Remembering Chicago guitarist Terry Kath - 40 years gone, but his legend remains

Tuesday, January 23rd marks the 40th anniversary of the death of legendary guitarist Terry Kath of the band Chicago.


Terry Kath - the best guitarist you've  probably never heard of.

If you just said, "Who?," I promise not to hit you upside the head, as chances are that you come by your ignorance honestly.

Sadly, there are generations of music lovers - including even Chicago fans - who don't know the name Terry Kath. So we'll start here - with 25 or 6 to 4, from Chicago's legendary 1970 concert at Tanglewood in Lenox, MA.

(It takes a minute for the song to kick in - drummer Danny Seraphine has trouble with a cymbal, so lanky keyboardist  Bobby Lamm gives him a hand while Terry - the denim-clad dude with the Strat - plucks some intro notes. Turn it up, because the intro's great - dig how the bass, keyboard and drums snake in with the guitar.  Then, suddenly, Terry blows in like a 454 'Vette engine …..)

That, my friends, was Chicago.  Guitarist Kath, bassist Peter Cetera (yes, that Peter Cetera), keyboard man Robert Lamm, drummer-extraordinaire Danny Seraphine and the kick-ass horn section of James Pankow (trombone), Walter Parazaider (woodwinds) and trumpeter Lee Loughnane.  A hot rock band with horns.  Decidedly not the ballad-driven band they became.

Their sound was transcendent, smokin' hot alchemy.  As Terry wrote in his song Introduction, "With heaven's help, it blended /And we do thank the Lord."

Along with Parazaider and Seraphine, Kath was one of the founding members of the band, which (after the addition of Lamm, Loughnane and Pankow) began in the mid-1960's as The Big Thing.  Peter Cetera eventually joined from another local band, The Exceptions, and they morphed into Chicago Transit Authority/CTA, then, simply, Chicago.


Chicago, clockwise from left - Pankow, Cetera, Parazaider, Lamm, Kath, Seraphine & Loughnane.

They hit in the Midwest in the late 60's, but hit it big-time-nationwide after being moved to Los Angeles in 1968 by their wunderkind producer, James William Guercio.  Ten years and 11 iconic albums followed, anchored by the center of their musical centrifuge, the inimitible Terry.

All seven were unquestioningly masters of their craft.  It was an embarrassment of riches.  The band boasted three strong songwriters - Lamm, Kath and Pankow  (with Cetera in the on-deck circle) and three great singers - Cetera's unique high tenor, Lamm's mid-range and the deep, soulful Kath. Evocative of Ray Charles, Kath's voice had a warmth and wail that gave the band's sound gravitas.

Kath was at once a simple and complex man.  Married, with a baby daughter, he was beloved by his bandmates, funny, dug the outdoors, animals and motorcycles.  He also had a fierce appetite for drugs and drink and an obsession with firearms.

On the surface, Chicago had a squeaky-clean image, but over time, became as drug-sodden as any band of its era.  Eventually they all adopted a straighter lifestyle, with the exception of Kath.  Drummer Seraphine details in his compelling book, Street Player (available at the band's alarm at Terry's increasing cocaine use and gun obsession.  He would only tell his bandmates that he'd be OK, that he had it under control. It was 180 degrees from the truth.

Kath died on January 23, 1978, one week shy of his 32nd birthday, in an accidental shooting at the home of a friend.  His death was the sad result of drugs and ignorance. He was coming off a bender and fooling with a 9mm semi-automatic; to his friend's chagrin, he put the gun to his head in jest and pulled the trigger, thinking it was empty, as he'd removed the clip. It was not, and the bullet left in the chamber killed him instantly.

(Note: it was often reported that Terry was suicidal and his death resulted from his intentionally playing Russian roulette with a revolver.  Not so; at the time of his death, friends and family all agreed that he was not suicidal and was even writing songs for a solo project.  Further, the gun was not a revolver; Kath simply had no idea a bullet remained in the pistol's chamber. His death was ruled accidental.)

The tragedy nearly tore Chicago apart, but they chose to find another guitarist and soldier on.  But no one could begin to fill Kath's shoes; the magic was gone.  Their next album, Hot Streets, featured hotshot Texas guitarist Donny Dacus, a talented player but ultimately a bad fit.  Several more guitarists came and went, Cetera left in the mid-80's and forged a successful solo career, and in a spectacularly bad move, drummer Seraphine - one of the band's founders - was fired in the early 90's.

Yet Chicago continues performing to this day, still with four original members and nearly 30 years after its last charted hit.  Its hard rock days are long over, even as Robert Lamm has expressed ennui at being a power-ballad band.  Lamm and Kath were close, and he feels to this day that Kath continues to watch over the band.  He wrote a great song about it, Out of the Blue; it cleverly evokes old-school Chicago near tune's end.

The Terry Kath Experience, the long-awaited documentary by Terry's daughter, Michelle Kath Sinclair, was recently released to the public after receiving laud at the 2016 Toronto Film Festival.  Michelle was only two years old when he died, and the film proved as revelatory to her as to his fans.  It's a must-see for anyone interested in this incredible performer.

In the guitar-god pantheon, there are Hendrix, Santana, Beck, Page, Clapton, Gilmour, Vaughan, Van Halen and so many others.

And now you know, at his rightful place amongst the very best, there is Terry Kath.


THAT'S RIGHT…. come closer…. closerrrr…...

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Filed under: Music

Tags: Chicago, Terry Kath


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  • fb_avatar

    Michelle, GR8 article about Terry Kath! The video you included of 25 or 6 to 4 from Tanglewood, NJ in 1970 has to be, by far, my most favorite video of Terry!! Just watching him get into the "groove" while Danny's cymbal was being fixed.......and then, as you described, "blows in like a 454 'Vette engine"!!! Perfect analogy! His solo on this song is.....prodigious!!!! He played with his entire body! I love that dark, long, straight, silky hair swaying to and fro as he jams away! My other favorite video of Terry shows his more gentler & softer side: Chicago & The Beach Boys-New Year's Rockin' Eve: "Wishing You Were Here" with Terry actually playing bass & Peter Cetera on acoustic......I found Terry's vocals to be just mesmerizing! RIP Terry Kath. We have missed you dearly yet your incredible talent.....your amazing music.....has & will continue to live on!

  • Excellent post Michelle. The soundtrack of my teens. You really know good musicians when you hear them, and a great guitarist can make or break a piece, that's for sure.

  • By far my favorite guitarist, Terry Kath was a monster player. Robert, Peter and Terry were all fine vocalists, but when Terry sang I felt it. He was such an original, and he owned the stage wherever Chicago played. All seven originals were talented musicians, but it was Terry that drove the engine of the band. When he died, the soul of the band died too. He was never properly replaced, probably because his shoes were too big to fill. He could play awesome solos, rhythm, and sing, all at the same time. There was a reason Jimi Hendrix was blown away by Terry Kath's talent. The post-Kath Chicago sold many albums on the backs of some highly polished ballads, but the chemistry that made Chicago so great was gone. Not a lot of concert footage is available from Terry's tenure, but what's out there is worth a watch. Also, many of Chicago's best songs were never released at singles, including several Kath compositions. God bless you, Terry. 40 years after your passing, you're still my hero.

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    What happened to Kath was a damn shame to say the least. So preventable.
    I lost interest in the band after four or five albums but those early ones were so great and still hold up.
    Still the use of horns with the Kath guitar was revolutionary and influenced bands for decades to come.

  • fb_avatar

    Terry Kath is absolutely the best 'unsung' guitarist in rock history. I was lucky enough to see him perform - as a 16-year-old kid - on that last (real) Chicago tour at the Omni in Atlanta - 1977. He had a presence on stage, and was the center of attention. Dynamic solos and vocals, he was one of a kind, with unearthly talent, here's to you, TK, 40 years on...

  • fb_avatar

    Hi there.... having been born & raised in Chicago in 1955, CTA was there at every turn of the page. I just saw the Terry Kath story again this morning on axs tv. I saw it once the first time they showed it but it's been awhile, I absorbed so much more this time. You did a fabulous job with that Michelle!!
    I can't believe it's been 40 years since his passing & your family must still miss him so much. I SO loved the part where you found the guitar at your grandfather's house! Awesome!!
    Take care & thanks for putting this together and keeping his story alive!!!

  • In reply to Rita Rose:

    Hi, Rita!…. I appreciate that you enjoyed my post on Terry, but need to clear up that I am NOT Michelle Kath! Not quite sure how you reached that conclusion, but I'm just a lifelong Kath fan who happens to have the same name as his daughter. But I never met Terry and I have nothing to do with his family.

    OK - having said that, I, too, thought the documentary by Michelle Kath Sinclair was well-done and heartfelt. I also loved the part when she found Terry's iconic guitar at her step-grandmother's home in Florida. That was so cool!

    If you'd like to contact Michelle Kath Sinclair, here is a link I found on the website for the documentary:

    Again, thanks for reading, Rita!

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