Terry Kath's Official Bio Pages

Written by Tim Wood


Who is Terry Kath?

Simply, he was an original member of the pioneering rock group Chicago who played guitar, sang and wrote songs.  He was in a league with Jimi Hendrix - this according to no less an authority than Hendrix. After hearing the band in 1968 at the Whisky A Go-Go in Los Angeles, Hendrix told Chicago saxophone player Walter Parazaider "Your guitar player is better than me."  That may be the highest praise Kath received. Unfortunately, rock critics didn't offer much for Kath.  Pop music critics seemed to lambast Chicago with regularity during the band's heyday in the 1960s and 1970s.

But Kath deserved recognition, even if he didn't seek it.  He was an integral part of a seven, and sometimes eight, person band.  While even four-piece rock bands often use two guitarists, Kath held down both rhythm and lead guitar parts by himself.  On top of this, he sang lead vocals on many of the band's songs, and did backing vocals on most of the others.  He also was the band's on-stage leader.

Born Jan. 31, 1946 Terrance Allan Kath, his all-too short life ended Jan. 23, 1978 in a freak accident involving a hand gun.  His death ended one chapter of the long-running Chicago saga.  Chicago keyboardist-vocalist-songwriter Robert Lamm has said that Kath's death shifted the balance of power within the band.  Chicago was already headed toward its "ballad" phase at the time of Kath's death, soaring on the success of "If You Leave Me Now" from the tenth album and "Baby What a Big Surprise" from Chicago 11.

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(Cont') The ballads returned in force on Chicago 16 and 17.  The band's hit songs of the 1980s and 1990s are a sharp contrast from the aggressive sound featured on its debut album Chicago Transit Authority.  Think Chicago is just a pop ballad band?  Check out their debut album in which Kath's blazing guitar work is featured throughout.  He mixes blues, jazz and rock riffs throughout the double-album set.  Also present are his soulful vocals.  

Running a Stratocaster and an SG through a Bogen pre-amp and into a Dual Showman amplifier, Kath produced an array of crunchy, tube amp sounds that most of today's guitar players would die for.  The tour de force was "Free Form Guitar," which grew out of Kath playing around during a lunch break.  Engineer Fred Catero decided to roll tape, and the result is perhaps the wildest seven minutes of music 

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(cont') Chicago ever put out.

The band's second album featured more innovative Kath songwriting, ranging from the rocking "In the Country" to the classically-influenced "Prelude," "AM Mourning," "PM Mournng" and "Memories of Love."  But the highlight of the album was Kath's solo on the Lamm-penned "25 or 6 to 4," which ranks as one of the best guitar solos ever recorded.  This song would become Chicago's main concert closer, often featuring 10-minute Kath solos that kept the audience on its feet.

Kath did not read music, but rather played and composed totally by ear.  Being an "untrained" musician in a group of college-trained musicians was not a handicap.  If anything, his bandmates were in awe of him.  His education was playing which began in his early teen years.  He played in a "fun" group which did covers of Ventures songs and other popular acts of the time.  In 1961, he joined Jimmy Rice and the Gentlemen, a band which also included Parazaider.  In 1965, both joined the group Jimmy Ford and the Executives which was the back-up band on Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars.  Kath also was an accomplished bass player, and that was his instrument in many of his early groups.

While Kath seldom rates mention in guitar magazines, a couple of books have at least ranked him in the best 1,000 guitar players of all time - not a bad accomplishment. But in this fan's eyes, Kath is easily in the top 10 of guitar players, if not at the top.  The records Kath played on still sell hundreds of thousands of copies a year and nowledgeable musicians nod knowingly at the mention of Kath.

Kath was born Jan. 31, 1946 in Chicago to Ray and Evelyn Kath. He died Jan. 23, 1978

He left this world too soon, but his music lives on.


I just don’t quite know how he got that sound
— Joe Walsh - speaking on 'Free From Guitar' in the documentary "The Terry Kath Experience"

The Mystics - Terry Kath's first rock band

Story by Tim Wood

The Mystics - from left: Denny Horan, drums; Brian Higgins, rhythm guitar; George Slezak, bass guitar; Terry Kath (deceased), lead guitar; Mike Pisani, piano. This photo was taken at an early-1960s recording session. Photograph copyright 1998 Brian Higgins. Used by permission. Reproduction prohibited.

The Mystics - from left: Denny Horan, drums; Brian Higgins, rhythm guitar; George Slezak, bass guitar; Terry Kath (deceased), lead guitar; Mike Pisani, piano. This photo was taken at an early-1960s recording session.

Photograph copyright 1998 Brian Higgins. Used by permission. Reproduction prohibited.

Although Brian Higgins could not have predicted that Terry Kath would become the guitarist for one of the great rock bands of all time, he knew that his best friend and bandmate was someone special.

In the early 1960's Higgins, Kath and three other teenagers were members of a Chicago-area band known as The Mystics. The instrumental band was inspired by The Ventures, then a very popular band known for hits such as "Walk, Don't Run."

Like many other bands in the area, they played their share of dances, VFW Halls, clubs and other venues. But unlike other bands, something different happened when they played.  People stopped dancing and listened.

The Mystics occasionally played at the now-defunct Holiday Ballroom Dance Hall on Chicago's Northwest Side, which opened up to teen-agers one night a week. Usually, 90 percent of the kids danced, while the rest watched whatever band was playing. "But when Terry played, 70 percent of the kids watched," said Higgins, who was the band's other guitarist.

Higgins' relationship with Kath pre-dated the Mystics. Their parents attended the same church, they lived only a few blocks away in the Northwest side Chicago, and they first met when they were small children. They became close friends about the time Higgins was in sixth grade. Higgins' love of music, inspired by his friendship with Terry Kath, led to the formation of The Mystics, a group in which Terry frequently played. Other members of the Mystics included Denny Horan on drums, George Slezak on bass guitar and Mike Pisani on piano. Kath played with the group on and off, and also performed with other groups.

The run of the band lasted about four years playing one to two shows a week. They had a connection with the Buckinghams, a Chicago-area band that would achieve some chart success in the 1960s and who would be managed by James William Guercio. Guercio would also become the manager and producer for Chicago through the band's first 11 albums.

For a short time, the Mystics had the same manager as The Buckinghams before the Buckinghams were managed by James William Guercio. Guercio never had any connection with the Mystics though the bands occasionally played at the same venue on the same night. 

One evening the band was booked to play a Polish Wedding, they didn't know any polkas. Kath told his bandmates to play certain chords on his signal. Kath then improvised polkas on his guitar, and the performance was well received.  This is just one of his talent and versatility.

The long-term friendship between Higgins and Kath allowed insight into the development of Kath's unique style of playing.  "Terry had an ear for music," Higgins said. Kath played piano, banjo and drums, in addition to guitar and bass. But while Higgins and others played music because "it was the thing to do," Kath was highly motivated.  "From the eighth grade on, Terry knew he was going to be a professional musician," Higgins said, adding that Kath was intently focused on the goal.

Kath would usually decline offers to hang out with his friends after school and would instead practice. He would play for two to three hours, often by himself in a small room in the basement of his house. He had a small stereo set up in the room and he would learn songs off of records, Higgins said. Those records included jazz guitarists Wes Montgomery and Howard Roberts. A guitar magazine once described Kath's solo on "25 or 6 to 4" as "Wes Montgomery meets Jimi Hendrix." Higgins agrees with that description, but is quick to add that the Wes Montgomery influence came first.

Kath's interest in jazz was evident in his choice of instrument. Many young guitarists of the day longed to own and play the solid-body Fender guitars used by the Ventures. Kath ultimately used Fender and Gibson solid-body guitars, but his instrument in The Mystics was a hollow-body Gretsch Tennessean, a guitar more suited for jazz, Higgins said. "He did a lot of work on that guitar. No one but him could play it without it buzzing," Higgins said. Kath used light gauge, "slinky" flat-wound strings for a mellow tone. Higgins believes Kath established the foundation of his style on that guitar by listening to Roberts and Montgomery. Kath also was a big fan of The Beatles, he said.

