January 23, 1978 – Jan Terry Alan Kath was Jimi Hendrix favorite guitar player. Born on January 31, 1946 in Chicago, Illinois, he became best known as the original guitarist, co-lead singer and founding member 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 acquired a guitar and amplifier when he was in the ninth grade, and his early influences included the Ventures, Dick Dale and Howard Roberts. He later became influenced by George Benson, Mike Bloomfield, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. He played bass in a number of bands in the mid-1960s, before settling on the guitar when forming the group that would become Chicago. 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 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.
A true innovator, Kath experimented endlessly with amps, guitars and equipment. While he possessed a rudimentary awareness of musical composition, he mostly just played by ear. Other band members were in awe of his ability to hear something once and play it back. Word has it that Jimi Hendrix, with whom Chicago toured in the early days, idolized Kath, telling Chicago’s Parazaider, “Your guitar player is better than me”. Listening to Kath’s early recorded soloing on such tunes as “South California Purples”, “Poem ’58”, “Listen” and “25 or 6 to 4”, you’d be hard pressed to say Hendrix was wrong. Chicago’s producer Guercio has said that Kath could have been a monster as a solo artist.
That Kath never received the recognition due him as a guitar hero is old news now, but it irked him during his lifetime. Band-mate James Pankow recalls a tour in England where Kath publicly gave the crowd the finger for comparing him unfavorably to noted greats like Eric Clapton and Page. Listening today, aficionados are amazed at Kath’s picking and, while a bit dependent upon the wah-pedal, his creativity is still dazzling. He was capable of handling all genres, including jazz, country, metal, blues, and flat-out rock.
As a composer, Kath was much more hit than miss. Though Chicago never scored on the charts with a Kath single, the tunes he wrote were generally killer. Some, like “O Thank You, Great Spirit” and “Take It on Uptown” rival anything Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton or Page ever came up with. And Kath sang rings around them all. Blessed with a soulful, husky voice, Kath belted and whooped his way through such classics as “Make Me Smile” while possessing the ability to go smooth when the need arose (“Wishing You Were Here”, “Color My World”, “Brand New Love Affair, Part 1”). In his personal life, Kath reportedly sensed that he wouldn’t live long (he died a few days before reaching 32). He has been famously described as down-to-earth and a great guy, but a risk-taker. It’s interesting to note that all Chicago band-mates, from James Pankow to Robert Lamm to Peter Cetera, describe themselves as having been very close to Terry (Lamm has called him his best friend). This indicates that Kath could make himself comfortable with a variety of personalities. Kath was into fast cars, motorcycles and guns. He was also into a variety of drugs, though reports indicate he wasn’t addicted. He loved to eat and fought a constant battle with his waistline (until he seemingly gave up near the end of his life, growing truly fat). He experimented with a wide variety of hairstyles and facial hair throughout his career and had a fondness for wearing professional hockey (NHL and WHL) team jerseys. He was 28 when he married 19-year-old Camelia Kath Ortiz in 1974; they had a daughter, Michelle, in 1976.
Kath’s death was a watershed in rock history, but some confusion remains about what actually happened to him. Contemporaneous newspaper reports indicate that he accidentally shot himself with a 9mm automatic at roadie Don Johnson’s house after a party in front of Camelia. Later interviews with band members such as James Pankow indicate that Kath was alone with Johnson at the kitchen table and no party had taken place. Supposedly, Kath was displaying the gun when Johnson told him to be careful. Kath then is supposed to have put the gun to his head, saying either, “Don’t worry, it’s not loaded, see?” or, “What do you think I’m gonna do, shoot myself?” before pulling the trigger. Whatever actually happened, Kath’s death doesn’t seem to have been a suicide, in spite of Pankow’s acknowledgment that Kath had been “bumming” over a fight with Camelia (or Cetera’s assertion that Kath was unhappy in Chicago and would have been the first to leave had he lived).
Terry Kath died on January 23, 1978 from an accidentally self-inflicted gunshot wound at age 31. The bereavement triggered Chicago to consider disbanding, but they ultimately decided to resume as is signified by their memorial song “Alive Again.” To commemorate his musicianship, they later issued the 1997 album, The Innovative Guitar of Terry Kath.