Terry Alan Kath (January 31, 1946 – January 23, 1978) was an American musician and songwriter, best known as the original guitarist, one of the lead singers and founding members of the rock band Chicago. He has been praised by the band for his guitar skills and Ray Charles-influenced vocal style.
Growing up in a musical family, Kath took up a variety of instruments in his teens, including the drums and banjo. He played bass in a number of bands in the mid-1960s, before settling on the guitar when forming the group that became Chicago. His guitar playing was an important component of the group's sound from the start of their career, and he sang lead on several of the group's singles. He used a number of different guitars, but eventually became identified with the Fender Telecaster fitted with a humbucker pickup and decorated with numerous stickers. Kath was also said to be Jimi Hendrix's favorite guitarist.
Kath struggled with health issues and drug abuse towards the end of the 1970s. He died in January 1978 from an accidental gunshot wound to the head. The bereavement tempted Chicago to consider disbanding, but they ultimately decided to resume as is signified by their memorial song "Alive Again." To commemorate his musicianship, they issued the 1997 album, The Innovative Guitar of Terry Kath.
Kath was born to Raymond Elmer "Ray" (1912–2003) and Evelyn Meline Haugen Kath (1916–1982) on January 31, 1946, in Chicago, Illinois. He has an older brother, Rod Kath. He was raised in the Norwood Park neighborhood of Chicago. He attended Taft High School and DePaul University. He was of German, English, and Scandinavian descent.
His brother played the drums and his mother played the banjo, and Kath attempted to learn these instruments too. He acquired a guitar and amplifier when he was in the ninth grade, and his early influences included The Ventures, Johnny Smith, Dick Dale, and Howard Roberts. He was later influenced by George Benson, Kenny Burrell, Mike Bloomfield, Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix.
Unlike several other Chicago members who received formal music training, Kath was mostly self-taught and enjoyed jamming. In a 1971 interview for Guitar Player, he said he had tried professional lessons but abandoned them, adding "All I wanted to do was play those rock and roll chords." His father wanted him to have a steady career, but he decided he would prefer a career in music.
Kath joined his first semi-professional band, The Mystics, in 1963, moving to Jimmy Rice and the Gentlemen in 1965. He then played bass in a road band called Jimmy Ford and the Executives. Considered to be the bandleader, Kath guided the band's musical direction. Ford was the trumpeter, Walter Parazaider played saxophone and other wind instruments, and Danny Seraphine later became the drummer. Kath became close friends with Seraphine as they formed the rhythm section, as well as with Parazaider. The three musicians regularly socialized outside of the band. They were fired from the group, which wanted to merge with another band, Little Artie and the Pharaohs, while leader and guitarist Mike Sistack explained that "it's just business."
In 1966, Kath joined a cover band called the Missing Links, taking Parazaider and Seraphine with him, and started playing clubs and ballrooms in Chicago on a regular basis. Parazaider's friend at De Paul University, trumpeter Lee Loughnane, also sat in with the band from time to time. Kath's compatriot, James William Guercio (who later became Chicago's producer) was lead guitarist in one of two road bands performing on The Dick Clark Show with the Missing Links. Kath received an offer from Guercio to play bass for the Illinois Speed Press and move to Los Angeles, but declined as he considered the guitar his main instrument and wanted to sing lead. He stayed with Parazaider, Seraphine, and Loughnane instead, who quickly recruited trombonist James Pankow from De Paul and vocalist/keyboardist Robert Lamm. Kath sang the lower range of lead vocals in the group in a style reminiscent of Ray Charles. The group practiced at Parazaider's parents' basement and changed its name to The Big Thing. With the addition of singer and bassist Peter Cetera of The Exceptions, they moved to Los Angeles and signed with Columbia Records, renaming the band Chicago Transit Authority. In mid-1969, the name was shortened to Chicago.
Kath was regarded as Chicago's bandleader and best soloist; and his vocal, jazz and hard rock influences are regarded as integral to the band'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."
The group's first album, The Chicago Transit Authority, released in 1969, includes Kath's composition "Introduction," described as "Terry's masterpiece" by later Chicago guitarist Dawayne Bailey. The song displays many varied musical styles, including jazz, blues, salsa, rock and roll, acid rock, and pop. The same debut album includes an instrumental guitar piece titled "Free Form Guitar," which consisted largely of feedback and heavy use of the Stratocaster's tremolo arm. The album liner notes indicate that the nearly seven-minute piece was recorded live in the studio in one take, using only a Fender Dual Showman amplifier pre-amped with a Bogen Challenger P.A. amp. The guitar's neck was held together with a radiator hose clamp. The song "Beginnings" includes acoustic rhythm guitar by Kath.
For the group's second album, Kath contributed an extended guitar solo on "25 or 6 to 4," which became a live favorite. The same album saw Kath collaborate with orchestral arranger Peter Matz on the four-part suite "Memories of Love," singing the lead vocal.
Kath wrote at least one song and contributed at least one lead vocal to every Chicago album released during his lifetime. While 1976's Chicago X is best known for Cetera's number one hit, "If You Leave Me Now," Kath's "Once or Twice" showed he was still writing and recording rock material. He continued this style on the following year's Chicago XI, contributing the funky "Mississippi Delta City Blues" and the aggressive "Takin' It on Uptown," which counterbalanced some of the material other members were producing.