"His ear was so good he could play note for note with the record," Higgins said. Kath could hear a simple song once and play it back almost immediately. More complex songs might take Kath and hour to learn and play back.

Higgins would like to clarify one common misconception about Kath - that he could not read music. "Terry could read music in a basic way," Higgins said.  Kath could not read music as complex as that performed by Chicago, but he certainly learned it by ear.

Kath's good ear came in handy at Taft High School, where he and Higgins attended. He needed to take a music class to fulfill his course requirements and chose band. There aren't guitar players in concert bands, so Kath played the upright bass, the strings of which are tuned to the same pitches as a guitar. He managed to get through band despite his limited music reading skills.

Kath and Higgins both took lessons from Stu Pierce, a Chicago-area studio musician. Terry, who was a year older than Higgins, would drive them to Pierce's studio and they took back-to-back lessons. Kath took the lessons to learn chords, structures and riffs, Higgins said.

The Kath style is evident on a recording done by the band. Higgins estimates the date of the recording as early 1963, which would mean Kath was 17 and Higgins 16 at the time of the recording.

The band recorded four songs at Balkan Studios in Cicero, Ill. One song was an instrumental done in the style of Chuck Berry's groundbreaking rock and roll music. Another song was an extended jam based on the chord progression in the rock classic "Louie, Louie." Another band-produced composition was "The Floater," the only song on which Higgins plays lead instead of Kath. "Terry's rhythm playing was the best part of that song," Higgins said.

Interestingly, Higgins' favorite cut of the four was an impromptu jam session that would be called "I Don't Care." The recording engineer asked the band to just play some music, presumably so the engineer could adjust his equipment. The tape was rolling, though, and both the engineer and the band were quite pleased with the result. About 10 seconds before the end of "I Don't Care," a high-pitched whistle can be heard. It's not a recording defect, Higgins said. It is Kath signaling that eight bars are left in the song. About two years ago, Higgins learned that Kath used the same type of signal on stage with Chicago.

At the session, vinyl record copies were made of the recordings. These copies were not the same type as the mass-produced commercial releases of the day. They were produced directly off of the master tapes. Two records, each with two songs, were made. Higgins' copies survived more than 30 years of moves and storage. In a move two years ago, he put aside the records and photos of the session in a box that he was to transport himself and not put with the boxes to be moved by the moving company. But when he tried to find the recordings, they were nowhere to be found. Higgins spent two days going through 50 boxes that he had not opened since the move. He still could not find the recordings, although he found the photographs of the session. He walked away from his search, hoping for a fresh perspective. But he never could let it go.

In a desperate search he again looked at the boxes he had kept separate from the movers. When he searched a particular box for the third time, he found the records underneath a piece of cardboard. Despite the fact that the records had sat in that box unprotected for more than 30 years, the recordings played without a skip. There are the sound artifacts common to vinyl records, pops and hisses, but the music survives. Higgins is investigating the best way to make the best recordings of the session available to those interested in Kath's playing. At this time, copies of the recordings are not available for sale or trade.

Higgins believes the session is the first recording of Kath's guitar playing. Kath's first commercial recording would come later, when he recorded with Jimmy and the Gents, also known as Jimmy Rice and the Gentlemen, on the defunct Louis Prima label. This recording, which featured Higgins' brother Dave on drums, was a good recording, but was not a commercial success, Higgins said.

Kath went on to play with Jimmy Ford and the Executives. Higgins sat in with both the Jimmy Rice and Jimmy Ford groups during several rehearsals, but was not a member of those bands. As Kath pursued his musical career, Higgins chose to go to college. Higgins and Kath began to drift apart.

When Kath moved to Los Angeles with the rest of the Chicago Transit Authority, Higgins would not see him again until around 1972, when the band, now known as Chicago, made a triumphal return to Chicago. At that time, Higgins, Kath and their wives got together at the Green Bag on Milwaukee Avenue to talk about old times.

