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What’s in a Name?
After the band’s recorded debut, Chicago Transit Authority was forced by the threat of legal action to change their name once again. Kath and his cohorts opted to just cut it short, and thus Chicago was born. Riding high on the LP’s success, they hit the road for a relentless touring schedule of 200 to 300 shows a year, a pace that didn’t abate for Kath’s entire tenure in the group. With his newfound success, Kath began acquiring more guitars, including a 1969 Gibson Les Paul Professional with a pair of unconventional low-impedance pickups that required a special impedance-matching transformer for use with a standard high-impedance-input amplifier. This guitar became one of his favorite standbys in the years to come.
A year after recording their first album, Chicago hit the studio to record Chicago—aka Chicago II—which was a monster success and reached No. 4 on the U.S. charts. The biggest hit off the album, the previously mentioned “25 or 6 to 4,” was written by keyboardist Lamm and is easily one the group’s most recognized pieces. After the sophomore release, Chicago went on a tear nearly unprecedented in the history of commercial music, releasing eight studio albums and one live recording over the subsequent eight years—all of which achieved platinum status. Other opportunities followed, and in late 1972 Kath and Chicago’s manager, Guercio, were approached by amplifier maker Richard Edlund to see if they’d be interested in financing his start-up company. The two men were intrigued by Edlund and his little amplifiers, and thus started Pignose Industries, which debuted their first “legendary” Pignose amplifier at the 1973 NAMM show. Kath naturally became Pignose’s first endorsee and appeared in an ad for the company, decked out in gangster attire with the slogan, “What Pignose offers, you can’t refuse,” appearing below his picture.
Kath made another guitar change that same year, finally settling on a Fender Telecaster that he used almost exclusively for the rest of his career. He asked his tech, Hank Steiger, to make a few modifications, including replacing the stock neck pickup with a Gibson humbucker and changing the bridge from a 3-saddle model to a 6-saddle version that would facilitate more precise intonation. In not-so-subtle support of his side business venture, Kath affixed a few Pignose stickers—25, to be exact—as well as a Chicago Blackhawks logo and a large sticker with the Maico motorcycle company’s logo.
A Tragic End
Despite Chicago’s enormous success throughout the 1970s, Kath was quite depressed. “He was an unhappy individual,” Pankow remembered in the liner notes of Chicago Box. “His relationship was not going well. He was also certainly more dependent on chemicals than he should have been. He wasn’t addicted to anything, but he was abusing drugs. We were all doing drugs at that stage of the game. But if you’re incredibly unhappy and depressed and doing the drugs on top of that, it compounds the situation.”
On the night of January 23, 1978, in a tragic turn, Kath accidentally shot himself in the head while messing around with one of his handguns. The only witness to the incident was Chicago’s keyboard tech, Don Johnson, whose account of what happened was later summarized by Pankow. “Evidently, he had gone to the shooting range, and he came back to Donny’s apartment, and he was sitting at the kitchen table cleaning his guns. Donny remarked, ‘Hey, man, you’re really tired. Why don’t you just put the guns down and go to bed.’ Terry said, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ and he showed Donny the gun. He said, ‘Look, the clip’s not even in it,’ and he had the clip in one hand and the gun in the other. But evidently there was a bullet still in the chamber. He had taken the clip out of the gun, and the clip was empty. A gun can’t be fired without the clip in it. He put the clip back in, and he was waving the gun around his head. He said, ‘What do you think I’m gonna do? Blow my brains out?’ And just the pressure when he was waving the gun around the side of his head, the pressure of his finger on the trigger, released that round in the chamber. It went into the side of his head. He died instantly.”
The loss of Terry Alan Kath was felt across the world of music, but nowhere more than with his bandmates in Chicago. “Right about there was probably what I felt was the end of the group,” says Peter Cetera on Chicago’s website. “I think we were a bit scared about going our separate ways, and we decided to give it a go again.” The band decided to soldier on and auditioned somewhere around 50 guitarists to take Kath’s place before ultimately settling on Donnie Dacus. But without Kath’s guitar, the band was not the same. Many divide the long history of Chicago into pre-Kath and post-Kath, and it could be argued that the majority favor the earlier period.
Kath was an incredibly versatile guitarist. On one track he could play some of the wildest, most sonically expansive guitar you’ve ever heard, and on the next he could play the smoothest runs this side of Charlie Christian. He lives on in the music he created and continues to inspire those who listen to his records.
Like many new Kath fans, his daughter, Michelle Kath Sinclair—who was only 3 when he passed away—is on her own odyssey to find out more about her father. Her story is told in the yet-to-be-released documentary Searching for Terry: Discovering a Guitar Legend, and she lays out her reasons for creating the film in a message on the official Terry Kath website (terrykath.com). “I always felt that he never got the credit he deserved for his contribution to guitar. His approach to playing and writing music were unique to his own. I was always saddened by his untimely death, not only because I missed out on knowing him, but also because there was so much more that he had to offer the music world.”
Chicago’s keyboardist and lead vocalist Robert Lamm probably said it best in the liner notes for Chicago Box when he stated, “He was an original thinker. He was an inventor, in many ways. He invented the way he played his guitar. He was the kind of guy that could probably teach himself to play almost any instrument.” He added, “I don’t think there’s ever been a better rhythm player. And then, Terry’s leads are, for that day especially, world class stuff.”