Is Chicago's Terry Kath the most underrated guitarist of all time?
When he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of 32, Terry Kath had sold more than 22 million records, was dubbed a better guitarist than Jimi Hendrix (by Hendrix himself) and wrote one of the greatest guitar solos in the history of popular music. But there's a very good chance this is the first time you've heard mention of him.
As a member, and co-leader, of the glossy AM‐rock band Chicago, Kath, an alternatively shy and larger than life character in both girth and fortitude, co-captained a musical behemoth that went down in history as one of the largely anonymous heads in yacht rock's Mount Rushmore. Yet, in reality, Kath was the embodiment of anything but the easy, smooth sounds of '70s opulence.
Rarely without a revolver at his waist and a mountain of drugs and booze in his system, the guitarist with an unrefined yet dizzyingly fast neck approach and soulful baritone spent the majority of his nine years in Chicago raging against the group's soft-rock reputation. A fight he would eventually lose, first with the release of the timeless schlock masterpiece "If You Leave Me Now" and, soon after, when he accidently shot himself in the head (thinking the gun was empty) at the end of a night of boozing and drugs, leaving behind a wife and two-year-old.
Nearly 40 years later, Kath's daughter is on a mission to reclaim her father's place in the hallowed halls of rock 'n' roll legend. A self described "blue collar" DJ of some renown, Michelle Kath Sinclair made her directorial debut at this year's Toronto International Film Festival with a sold out screening of her film, The Terry Kath Experience. Eight years in the making, the documentary follows the director's path to discovering her father and his contribution to music history.
"I really wanted to expose him as an artist," Sinclair recently explained. "His songs are different and they have a different sound (especially as the band evolved). It's frustrating that no one knew about his guitar playing, but other people were just obsessed with him. He's your favourite guitar player's favourite guitarist."
Though her father's spectre was never far (the film features a Kath-indebted speech from Sinclair's wedding, delivered by her stepfather Kiefer Sutherland), Sinclair only began earnestly looking into his life when she approached the age Kath was when he died.
"You realize how young he was and how much more there was left," Sinclair says. "The other aspect is I've known lots of people that have died from drugs and alcohol and the aftermath that's left behind with those people. ... I was really motivated to do a movie for them, as well, because you're left with this hole."
Beyond her own quest, Sinclair's film also exposes the internal tension within Chicago. Formed as a cover band in 1960s Illinois, the group emerged from DePaul University and quickly earned a reputation for its explosive live show, which involved virtuosic jams led by "street players" (those who didn't attend music classes) Kath, bassist Peter Cetera and drummer Danny Seraphine. With the introduction of James Guercio as producer, however, the members decided to take a more refined approach to their recorded material.
"As a lot of them explained in the film, instead of having long solos everything had to be [radio friendly]. So they started making nice, pretty three-minute songs. For example, 'If You Leave Me Now,' which was a Peter and Jim Guercio song, Jim says, 'I just needed a hit for them because we were hitting a lull so I stuck that on the album and most of them were pissed. Your dad was pissed about it,'" Sinclair recalls. "I think in the end what I learned is that he loved his craft and what he didn't like was the machine that they became. That was really soul-destroying for him. I think that maybe overshadowed the rock 'n' roll aspect he had as a guitar player."
Sinclair says she wasn't in touch with a lot of the members of Chicago, but, with the exception of Cetera, nearly everyone was eager to talk about Kath, who also gets kudos in the film from the likes of Joe Walsh, ELO's Jeff Lynne and, by proxy, Jimi Hendrix — who was so impressed with Kath's playing he took the band on tour.
"Peter Cetera, we had to massage that interview," Sincair says of the soft blond foil to Kath's hard-rocking ways. "I wasn't sure if he would do it because he doesn't do interviews about Chicago, so I met with him the day before we actually did the interview. We talked for a really long time and he was telling me outrageous stories that were very PG rated the next day — outrageous stories about drugs and Jimi Hendrix — but I understand that in front of the camera he toned it down."
Kath's untimely and inelegant end plays more emotional anchor than plot device in the film, as his wife and producer alternatively speak of a bright future that included a solo album ("without horns!") and band interventions for his hard-partying ways. Instead, Sinclair embodies a future life missed out on.
Sitting in the lounge of her Toronto hotel, Sinclair admits she's still flummoxed by her father's wild ways. "It always amazes me when you have everything going for you — you have a lady and a kid — and yet you're really unhappy," she says. "You're doing stupid things because you're so messed up on drugs. To me, that's the part [of me] that's like, 'What were you doing?! What were you thinking? Was it that bad? Couldn't you have pulled back just a little bit?'"
But, she concedes, there's another part of her that understands, and the film has somewhat reconciled those two parts.
As for recognition, Sinclair admits she has high hopes for The Terry Kath Experience. "I would love for him to get on Rolling Stone's top 100 guitarists of all time," she laughs. "There's 100 on there, he's definitely one."