Higgins presently works as a business consultant in Atlanta, Ga. About a year ago, Higgins started playing guitar again and bought a Fender Stratocaster, a guitar he had wanted as a teen-ager. Kath also used a Stratocaster for much of his work with Chicago. Higgins thinks of Kath every time he picks up the guitar.

The Mystics survive today in the form of two photographs and two old vinyl records. Higgins would like to track down the two other surviving members of the band. The Mystics may never reunite. But for Higgins, the memories of playing with a legendary guitar player are still vivid - and priceless.

Three members of The Mystics - from left: Brian Higgins, rhythm guitar; George Slezak, bass guitar; Terry Kath (deceased), lead guitar. Photographs copyright 1998 Brian Higgins. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Reproduction prohibited. Copyright (c) 1998 Timothy M. Wood. Mystics photos copyright 1998 Brian Higgins. All rights reserved. Reproduction, re-transmission and storing without permission is prohibited.

Three members of The Mystics - from left: Brian Higgins, rhythm guitar; George Slezak, bass guitar; Terry Kath (deceased), lead guitar.

Photographs copyright 1998 Brian Higgins. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Reproduction prohibited.

Copyright (c) 1998 Timothy M. Wood. Mystics photos copyright 1998 Brian Higgins. All rights reserved. Reproduction, re-transmission and storing without permission is prohibited.


 

Terry Kath FAQ

Questions often asked about Terry Kath

 

Pictured above is Terry Kath's gold record award for the Chicago Transit Authority album.

How did he die?

Kath died Jan. 23, 1978 of an accidental gunshot wound. He was at the home of a Chicago crew member cleaning his guns. Kath enjoyed shooting at targets and was a gun collector. The crew member expressed some concern over what Terry was doing, but Kath told him that because the clip was not in the automatic pistol, there was no need to worry. However, a round was already chambered before he removed the clip. While he waved the gun around, it fired, killing Kath instantly. Reportedly, his last words were "Don't worry, it's not loaded."

Did he have any family?

His survivors included his wife, Camille, and a daughter, Michelle. Camille later married actor Kiefer Sutherland. Michelle recently was married and is working on a web page dedicated to her father. The Chicago Records CD "Chicago Presents the Innovative Guitar of Terry Kath" was dedicated to her. Kath's father, Ray, passed away several years ago. His mother, Evelyn, is buried alongside Kath in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, Calif.

Camille (Ortiz) Kath was a former Caribou Kitchenette (background singer at Caribou Ranch, where many of Chicago's records were recorded.) She was in a movie with Sutherland called "The Killing Time," which was released in the late 1980s. She received good reviews. (Thanks to Melanie Sanchez for the information on Camille Kath).

 

This photo shows, from left, Hank Steiger, long-time Chicago guitar tech and close friend of Terry Kath; Ray Kath, father of Terry Kath; and Dawayne Bailey, former lead guitarist of Chicago and big Kath fan. The photo is copyright 1994 Dawayne Bailey and used by permission of Dawayne Bailey.

Are there any unreleased Terry Kath songs?

A few have surfaced on the Rhino Records reissues of early Chicago albums. Kath was working toward a solo album at the time of his death. In fact, he was to have started rehearsals on Jan. 24, one day after he died.

Whether Kath made any demos of songs for that solo album is unknown. Some sources have told me he had a home studio and recordings may exist. A recording Terry made with one of his early bands,The Mystics, exists, but has not been released to the public at this time.

What was Kath's relationship with the Pignose amplifier company?

Kath had Pignose decals all over the Fender Telecaster guitar he used extensively. According to an article\ about history of Pignose amplifier, Kath helped found the Pignose company. He also was featured in a Pignose advertisement that\ appeared in Rolling Stone Magazine. Kath, dressed as a gangster, tried to make prospective amp buyers an "offer they could not refuse."

What other instruments did Kath play?