After his death, to memorialize Kath and to commemorate the resumption of Chicago, the band composed and published the song "Alive Again" on its first album without him, Hot Streets. Also in Kath's honor, they later published the song "Feel the Spirit."
Kath used several guitars in his early career, but several were stolen while on the road. His first main instrument that he used when Chicago were still The Big Thing was a Register guitar that cost $80. When the band started becoming successful, he traded up to a Fender Stratocaster. He also used a Gibson SG, as pictured on Chicago Transit Authority's inner sleeve, and was one of the few well-known guitarists to make regular use of the 1969 Les Paul "Professional" model, which sported a pair of unconventional low-impedance pickups with a special impedance-matching transformer for use with a standard high impedance-input amplifier. Kath tended to favor light strings, though for the top E string, he used one from a tenor guitar.
He later became associated with a Fender Telecaster modified to include a Gibson humbucker. He started the Pignose amplification company with other members of Chicago and decorated his Telecaster with 25 Pignose stickers and a Chicago Blackhawks logo. Kath experimented with a wide variety of amplification and distortion devices and used a wah-wah pedal frequently. Fascinated by gadgets, Kath was interested in trying to play guitar without using a plectrum. Lamm recalled him attempting to make an auto-picking device using a modified electrical cocktail mixer.
Kath sang lead vocals on several of Chicago's early songs, including the singles "Colour My World" and "Make Me Smile" on Chicago. His vocal delivery was later described by Lamm as "The White Ray Charles." Pankow, who wrote "Make Me Smile," tried rehearsing the song with various members singing lead, but ultimately settled on Kath, saying "bingo – 'that' was the voice."
Kath also played lead guitar and sang lead vocals on the closing song "Tell Me" in the 1973 drama movie Electra Glide in Blue. The song was used in the final episode of the television series Miami Vice.
Personal life and death
Kath reportedly had a self-admitted history of drug abuse, including alcohol. Seraphine knew that Kath had a high tolerance for drugs, but later recalled Kath telling him, "I'm going to get things under control ... if I don't, this stuff is going to kill me." Chicago bandmates have indicated that he was also increasingly unhappy. However, Guercio has said that Kath was working on a solo album before he died, and Pankow adamantly denies that Kath was suicidal.
By 1978, Kath was regularly carrying guns around and enjoyed playing with them. Around 5 p.m. January 23, after a party at roadie and band technician Don Johnson's home in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, California, Kath took an unloaded .38 revolver and put it to his head, pulling the trigger several times on the empty chambers. Johnson warned Kath several times to be careful. Kath then 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.
Kath left a widow, Camelia Kath (born Camelia Emily Ortiz) (whom he married in 1974), and a 2-year-old daughter, Michelle Kath (now Michelle Kath Sinclair). He is interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California in the Gardens of Remembrance, near his parents, Ray and Evelyn Kath.
The group's members were devastated over losing Kath and strongly considered disbanding, but were persuaded by Doc Severinsen, musical director of the Tonight Show band, that they should continue. Kath's position as guitarist in Chicago was subsequently filled by Donnie Dacus, then Chris Pinnick, Dawayne Bailey, and Keith Howland. Original Chicago members Lee Loughnane (trumpet) and Robert Lamm (keyboards) have, on occasion, performed lead vocals originally sung by Terry Kath at Chicago concerts.
"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." Chicago keyboardist Robert Lamm Because Chicago considered themselves a team, some band members have subsequently claimed Kath's contributions to be generally overlooked. Parazaider later said, "if [Kath] was totally up front, he would have had a lot more recognition."
In September 1997, Chicago released Chicago Presents The Innovative Guitar of Terry Kath, a CD remembrance of their late guitarist, on their own short-lived Chicago Records label.
Band members have since wondered if Kath would have stayed with Chicago had he lived, or started a solo career. In 2010, Parazaider said:
I'm not sure about that. [Terry] was a free spirit ... He was his own person when it came to different things. I would like to think he (would still be with Chicago), but he was very independent and I wonder what he would have thought about the 1980s. I'd have to say it's 50/50. It could have gone either way.
In 2012, Kath's daughter Michelle Kath Sinclair announced that enough funds had been donated to complete production on a documentary of his life, titled Searching for Terry: Discovering a Guitar Legend. In 2014, she confirmed she had interviewed the entire band except for Cetera, and the project was planned for release in 2016. The film made its world premiere at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, renamed as The Terry Kath Experience, and Peter Cetera was listed among the cast members. It made its United States premiere at the DOC NYC film festival in November 2016 under the same name, and was soon after acquired by FilmRise, which planned a 2017 release. The film made its television premiere on AXS TV, under the name, Chicago: The Terry Kath Experience, on November 7, 2017, and its release on VOD and DVD occurred on December 12, 2017.
On April 8, 2016, Chicago was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame during the ceremony in Brooklyn, NY. Michelle Kath Sinclair accepted the award on her father's behalf.
Discography with Chicago
Main article: Chicago discography
1969 The Chicago Transit Authority
1971 Chicago III
1971 Chicago at Carnegie Hall
1972 Chicago V
1973 Chicago VI
1974 Chicago VII
1975 Chicago VIII
1976 Chicago X
1977 Chicago XI
1997 Chicago Presents The Innovative Guitar of Terry Kath
2011 Chicago XXXIV: Live in '75
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