at band technician Don Johnson’s home in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, California, Kath picked up a semiautomatic 9 mm pistol and, leaning back in a chair, said to Johnson, “Don’t worry about it … look, the clip is not even in it.” To satisfy Johnson’s concerns, Kath showed the empty magazine to Johnson. Kath then replaced the magazine in the gun, put the gun to his temple and pulled the trigger. Apparently unbeknownst to Kath, however, there was still one round in the chamber, and he died instantly from the gunshot.

Growing up in a musical family, Kath played a variety of instruments in his teens, including drums and banjo. He played bass guitar in a number of bands in the mid-1960s, before settling on the guitar as his main instrument when forming the group that became Chicago. Kath was also said to be Jimi Hendrix’s favorite guitarist.

Terry Kath – 1970

Kath was regarded as Chicago’s bandleader and best soloist, playing guitar and singing lead vocals on many of the band’s early hit singles with his Ray Charles-influenced style. His vocals, jazz, blues, and hard rock influences are regarded as integral to Chicago’s early sound. He has been praised for his guitar skills and described by rock author Corbin Reiff as “one of the most criminally underrated guitarists to have ever set finger to fretboard.” He sang like Ray Charles and played like Hendrix.

ALLEN COLLINS died in 1990 at age 37, from chronic pneumonia, a complication of the paralysis. In 2006, Collins was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the greatest live band I ever saw. Collins long solo on “Freebird” had be seen to believed.

Collins joined LYNYRD SKYNYRD in Jacksonville, Florida just two weeks after Ronnie Van Zant and Gary Rossington formed the band. Knowing that Collins played guitar and owned his own equipment, Van Zant decided to approach him about joining them. Van Zant and drummer Bob Burns both had a reputation for violent trouble, and when Collins saw them pull up in his driveway he fled on his bicycle and hid up in a tree. They soon convinced him that they were not there to beat him up and he agreed to join the band, then known as The One Percent.

Allen Collins 1975

Allen and Zant co-wrote many of the biggest Skynyrd hits, including “Free Bird”, “Gimme Three Steps”, and “That Smell”. On October 20, 1977, when the Skynyrd plane crashed into a forest in Mississippi, Collins was seriously injured, suffering two broken vertebrae in his neck and severe damage to his right arm. While amputation was recommended, Collins’ father refused, and Allen eventually recovered.

During the early 1980s, Collins continued to perform on stage in The Rossington-Collins Band which enjoyed modest success, releasing two albums (Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere, and This Is the Way), and charting a few singles (notably “Don’t Misunderstand Me”).

Tragedy struck again just as the Rossington Collins Band was getting off the ground. In 1980, during the first days of the debut concert tour, Collins’s wife, Kathy, suddenly died of a hemorrhage during the miscarriage of their third child. This forced the tour’s cancellation. With the lingering effects of losing his friends in the plane crash, Kathy’s death devastated Collins.

Collins, jumping onstage, 1976

In 1986, Collins was involved in a car accident, claiming the life of his girlfriend and leaving the guitarist paralyzed from the waist down, with limited use of his arms and hands. Collins pled no contest to vehicular manslaughter as well as driving under the influence of alcohol. He would never play guitar on-stage again.

Collins’ last performance with Lynyrd Skynyrd was at the band’s very first reunion (after the plane crash) at the 1979 Volunteer Jam V in Nashville, Tennessee. All remaining members of Lynyrd Skynyrd reunited officially in 1987, but due to his injury, Collins only served as musical director. As part of his plea bargain for the 1986 accident, Collins addressed fans at every Skynyrd concert with an explanation of why he could not perform, citing the dangers of drinking and driving, as well as drugs and alcohol. Also because of Collins’ accident, the band donated a sizable amount of concert proceeds from the 1987–88 tour to the Miami Project, which is involved in treatment of paralysis. Collins founded Roll For Rock Wheelchair Events and Benefit Concerts in 1988 to raise awareness and to provide opportunities for those living with spinal cord injury and other physical challenges.

Collins onstage in wheelchair