Terry Kath was an amazing guitarist and bass player. He was also a very talented songwriter. He had earned immense respect from important members of music society, including Jimi Hendrix. He was a husband and father. And his accidental death left a great void in one of the biggest groups in music history…a void that will never be filled.
He was born on January 31, 1946 in Chicago. As he was growing up, he learned to play rhythm and lead guitar, banjo, accordion, bass and drums. By the mid 1960’s he was playing bass with a road band called “Jimmy Ford and the Executives” when he crossed paths with James William Guercio (who would go on to produce the Buckinghams and Chicago), who was also playing in a road band backing singers on a Dick Clark tour. On the same tour, they got to be good friends with saxman/flute player Walter Parazaider and drummer Danny Seraphine, so the four of them put a band together called “The Missing Links”. As they practiced at Kath’s apartment, they picked up trombonist James Pankow, keyboard player Robert Lamm and trumpeter Lee Loughnane, and became the Big Thing. Once they recruited bass player/singer Peter Cetera, they moved to California and scored a record contract with Columbia Records. They arrived in California as Chicago Transit Authority, which would later be shortened to just “Chicago”.
Chicago holds the distinction (and audacity) of releasing a double-disc set as their first album. Chart-wise, it did well, and featured the hits “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” and “Beginnings”. But the album contained more than just hit singles. They got a lot of FM play from “Questions 67 and 68”, which featured Kath’s brilliant lead guitar skills, and a cover of the Spencer Davis classic “I’m A Man”. Plus it contained jazz and blues elements as well, as witnessed in Kath’s “Free Form Guitar”. Around the time the first album was released, Terry Kath started getting a reputation around the music community. Jimi Hendrix once told Chicago saxophonist Walter Parazaider “Your guitar player is better than me.” The two guitarists knew each other, and when Hendrix took Chicago on tour, he reportedly jammed with Kath on stage. A long-time Chicago fan has reported that at one Hendrix concert, Jimi made a reference to Kath out of the blue, saying something to the effect, “You gotta check out this guy Terry Kath. His band is CTA. He’s the best guitar player in the universe.”
As the Chicago hit-making machine rolled through the 1970’s, Kath’s trademark guitar playing (like the lead on “25 or 6 to 4”) was matched by his songwriting and unmistakable vocals on classics like “Color My World” and “Make Me Smile”, and his shared lead vocals with Peter Cetera on “Dialogue”. To this day, Chicago holds the distinction of being second only to The Beach Boys as the best selling American group of all time, in terms of singles and albums.
On January 23rd, 1978 around 5 p.m. Kath, a gun enthusiast, took an unloaded .38 revolver and put it to his head, pulling the trigger several times on the empty chambers. Roadie Don Johnson was with him and warned him to be careful. Kath then picked up a semiautomatic 9 mm pistol and, leaning back in a chair, said to both his wife and Johnson, “Don’t worry, it’s not loaded”. After showing the empty magazine to Johnson, Kath replaced the magazine in the gun, put the gun to his temple, and pulled the trigger. There was a bullet in the chamber and he died instantly.
After Kath’s death, Chicago stilled pumped out several hits, but had somehow lost the edge that it had maintained up to that point. Peter Cetera said that Kath was growing increasingly despondent over the band’s direction, and if he had lived, would have been the first to quit. He was also reportedly using dangerous mixtures of alcohol and drugs, and his weight was getting out of control.
Here’s a little taste of Terry Kath’s talent on what would have been his 65th birthday. The audio isn’t great, but it’s an opportunity to see Terry Kath, and Chicago, at their best.
*NOTE: for some reason, this video isn’t streaming very well, so you may want to go to YouTube to view…it looks better there.