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In 1968, the Chicago Transit Authority found themselves playing a show at the renowned L.A. club the Whisky a Go Go. The gig itself was unremarkable, just another in a long series of dates they’d been playing since changing their name from the Big Thing. It was what happened after the show that made this evening memorable for the group—and especially for their guitarist. According to the band’s saxophonist Walter Parazaider, after the show, “This guy came up very quietly and tapped me on the shoulder. He says, ‘Hi, I’m Jimi Hendrix. I’ve been watching you guys and I think your guitarist is better than me.”
The guitarist Hendrix was referring to was Terry Kath, and whether or not the above story is true or apocryphal is immaterial: The fact that one could hear Kath and then judge the story plausible matters as much as its authenticity. And among those who either witnessed his prowess firsthand or came to know it after his untimely demise at the age of 31, it is virtually unanimous that Kath is one of the most criminally underrated guitarists to have ever set finger to fretboard. Give a listen to what many consider to be Chicago’s signature song, “25 or 6 to 4,” one is instantly transfixed by the punch of the chromatically descending opening riff, the funky fills, the slippery licks, and the tones that range from wooly fuzz to searing, wah-inflected colors.
Kath dedicated his life to making music, but as the years wore on the grind of longer tours and greater expectations took a toll. He became increasingly unhappy and on January 23, 1978, he put what he thought was an unloaded gun to his head and pulled the trigger, ending his life. Though he is gone, his incredible talent certainly isn’t forgotten.
Terry Alan Kath was born on January 31, 1946, to Ray and Evelyn Kath in the western suburbs of Chicago. Terry was enamored with music at a young age and with the encouragement of his parents he quickly learned how to play drums, accordion, piano, and banjo. His childhood friend and future bandmate Brian Higgins was quick to observe in an interview with Chicago-area music chronicler Tim Wood that, “From the eighth grade on, Terry knew he was going to be a professional musician.”
Like many youths from that era, it was only a matter of time until he discovered the guitar. Kath’s first rig consisted of a basic guitar and amp made by Kay, and he spent hours practicing on it in the comfort of his basement. Only once did he attempt to get professional lessons, but it didn’t go as well as he hoped, as he recalled in a 1971 interview with Guitar Player: “He just kept wanting me to play good lead stuff, but then all I wanted to do was play those rock and roll chords.”
Over time, Kath’s playing chops developed and he linked up with a group of his high-school buddies to form a band called the Mystics. Kath soon became the focal point for those who came to see the Mystics play, and he became the de facto leader of the group. The band tooled around Chicago’s many dance halls, clubs, and Veterans of Foreign Wars halls, playing one or two shows a week, and quickly built a dedicated following. Kath had a deep love of jazz, which inspired him to spurn the solidbody Gibson and Fender guitars popular amongst players of the day, Instead, he elected to play a Gretsch Tennessean. “He did a lot of work on that guitar. No one but him could play it without it buzzing,” recalled Mystics rhythm guitarist Brian Higgins.
After a few years in the Mystics, Kath left the group and joined up with Jimmy Ford & the Executives, where he was asked to switch to bass. The Executives were one of the most talked-about groups in Chicago and served as a road band for Dick Clark’s Cavalcade of Stars—which featured such noted artists as Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and the Yardbirds. Kath proved to be a valuable member, and as future Chicago drummer and Executives band member Danny Seraphine wrote in his memoirs, “He was the closest thing to a leader in the band in terms of the direction of the music.”
Kath’s time with Ford and the Executives was as hectic as it was brief. Along with Danny Seraphine and Walter Parazaider, Kath was shown the door when the group decided to join up with an R&B horn outfit and take the music in a new direction. It didn’t take long for Kath and his exiled bandmates to find a new group, and in short order they found themselves playing in a cover band called the Missing Links. The band was led by Parazaider’s childhood friend Chuck Madden, whose father was known locally for being a big-time booking agent. Owing to that boon, Kath soon found himself earning more money per week than ever before—a whopping $500.
The Missing Links tore up Chicago’s club scene and regularly drew large crowds eager to hear hits of the day performed live and in person. But the grind of regularly playing other artists’ songs over and over, night after night, began to wear on Kath. As audiences began to dwindle and as the band members’ talent grew, the Missing Links decided to call it a day. Out of the ashes, Seraphine began forming ideas for a new outfit and invited Kath and Parazaider to join him in what he envisioned to be a Chicago-area supergroup. Invitations also went out to trombonist James Pankow, trumpeter Lee Loughnane, and singer/keyboardist Robert Lamm. Soon they were on the road touring under the name the Big Thing.