The Forgotten Guitar God: Terry Kath

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Today's average music fan probably wouldn't recognize the name Terry Kath. Nor would some classic rock fans, unless you are a diehard fan of the group Chicago and know that he was one of the group's founding members. I admit that until recently, I didn't know much about Kath myself and I consider myself a Chicago fan. Growing up in the '80s, it was Peter Cetera that I always thought -- for the longest time, and if somewhat erroneously -- to be the face and voice of the band, particularly due to the music video era. I was disappointed when he left his bandmates in the mid-80s to pursue a solo career and was replaced by Jason Scheff. Since that shake up, the band has never sounded the same again (although recently I listened to Chicago's latest album -- released in 2014 -- called Chicago XXXVI: Now, and thought it sounded better than the monotonous pap played on modern "pop" radio stations today.)

Next month Chicago will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Cetera won't be there; he changed his mind about reuniting with the band for the ceremony when some of the guys told him to "take a chill pill, dude!" after he made some song suggestions (or maybe he's just a control freak, but either way there's still some bad blood between him and his bandmates.) But even more tragically, guitarist Terry Kath won't be there, either, because he died in 1978 from an accidental gunshot wound.

For the first decade of Chicago's existence, Kath was not only the heart and soul of Chicago (formerly The Chicago Transit Authority when it debuted on the music scene in 1969, until the real Chicago Transit Authority threatened to sue over the name's copyright) but the band's voice and face. His deep, soulful vocals, especially on hits such as "Make Me Smile" and "Colour My World" were what earned him the moniker "the white Ray Charles." But Kath's talent ran deeper than that; his guitar playing skills put Eric Clapton to shame, and Jimi Hendrix even admired them. A famous story is that after Hendrix watched Chicago perform at the Whiskey A Go Go, he told the group's saxophonist, Walter Parazaider, "I think your guitarist is better than me." At the end of this post, just watch Kath's blistering guitar solo on "25 or 6 to 4" from a 1970s Tanglewood show. It would be easy to dismiss his lightning speed finger work and say that it's all improvised, but I don't think it is -- there's clearly a method to his madness, or it wouldn't sound so good. Music writer Corbin Reiff once referred to Kath as "one of the most criminally underrated guitarists to have ever set finger to fretboard."

He was also musically experimental. Mostly self-taught, Kath once got frustrated with a guitar instructor because he just wanted to begin pounding out rock and roll chords. He mastered using a wah-wah pedal and enjoyed experimenting with amplifiers and distortion devices. Robert Lamm, Chicago's keyboardist, recalls Kath trying to invent an auto-picking device that would play a guitar. Kath, along with Chicago's manager, helped finance the Pignose amplifier company, with Kath becoming the company's main endorser. His trademark guitar eventually became the Fender Telecaster, decorated with several Pignose stickers and the Chicago Blackhawks logo.

Kath never shows up on any lists of the greatest guitar players of all time. Sadly, much of that may be due to the fact that he died so young, and so tragically. Kath had developed a strange fascination with guns during the 1970s and had taken to carrying them around and even playing with them, a habit that started to frighten the other band members. He even got into a fight with Beach Boy Carl Wilson during a party after Wilson knocked a gun from Kath's hand while he was playing Russian Roulette (whether the gun was actually empty or not I wasn't able to confirm.) On January 23, 1978, Kath was partying at the house of a roadie friend, Don Johnson (not the actor) and after the guests had left, pulled out a semiautomatic 9 mm pistol and began playing with it, telling Johnson that it was empty. However, there was still a round in the magazine chamber. He put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger, dying instantly. Supposedly his last words were, "What do you think I'm going to do? Blow my brains out?" He was just a week away from his 32rd birthday.

The real cause of his death, however, was most likely drugs. "Drugs and guns are a bad combination", the band's drummer, Danny Seraphine, later said. It's hard to believe given Chicago's romantic, ballad-clad image of the 1980s, but during the '70s decade they were the epitome of the phrase, "sex, drugs, and rock and roll" -- and no one was putting away more cocaine than Kath. He was also becoming increasingly unhappy and depressed, despite being married with a young daughter by the time of his death. The other band members were becoming increasingly concerned about Kath's drinking and drug use. It seems Kath had two sides to him; his bandmates have described him as a big, burly, lovable and kind teddy bear of a man who would do anything for them, but who was also clearly dealing with some demons. Kath may have also been disappointed with the direction the band was headed towards with Cetera's soft ballads. He wrote at least one song and performed at least one lead vocal on every Chicago album released while he was alive.

Because Kath's legacy in the music world seems to be fading with every passing year, his daughter, Michelle Kath Sinclair, has been directing and producing a documentary about the father she was barely old enough to remember. The Terry Kath Experience: A Daughter's Journey is set to be released some time this year, after the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. For the documentary, Sinclair interviewed all of the original members of Chicago (except for Cetera; whether he turned her down or she chose to exclude him is a mystery.)

Says Michelle on the official website for the documentary, "The idea to make a film about my father came to me many years ago when, in looking through old photos of him, I realized that I didn't know his full story. I've since learned that his is the quintessential story of an all-American boy raised in the midwest, who, at a young age, picks up a guitar, falls in love with it, and goes on to become a famous 70's rock star. With all the highs and lows that come along with success, my father's life ended suddenly before my 3rd birthday.

My journey of discovery began with the first interview. I could only have dreamed that making this film would bring me this much closer to my father and would help me better understand the man he was and the decisions he made. Meeting these people and hearing their stories are memories that will stay with me forever. I am forever grateful to all that have helped me to take this journey and to discover this man."

I'm looking forward to seeing this documentary and learning even more about Kath, but in the meantime here's some live performances showcasing his amazing guitar skills, as well as a clip about the upcoming documentary.


  1. Yeah Chicago was the bomb when I was in HS. And I was a guitarist in the "Jazz Band" and mimicked every riff and chord sequence of Terry Kath. You are most correct. He was a Rock and Roll immortal.

  2. Ditto what Mapsyer68 said. Same deal. Chicago songs in junior and senior high were standards to keep us members interested in band rather than in playing Sousa songs.

  3. I've been delving into their first eight albums or so; I'm in love with "Questions 67 & 68"...a very underrated single from the first record.

  4. My best pal in high school loved Chicago. I can't think of them without thinking of her! Great, great band.

    Happy St. Patrick's Day! I've nominated you for a Music & Words Award over on the Flipside. Tag - you're it!

    1. Thanks, Cherdo! That's so sweet of you -- I'll check it out, but don't know if I'll have time to pass it along. Since returning to work I'm lucky if I can write a new blog post once a week.

  5. Terry was Chicago. They were lame without him. He was the best looking one in the group too. I don't think he knew it, he was beautiful in a tux... And that voice

  6. Great band and in the late 60s as Chicago Transit Authority were part of the underground/heavy rock/experimental thing. Like others (Doobies?) success and a lead singer turned them into AOR band. Fabulous back catalogue though and Terry Kath an exceptional musician. Nice writing, beats me how you continue to find ideas and time to produce what you do - it defeated me a while ago.


Powered by Blogger.