Chicago's Terry Kath: Inside the Life and Tragic Death of an Unsung Guitar Hero
Michelle Kath Sinclair still has a vivid memory of her father, original Chicago guitarist Terry Kath, who died nearly 40 years ago when she was only about two. She and her parents were traveling in a boat near a Wisconsin lodge owned by her grandparents. “I was on my mom’s lap,” she tells Rolling Stone. “[My father] was driving the boat and he said, ‘Oh, we’ve got to turn around because the dam is up here.’ We turned around, and that was the memory. I was totally questioning it for such a big portion of my life. I thought it was a dream. And my mom was like, ‘No. That happened. I can’t believe you remember that. You were probably five, six months old.'”
Sinclair never really got to know her father, though his legend loomed large. In the early Seventies, Terry Kath contributed standout guitar work – famously admired by Jimi Hendrix and other giants of the instrument – and soulful vocal performances that were key features of Chicago’s progressive jazz-rock sound. But at the peak of his career, on January 23rd, 1978, Kath died in a gun accident at the age of 31, a tragedy that effectively marked the end of Chicago’s first successful era, and that still resonates with his friends and loved ones.
To understand more about her father’s life, Sinclair recently produced and directed a documentary on him, Chicago: The Terry Kath Experience. (Previously shown at film festivals and on AXS TV, the film comes out Tuesday on DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon, iTunes and other streaming platforms.) The project was born out of Sinclair’s frustration that her father had been largely forgotten by a wider public. “On one hand you have all these people saying, ‘Oh, my God, this is the most amazing guitar player ever,'” she explains, “and on the other hand, you never see him recognized in the top 100 [guitarists] lists. I was inspired to expose his talents, like who he was as a guitar player, and to get him known more.”
“Unfortunately, his guitar playing has been overlooked,” Chicago trumpeter Lee Loughnane said in 2016, “and probably because of being in such a large band, particularly a brass-oriented band. If Terry had been in a trio, he probably would have been right up there with Jimi Hendrix, who idolized Terry. He has still been with us in spirit all these years.”
In addition to archival footage of Kath in performance and conversation, Sinclair’s documentary includes new interviews with the original surviving members of Chicago – Loughnane, Robert Lamm, Peter Cetera, Walt Parazaider, James Pankow, and Danny Seraphine – along with the group’s former producer/manager James William Guercio, and Kath’s widow (and Sinclair’s mom) Camelia. “I think that for everyone, it was very much driven around the fact that they loved this guy,” Sinclair says of her interviewees’ participation in the film. “Everything started out with how much my dad meant to them.”
Also featured in the film describing Kath’s talents are guitar heavyweights including ELO’s Jeff Lynne, Toto’s Steve Lukather, the Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell, Stone Temple Pilots’ Dean DeLeo and Joe Walsh, a friend of Kath going back to when he was a member of the James Gang. “He was a big guy,” Walsh recalls. “Your first thought was, ‘Boy, I don’t want him to be mad at me.’ He was a great guy; he was a brilliant musician. He was a songwriter and a great singer. He was such a monster on guitar. He really didn’t have any rules or boundaries. He studied all kinds of different styles. He would plug anything into anything and see what that did. He was just a total experimenter. And you can hear that in his records.”
One key piece of Kath lore was when Jimi Hendrix once told Parazaider after a Chicago gig at L.A.’s Whisky a Go Go that “your guitar player is better than me.” “They were opening up for Jimi Hendrix when they were still Chicago Transit Authority,” says Sinclair. “They spent a lot of time on the road together and apparently hung out a lot then. Guercio said that when they were at the same festivals, they had a nice relationship together.”
With Chicago, Kath performed blazing guitar on such tracks as “Introduction,” “Free Form Guitar,” “South California Purples,” and “Dialogue (Parts One and Two),” while his deep, Ray Charles–like vocals were heard on tracks like “Make Me Smile,” “Colour My World,” and “Little One.” Most recognizable is Kath’s legendary guitar playing on Chicago’s classic hit “25 or 6 to 4,” performed onstage as an extended solo showcase in contrast to the original studio version on the Chicago album. “It’s relentless from note one,” says Walsh of Kath’s performance on that song. “Just to try and figure out what he’s doing takes four or five days. To have the guts to do that on a song – to play a [long] solo – who does that? Maybe Carlos [Santana], but you don’t play the same thing twice. How does he do that?”
Aside from exploring his life in a hugely popular band, The Terry Kath Experience also delves into Kath’s substance abuse and his ultimately fatal interest in guns. The film’s emotional peak comes when Jerry Vaccarino, Chicago’s road manager at the time, describes to Sinclair the tragic incident that killed her father. (While cleaning his firearms at the home of Don Johnson, an employee for Chicago, Kath accidentally fired a gun into his head after showing a concerned Johnson that the clip was empty – not realizing that there was a bullet remaining in the chamber.) “I remember just listening to him and thinking, ‘Wow, no one has been this open and said it in this way,'” Sinclair says of her conversation with Vaccarino. “Almost everyone said that the last thing they ever expected was my dad to kill himself with a gun because they trusted him so much with guns.”
Prior to the tragedy, Kath was working on his first solo record. “I could only imagine what that would be,” Sinclair says. “I think that could’ve have been the thing that put him more on the map as a guitarist.” Adds Walsh: “With that [band] dynamic [in Chicago], he needed to do a solo album. I don’t know how much of it was recorded, but he was going in that direction. And it’s a shame it didn’t happen. He would have never remotely thought about suicide. That was a complete accident.”
Chicago carried on after Kath’s death, recording and touring with a number of guitarists throughout the years, among them Donnie Dacus, Chris Pinnick, Bill Champlin, Dawayne Bailey and, currently, Keith Howland. But Kath’s memory lives on in the music (a collection of his notable performances were compiled for the 1997 album Chicago Presents the Innovative Guitar of Terry Kath), and most recently on Now More Than Ever, a documentary about Chicago. In 2016, Kath and the other founding Chicago members were finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; Sinclair was present at the festivities on behalf of her father. Footage from the ceremony was added to Sinclair’s documentary at the last minute. “It was important to stick it in there because I personally went on this mission to get him known, and here’s the evidence,” she says.
“His part on the first couple of Chicago albums is all we have to work with,” says Walsh of his late friend. “It’s a shame that young people never got a chance to see him live [onstage]. That’s a whole different dimension. All we have to go on are the records he’s made. He wrote a lot of it, he sang a bunch of it, and his guitar work is long forgotten. And that’s a shame, because he was a complete monster [on guitar].”
Ultimately Sinclair, who is a parent herself, explains that she and her production team were really focused on capturing her father’s legacy through this project. “If people want to go to listen to the music, I’ve done my job,” she says. “If you listen to the music, it’s heavily driven by his sound. If you remove my dad from this song, you have a completely different song. I always found that quite fascinating. Hopefully people will go explore that a little bit more.”