There weren't many guitarists who made Jimi Hendrix sweat, but in 1968, he saw one who got under his skin. It was at the Whiskey a Go Go in Los Angeles, where Hendrix caught a set by the then-unknown group, Chicago Transit Authority. Impressed by their performance, he made his way backstage, and raved, “You guys are mother**kers. The horns are like one set of lungs, and your guitar player is better than me.”
That guitarist was Terry Kath—a founding member of Chicago, whose life came to an abrupt and tragic end 40 years ago when he put what he thought was an unloaded gun to his head and pulled the trigger. Kath is now the subject of a fascinating documentary, Chicago: The Terry Kath Experience, conceived and directed by the late musician’s daughter, Michelle Kath Sinclair.
“There were so many levels to explore in this film,” says Sinclair, who started the project six years ago, after discovering a box of her father’s belongings. “I wasn’t even two years old when my father died, and, in many ways, I got to know him by making the film. So it’s a personal journey for me—hearing all the stories from the Chicago members, and other people who knew my dad. Beyond that, I’m telling the tale of this brilliant musician not a lot of people know. They hear ‘25 or 6 to 4’ on the radio, and they go, ‘Wow, that’s some great guitar playing!’ But they don’t know who did it. Hopefully, now they will.”
Utilizing never-before-seen film clips and archival photos—along with interviews with original Chicago members—Sinclair pieces together Kath’s timeline as a self-taught musician who discovered the guitar as an early teen, and who played in a series of bands (The Mystics, Jimmy Ford and the Executives, the Missing Links) that ultimately led to the formation of Chicago. As Sinclair makes clear, Kath was one of the main architects of the Chicago sound—one that fused jazz, R&B, pop, and hard rock. His songwriting skills, as well as his Ray Charles-influenced soulful vocals (he sang lead on hits such as “Colour My World” and “Make Me Smile”), helped make the group one of the most popular acts of the ’70s.
Kath had all the markings of a guitar hero. His innovative, overdriven solos blasted through Chicago’s imposing horn section like they were fired from a nail gun, and he made an indelible first impression with the blistering improvisational track “Free Form Guitar,” on the group’s 1969 debut album, Chicago Transit Authority. But, even as the sound of his guitar dominated airwaves, he never ascended to the ranks of other guitarists who traditionally made “Top 10” lists.
“I think it’s because he didn’t try to grab the spotlight,” Sinclair notes. “He was more about the music, and less about ‘look at me.’ The whole fame thing never sat well with him.”
During his career, Kath was associated with a small number of guitars, namely two Gibson SGs (a Standard and a three-pickup Custom), a Fender Stratocaster, a Gibson Les Paul Professional Recording, and an Ovation acoustic. However, he is most often identified with the guitar he played late in his life—a Fender Telecaster he adorned with Pignose amplifier decals. Sinclair had no idea where her father’s guitars were—calls to the family of Kath’s late guitar tech, Hank Steiger, went unanswered—and she tried in vain to locate them for years. The documentary depicts how Sinclair, acting on a tip from her uncle, finally tracks down four of the instruments at her step-grandmother’s house in Florida: the Ovation, the Strat, the SG Custom (with the pickups removed), and the celebrated Tele. The cases had been stashed away for decades, and never opened.
“Finding my dad’s guitars was huge for me personally, but it also really mattered in the film,” says Sinclair. “Finding the Tele was a big deal. It would have felt strange to be like, ‘Well, I found the other guitars, but not that one.’ I was so excited when I opened the case, and there it was. It was kind of a ‘Holy Grail’ moment.”
With Chicago’s success came the usual ’70s excesses, and, in the film, the group members offer vivid accounts of their drug use. Sinclair doesn’t whitewash her father’s predilections.
“He liked to drink and take drugs,” she says. “But I don’t think he was depressed. It was more of a way for him to escape the rigors of touring. If he was unhappy, I think it was just because the band was always on the go. He also liked shooting guns and carrying them around. It was like this ‘wild west’ thing with him.”
The combination of drugs and guns ultimately proved fatal for Kath. In the early morning hours of January 23, 1978, after an all-night party at the house of Chicago roadie Don Johnson (no relation to the actor), the guitarist started playing around with a 9mm semi-automatic pistol.
“Terry had been up for a couple of days, and things got discombobulated,” says Jerry Vaccarino, a Chicago roadie in the ’70s and current road manager for the Eagles, who bristles at the idea that Kath committed suicide. “He was playing with that stupid little automatic he had, and it went ‘boom.’ I hate it when people say he committed suicide. They don’t know sh*t.”
With the release of Chicago: The Terry Kath Experience, Sinclair hopes fans will look beyond the circumstances of her father’s death, and focus on the music he left behind.
“He did so much in a very short period of time, and it’s still a big part of people’s lives—even for me,” she says. “When my husband proposed to me, ‘Colour My World’ came on, so I was hearing my dad’s voice during this big moment. That’s pretty amazing.”
FilmRise released “Chicago: The Terry Kath Experience,” the documentary feature film by Michelle Kath Sinclair, paying homage to her father, founding member and legendary Chicago guitarist Terry Kath. After discovering a box of Chicago memorabilia, Michelle began work on this documentary as a way to get to know and understand her father, one of the great unsung rock legends of the 1970s. Featuring interviews with Kath’s Chicago bandmates, friends, family, and prominent musicians (including Joe Walsh, Jeff Lynne, Steve Lukather, Mike Campbell, and Dean DeLeo), the film is interspersed with concert footage, archival photos, and video taken by Kath himself, as a way to piece together a life that ended tragically too soon.
Available at Amazon.