He tried banjo, accordion, bass and drums before going on guitar full time. He played bass as a sideman in bands before joining Chicago. He occasionally played bass on Chicago songs, often on his own compositions, and occasionally in concert. He played bass on Robert Lamm's solo album "Skinny Boy" and also was bass player for the soundtrack of the film "Electra-Glide in Blue."

Tell me about the song "Tell Me"

This was the closing song for the 1970s film "Electra-Glide in Blue." Chicago producer James William Guercio wrote the song and Kath's soulful vocals are featured on it. The song also was used on the final episode of\ "Miami Vice."

Did Kath read music?

Terry had basic music reading skills, but was not capable of reading music as complex as that performed by Chicago. Obviously, he learned that music by ear. He once expressed a desire to return to school and study music.

Did he really play rhythm and lead guitar at the same time?

While some would say this is physically impossible, Kath's playing probably gave this impression. In some cases, he would rapidly alternate between playing chords and lead lines. In other cases, his rhythm playing was so creative that it sounded like lead playing. As good as Kath was on lead guitar, his rhythm playing may have been his strong suit. Robert Lamm has said as much, describing the guitarists who followed Kath as great lead players, but not able to match Kath's rhythm playing. Kath had the difficult job of being the only guitar player in a seven and eight-piece band. He also sang either lead or backing vocals on most songs, and was the on-stage leader.

Is the song "Little One" from Chicago XI about Terry's daughter?

No, it was written by Danny Seraphine and David Wolinski and dedicated to Danny's two daughters. However, one could speculate that Terry had his own daughter in mind when he sang the song. It is one of his best vocal performances.

What is the history of "Mississippi Delta City Blues?"

When Chicago first started doing their own songs in concert, this Kath composition was one of the first ones they performed. It first appeared on record on the 1972 "Live in Japan" album, which at that time was available only in Japan. A studio version made it on Chicago XI, and the live version was included on the Terry Kath tribute album. Yet another version surfaced on the Rhino Records re-releases.

What kind of guitars and effects did Terry use?

A separate article on this web page covers that, but here it is, briefly:

In the last years of his life, Kath favored a heavily-modified Fender Telecaster. He used a Cry Baby wah-wah and various effects pedals. His amplifier preferences included Knight, Acoustic and Fender brands. Other guitars he usedincluded a Gibson Les Paul Professional, Gibson SG and a Fender Stratocaster.

Why didn't Kath get more recognition?

This was probably due to his desire to be a team player and not seek the individual spotlight. The fact that critics loathed Chicago didn't help matters any. Nonetheless, he received some recognition. He was featured as the cover story in one of the early issues of Guitar Player magazine, and at least two books have listed him as one of the top 1,000 guitarists of all time. There is a line in the movie "One Trick Pony" when two characters briefly discuss Kath, describing him as a "Monster with a Telecaster who could stand toe to toe with (Jimi) Hendrix.

Did Jimi Hendrix like Kath?

 

Hendrix once told Chicago saxophonist Walter Parazaider "Your guitar player is better than me." The two guitarists knew each other, and when Hendrix took Chicago on tour, he reportedly jammed with Kath on stage.

A long-time Chicago fan has reported that at one Hendrix concert, Jimi made a reference to Kath out of the blue, saying something to the effect, "You gotta check out this guy Terry Kath. His band is CTA. He's the best guitar player in the universe."

Why in the world did you do this web page?

Terry's guitar playing, singing and songwriting really connected with me. I think it's a shame that he has not received the recognition he deserved, so this web page is my small attempt to right this wrong.

Who is Hank Steiger?

Steiger was a close friend of Kath and has been an assistant (roadie) to Chicago for most of the band's history. He is regarded as one of the best in the business.

Is the story told in the song "Byblos" (from Chicago VII) true?

A Chicago fan told me that a band member had told a friend of his that the song was based on a true story. However, the location of the nightclub Byblos has been placed in South America, Japan and, (most probably) in Los Angeles.


Kath had listed guns and motorcycles as his chief hobbies. “I do target shooting, but I prefer just to go out into the desert and shoot at beer cans,” he once said.