Friday, December 23, 2011

R.I.P.: John Bishop

John Bishop, Guitarist Who Performed with Ray Charles
by Joan Giangrasse Kates - Chicago Tribune
December 23, 2011

John Bishop, a guitarist who played with Ray Charles and in top rooms around the country including the London House and Mister Kelly's in Chicago, formed with his wife one of the top bands for local events, the Georgia Frances Orchestra.

Mr. Bishop, 65, died apparently of a heart attack Saturday, Dec. 17, in his Oak Park home.

"John's musicianship was second nature to him," said close friend Pat Martino, a well-known Philadelphia-based jazz guitarist. "He was a very gifted guitarist, whose music transcended all boundaries."

Born Gregory Ceurvorst in Davenport, Iowa, Mr. Bishop was one of 13 children, and, according to siblings, always had a restless streak. He was 8 years old when he picked up an ukulele and began strumming it. That led to the guitar, which led to the electric guitar, which led to him teaching his friends how to play.

At age 15, he ran away from home to Kansas City, Mo., where he persuaded the owner of a bar to hire him to perform a few nights a week. It was around this time that he changed his name to John Bishop.

"He called my parents and woke them up in the middle of the night to tell them he had a job playing his guitar," said his brother Steve.

Word spread fast about the young guitarist who couldn't read a single note of music, but could play anything by ear, and the gigs started rolling in.

"He'd listen to a piece of music just once and then be able to play it," his brother said.

After a few years of playing jazz and blues clubs in Kansas City, Mr. Bishop moved to San Francisco, and later Chicago, where he began to make a name for himself. In 1969, he cut his first solo jazz album, "Bishop's Whirl," with Tangerine Records.

By the early 1970s, Mr. Bishop had signed on as a guitarist with Ray Charles. He played all the hot spots on Rush Street and started touring coast-to-coast, performing at prestigious clubs such as the Copacabana in New York.

"John was a warm and generous man," said Martino. "He was there for me whenever I came to Chicago to perform. He'd pick me up at the airport and take me to my engagement. We'd have wonderful conversations on our way there."

While performing at the Copacabana in New York, Mr. Bishop became a favorite of NFL Hall of Famer Joe Namath, who frequented the club. Mr. Bishop went on to help Namath open his Bachelors III nightclubs in Boston and Florida.

"From the time I was a kid, I remember thinking he was one of the coolest guys on the planet," his brother said. "It'd take me a week of stories to describe the kind of life he lived."

Mr. Bishop first came to Chicago as an opening act for Ray Charles at the Regal Theatre, and subsequently headlined The London House and Mister Kelly's before touring the country. When in town, he also served as a lead guitarist with singer-songwriter Donny Hathaway and jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis.

In 1980, Mr. Bishop married Georgia Frances, a violinist, who performed with the Empire Room Orchestra in Chicago. Soon after, the couple founded The Georgia Frances Orchestra, long considered one of the top event bands in the city.

"I always loved it at a gig when he would get in that mood of his, and go off on these wild solos that just stopped the show in the best possible way," said musician Stephen Rider. "The rest of the band just sort of faded back, and you couldn't help but want to hear more."

His neighbor Lyn Jerit said she had been talking to Mr. Bishop about a gig of his just recently.

"I remember him saying how his band was really flying that night. How they never sounded so good," Jerit said. "But that's how John was -- so mesmerized by music."

Mr. Bishop is also survived by a son, Gregory; a daughter, Nicole Marie; four other brothers, Gerard, Michael, Anthony and Martin; and seven sisters, Donna James, Kathleen Faoro, Mary Christine Dunivant, Rita Bawden, Patrice Baustian, Marla Konzel and Dolores Schamberger.

Services have been held.

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