Terry Kath

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Terry Kath
Terry Kath.jpg
Background information
Birth name Terry Alan Kath
Born (1946-01-31)January 31, 1946
Chicago, Illinois
Died January 23, 1978(1978-01-23) (aged 31)
Woodland Hills, California
Genres Rock, Hard rock, Blues rock, Jazz Rock
Occupations Musician, songwriter
Instruments Guitar, vocals, bass guitar
Years active 1967–1978
Associated acts Chicago
Website Official website
Notable instruments
Fender Telecaster
Fender Stratocaster
Gibson SG
Gibson Les Paul Professional

Terry Alan Kath (January 31, 1946 – January 23, 1978), born in Chicago, Illinois, was an American musician and songwriter. He was the original guitarist and founding member of the rock band Chicago. He died in early 1978, eight days before his 32nd birthday, from an unintentional self-inflicted gunshot wound.


Kath was a singer and multi-instrumentalist who played lead and rhythm guitar, banjo, accordion, electric bass, and drums. During the mid-1960s, he was the lead guitarist in a band called Jimmy and the Gentlemen. He also played bass in a road band called Jimmy Ford and the Executives. 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; Kath was the bassist in the other band.[1] Kath's close friend, saxophonist and flutist Walter Parazaider, also played in several bands on The Dick Clark Show. Together with drummer Danny Seraphine they worked to develop the group they called The Missing Links. Practicing at Parazaider's apartment, they soon joined up with trombonist James Pankow, trumpeter Lee Loughnane, and singing keyboardist Robert Lamm to form The Big Thing (known occasionally as The Big Sound). With the addition of The Exceptions' singer/bassist/accordionist Peter Cetera they moved to Los Angeles and signed with Columbia Records. The band was renamed Chicago Transit Authority. In 1970 the name was shortened to Chicago.[1]

Kath was an important contributor to Chicago, beginning with their first album The Chicago Transit Authority, released April 28, 1969. The album includes his composition "Introduction" which was described as "Terry's masterpiece" by later Chicago guitarist Dawayne Bailey.[2] 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 entitled "Free Form Guitar", which consisted largely of feedback and heavy use of the instrument's mechanical vibrato assembly, or 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 Showman amplifier with a Bogen Challenger PA amplifier for a preamp and a Fender Stratocaster guitar — during which, according to a 1971 Guitar Player Magazine interview with Kath, the Strat's (presumably broken) neck "...was held together with a radiator hose clamp."[1] Kath is pictured inside the album's gatefold sleeve playing a Gibson SG.

The song "Beginnings" includes acoustic rhythm guitar by Kath. Another of Kath's highlights as a recording guitarist is his extended guitar solo in the middle of the Chicago hit song "25 or 6 to 4".[3]

Fascinated by gadgets, Kath once owned close to 20 guitars,[1] though his early staples were the Gibson SG and Fender Stratocaster. He was also one of the few well-known guitarists to make regular use of the unique 1969 Les Paul "Professional" model, which sported a pair of unconventional low-impedance pickups, requiring a special impedance-matching transformer for use with a standard high-impedance-input amplifier.[4] Kath did not use special tunings or unusual guitar modifications. He later became associated with a specially-decorated Fender Telecaster and was connected with Pignose amplifiers.[5] He experimented with a wide variety of amplification and distortion devices and used a wah-wah pedal frequently.

Kath's singing was also an important feature of Chicago's sound.[6] Kath's voice is heard on many of Chicago's early songs, including "Colour My World" and "Make Me Smile" from Chicago, and the band's vocal sound was markedly different after his death. Kath also plays bass and sings lead vocal in the closing song "Tell Me" in the 1973 drama movie Electra Glide in Blue. "Tell Me" was also used as the last song in the final episode of Miami Vice.

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.

In January 2012, Kath's daughter Michelle announced that enough funds were donated to complete production on a documentary of his life, entitled, Searching for Terry: Discovering a Guitar Legend.[7]


Kath reportedly had a history of using alcohol and other drugs, including cocaine. Former drummer Danny Seraphine mentions in his autobiography Street Player: My Chicago Story that Kath had a high tolerance for drugs. Chicago bandmates have indicated that he was also increasingly unhappy.[8] However, producer James William Guercio has said that Kath was working on a solo album before he died,[9] and Kath's Chicago co-founder James Pankow adamantly denies that Kath was in any way suicidal.[8]

Around 5 p.m., on January 23, 1978, 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 had 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, it's not loaded". To assuage 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. However, there was a round in the chamber, and Kath died instantly.[10] Kath was one week short of his 32nd birthday. He left a widow, Camelia Emily Ortiz (whom he married in 1974; she would later marry actor Kiefer Sutherland), and a daughter, Michelle, born in 1976.

Kath is interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.[11]

Discography with Chicago[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Staff (1971). "Terry Kath interview". Guitar Player (New Bay Media).
  2. ^ http://www.dawaynebailey.com/terry.htm
  3. ^ Lamm, Robert. 25 or 6 to 4 at AllMusic
  4. ^ Bacon, Tony. 50 Years of the Gibson Les Paul. Backbeat Books. p. 60. ISBN 0-87930-711-0. 
  5. ^ The history of the Pignose Amplifier company
  6. ^ Kath's AMG biography by Greg Prato hosted by VH1
  7. ^ "Terry Kath's official web site". Retrieved May 28, 2013. 
  8. ^ a b "Chicago Box Set, liner notes, page 8"". Retrieved May 28, 2013. 
  9. ^ "Chapter IX ~ Tragedy". Official Site of Chicago. 
  10. ^ http://www.timmwood.com/kathdeath.html
  11. ^ "Terry Alan Kath". Find a Grave. Retrieved May 28, 2013.