Personalities | Terry Kath | Chicago’s Paragon | Guitar Heroes

Terry Kath (1946–78) was the guitarist and a founding member of the jazz-rock ensemble Chicago Transit Authority (soon shortened to Chicago), which, like their contemporaries Blood, Sweat & Tears, brought a jazzy, horn-based sound to hard rock with their early albums, before settling into a superstardom built around anthemic pop ballads.

Early on, however, it was the virtuoso playing and guttural blues singing of Kath that helped define the band’s unique sound.

Kath grew up in Chicago, playing bass and guitar in local bands in the early and mid-1960s. Towards the end of the decade, he joined his pal, saxophonist Walter Parazaider, and two other horn players in a big band of serious songwriter/instrumentalists, including keyboardist Robert Lamm and bassist Peter Cetera. The Chicago Transit Authority’s first (eponymous) album from 1969 was a smash, driven by Kath’s self-styled masterpiece ‘Introduction’, his rhythmic acoustic strumming on ‘Beginnings’, his inspired wailing on the cover of ‘I’m A Man’ and his Hendrix-like adventurousness on ‘Free Form Guitar’. (Kath knew and admired Hendrix, who famously told Parazaider, ‘Your guitar player is better than me’.) The follow-up Chicago II (1970) was an even bigger smash, with Kath blazing a fiery solo on the hit ‘25 Or 6 To 4’, and perhaps initiating the group’s appeal as a ballad band with his vocals on the popular make-out classic ‘Colour My World’.

Kath most often played a Gibson SG or a Fender Strat and used multiple effects boxes, including a wah-wah pedal that he used to great effect, along with his vocals, on the Chicago III (1971) social commentary ‘Dialogue’. Kath was a major part of the first seven Chicago albums, but was known to be unhappy in 1978 and working on a solo album. He would not live to see its release, however. At a party in January 1978, Kath, a gun aficionado, was pointing a handgun to his head and pulling the trigger, reassuring friends, ‘Don’t worry, it’s not loaded’. But Kath was mistaken, and he died from a self-inflicted head wound a week shy of his thirty-second birthday.

Essential Recordings

The Chicago Transit Authority: The Chicago Transit Authority

Chicago: Chicago II

Chicago: Chicago III

Chicago: Chicago X

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