In Canoga Park in January 1978, a young guitar player and singer named Terry Kath died of an accidentally self-inflicted gunshot wound. Joking around with a friend, Kath held what he thought was an unloaded handgun to his temple and pulled the trigger, Russian roulette style. But there was a single bullet in the chamber, and Kath died instantly. He was 31 years old.
Kath left behind one of the most successful rock bands in history, Chicago – a group that, at the time of his death, had released 11 consecutive platinum-selling albums, and would go on to release seven more. He also left behind a wife, Camelia, a two-year-old daughter, Michelle, and a complicated legacy that Michelle, now 38, is exploring in a forthcoming documentary, Searching for Terry.
Fans of Chicago call Kath one of rock’s most underrated guitarists, with a unique way of mixing together blues, funk and jazz techniques into propulsive rhythm parts and fiery, unconventional leads.
An often retold story has Jimi Hendrix approaching the band’s sax player, Walt Parazaider, after a show at the Whisky a Go Go in 1968 and saying, “I think your guitarist is better than me.”
But over the years, treacly pop hits like “Baby, What a Big Surprise” and “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” diminished Chicago’s credibility as serious musicians. Though songs like “25 or 6 to 4” and “Make Me Smile” from the band's jazzier, horn-driven early days remain staples of classic-rock radio, they seem like the work of a completely different band – one whose guitarist was forgotten by all but a few diehard fans.
Kath’s daughter, Michelle Kath Sinclair, was cruelly reminded of this when she began trying to finance Searching for Terry about five years ago.
“The question was always, ‘Who is your target audience? Where would this project end up?’” she says, still unable to hide her frustration.
Only the drug-fueled circumstances of her father’s death sparked any interest. Sinclair recalls one would-be producer telling her, “If you were a fucked-up drug addict and struggling with the same demons as your father, this would be great.”
(While there was no definitive evidence that Kath was high when he shot himself, he was known to have substance abuse issues: “Coke had its hooks deep into Terry and his behavior spiraled out of control,” drummer Danny Seraphine wrote in his memoir, Street Player: My Chicago Story, describing Kath just before his death.)
Finally, Sinclair took the project to Kickstarter, where the Chicago faithful have thus far supported two separate crowdfunding campaigns to the tune of over $98,000. With her latest fundraising goals met, Sinclair anticipates she can have the film finished by 2015.
So far, Searching for Terry includes interviews with every original Chicago member except Peter Cetera, the bassist with the silky, high tenor on all those soft-rock ballads, who left the band for a solo career in 1985. “He’s a tough one,” says Sinclair. “He doesn’t do interviews or anything regarding Chicago. So we’ll see.”
Sinclair was also able to interview the band’s longtime producer, James William Guercio, and guitarist Joe Walsh, a friend and admirer of Kath’s. But some of her favorite moments in the film are interviews with her Uncle Rod, Terry’s brother, and her mother, who surprised her with a few stories she had never heard before.
“Some of the great stories are just learning a little bit more about his personality,” says Sinclair, who grew up with only the haziest memories of her father. She cites one story, told more than once, about a kid who ran up and stole one of Kath’s more expensive guitars after a gig. Before the roadies could chase after him, Kath called them off: “If he needed it that bad, just let him have it.”
In a way, even before Searching for Terry gets released, Sinclair has already achieved one of the project’s goals: She knows more about her father now than she ever did before. But her other goal with the documentary is “giving him the recognition he deserves as a guitarist, which I felt he never really got.”
Based especially on Chicago’s many live recordings from the ‘70s, which really showcase Kath’s skills as a bandleader and soloist, it’s recognition that’s long overdue.
Like us on Facebook at LAWeeklyMusic
Follow Andy Hermann
West Coast Sound's Greatest Hits!
The 20 Worst Hipster Bands
The 20 Worst Bands of All Time
The 10 Biggest Douchebags in Country Music