NORWOOD PARK — Terry Kath, leader of the band Chicago, died in a tragic, self-inflicted accident before his speedy guitar licks and platinum-selling hits made him a household name.
In 1978, the 31-year-old whose sticker-clad Fender Telecaster brought to life Chicago’s iconic hit “25 or 6 to 4” put what he thought was an unloaded pistol to his head and pulled the trigger. There was a round in the chamber, and he died instantly.
Kath, who graduated from Taft High and founded Chicago with DePaul University classmates, just might be the most underrated rock guitar player of all time.
Put it this way: Jimi Hendrix famously told Chicago saxophone player Walt Parazaider, “I think your guitar player is better than me,” and loads of folks, myself included, never knew Kath’s name.
Kath was survived by his band, which now has 11 platinum records, his wife, Camilla, and then-2-year-old daughter, Michelle. For each of them, life went on with a giant part of their existence missing.
It wasn’t until Michelle Kath Sinclair had married and had children of her own that she really started to feel the void her father’s death left in her life.
“I was looking at stuff of my dad’s that my mom kept, and I realized that I didn’t really have any scope of who he was,” Sinclair said. “I was starting my own family, and I had this feeling for the first time that someone was missing in my life and that was sad and frustrating. It sent me on a mission to get to know my dad, you know, separate from the band Chicago.”
Sinclair, a 38-year-old mother of two, found a special collection of family artifacts, including a Super 8 film that Terry Kath made while on tour with Chicago in the '70s, and it showed her a glimpse of how her father saw the world. She needed to know more and set off on a journey to make a documentary film about the dad she never got to know and, ultimately, her quest to reconnect with him through the harsh stories that only the people who knew him best really knew.
Five years later, after a series of fits and starts — and thanks to an ongoing Kickstarter campaign (that ends Wednesday) — the project, “Searching For Terry,” actually has a chance of getting finished.
“No one ever told me to get lost, but I’d meet with filmmakers and they would say, ‘This is great but … here are all the obstacles you are going to face, this is how you should deal with it. Good luck kid,’” she said.
“After a few years I knew that unless I got some money behind the film no one would touch it. And Kickstarter helped me bring contributions, and really I feel like the people who have donated are kind of on this journey with me.”
The rookie documentarian set out to interview her father’s bandmates, many who never really talked in detail about the struggles with alcohol and drugs that Terry Kath endured before his death.
“I asked a friend for advice on how to do those interviews and he said, 'You’re really just going to make grown men cry,'” Sinclair said. “For a lot of them, though, it was like closure when I sat with them. They hadn’t seen me in a while, and it was really emotional, but I wanted to make sure that I got to know everything that they knew.”
On camera, they told her about her father with compassionate reluctance.
“Do you wanna go there with this?” Chicago drummer Danny Seraphine asked Michelle during an interview. “Do you want to know the real truth?”
Sinclair, who lives in Los Angeles, traveled to Chicago, where she visited the Norwood Park neighborhood where her father grew up.
“I found myself imagining what it was like to be here in the '60s when Chicago was such a cool place, with such great music,” she said. “I have been to Chicago a couple times when I was a kid, but this was really like going back in a time warp to see where my dad lived and Hitch Elementary School and Taft High School and the places that they played growing up.”
As much as the film is about Terry Kath the rock star, it’s also about something even more universal — the desire to look back at the past and find meaning in the untold histories of our own families.
It wasn’t until Sinclair watched the emotional footage of her interviews that she realized that her search for the soul of her father was universal, that a lot of people wish they could hear untold stories of their family’s past to help put their own lives in better perspective as they get older.
“It’s really interesting. I feel great inside that I really did get to connect to my dad a lot more than I was after hearing so many points of view. I really understand more what it is that compels people to search for their heritage or watch documentaries about people searching for their heritage,” she said.
“There’s a connection between past and future generations. I can look at my kids and see that those are Terry’s grandchildren, and I can teach them about that strong bond we all have with our past and how that affects our future. Sounds corny, but it's true.”
The toughest moment, Sinclair said, was returning to Caribou Ranch Recording Studio where her father recorded with Chicago. There, she interviewed her mother.
“Sitting there with my mom was super emotional,” she said. “But doing this documentary really gave me the balls to ask questions that maybe I’d be too shy to ask otherwise.”
Sinclair wouldn’t say much about her talks with her father’s bandmates and the long tearful chat with her mother.
“I can’t give it all away, just yet,” she said. “We’ve got a film to make.”
And thanks to nearly 400 people who donated more than $58,000, Sinclair’s “Searching for Terry” is headed to postproduction.
“We’ve got everything lined up to make a beautiful film," she said. “And we’re going to go for it.”
MORE FROM MARK KONKOL'S MY CHICAGO:
For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: