Sadie Bishop: Free thinker brought guitar to the fore


This information is extracted from the Obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald, July 26, 2008

"Free thinker brought guitar to the fore"

Sadie Bishop, 1922-2008, one of Australia's leading classical guitarists and teachers

SADIE BISHOP was one of Australia's leading classical guitarists and teachers, and a woman who went her own way in life ahead of the times.

She fought to have the classical guitar accepted into tertiary institutions in Australia and her efforts helped to forever alter Australia's perception of the guitar from an almost comic party accessory to a serious instrument. She also had a son out of wedlock, and raised him, in days when this was frowned upon.

Bishop, who has died aged 86, was born in Richmond, Melbourne with a twin brother, Sydney, to Sydney Bishop, a customs agent, and his wife Mary, a talented pianist. When the twins were old enough, they were sent to their first music lessons with a Mrs Twitchett.

In her late teens, Sadie contracted tuberculosis. Her father built a bungalow in the back garden, where she was confined for a number of years. At least she had time for reading and discovered that there was a world outside Melbourne.

When she was allowed out of confinement, World War II was still under way. She worked a variety of jobs in and around Melbourne, and went to clubs and dances, where the music of the day was jazz.

Around this time she met a jazz guitarist called Joe Washington, whom she married, and through him discovered the sound of the guitar.

In the early 1950s, Sadie, still using the name Bishop, which she kept all her life, and Joe moved into a household in Elsternwick with Leonard and Malaan Williams, the parents of the young, and soon to be internationally acclaimed, classical guitarist John Williams. Len was also a jazz guitarist, but developed a passion for the classical repertoire and very soon was teaching this knowledge to his son. Bishop also fell under the spell of the classical guitar and became rapidly adept on the instrument. "For three weeks I was better than John, except that I was 32, and he was nine," she would later joke.

In 1952 the Williams clan moved back to London, where Len set up The Spanish Guitar Centre, which exists to this day. In 1955 he asked Bishop and Washington to move to England and teach there. Washington at this time was busy playing jazz guitar and arranging for major bands and orchestras in Melbourne, and decided he could not go. This precipitated their ultimate separation, and Bishop departed Australia for London alone.

In 1956 and '57, Bishop, along with John Williams and many other luminaries of the guitar, attended summer schools at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana di Sienna in Italy, under the then maestro of the instrument, Andres Segovia.

It was while she was in Italy that she met Rodrigo Riera, a guitarist from Venezuela. Bishop became pregnant to Riera, and in May 1958 gave birth to a son, Stephen, in London. She returned to Australia in 1959, choosing to raise her son alone and to be near her family. She hit on the unique technique of practising her guitar inside a playpen, while her toddling son created havoc in the rest of the house.

She opened a successful guitar school in Melbourne and also held classes for the Council of Adult Education. By the early 1960s she was making regular appearances in ABC broadcasts on radio and television and in 1962 was appointed a teacher and lecturer at the Melbourne University Conservatorium, even though an official guitar course had yet to be established.

In 1969, Bishop moved from Melbourne to Canberra and started her tenure at the school of music, Manuka campus. During her years in Canberra her home was a haven for artists, musicians, writers, philosophers and poets. She would hold frequent C.P. Snow dinners, where, in reference to a quote from one of his books, everyone had to finish their wine and vacate the premises by 10pm. The big hint for everyone to depart was Bishop playing a track of Blood, Sweat & Tears on the stereo.

Bishop continued teaching at the school of music until her retirement in 1982. She then returned to Melbourne, where she took up writing and continued her interest in the guitar, sitting on boards and attending eisteddfods.

Her final years were at a nursing home in Annandale, Sydney, around the corner from her son, who is now better known as George Washingmachine (a name he says he chose because he is "easily agitated"), a leading jazz violinist and entertainer.

In 2006 the Classical Guitar Society of Melbourne established the Sadie awards, rewarding excellence in performing the classical guitar.

Sadie Bishop is survived Stephen/George, grandchildren Nellie, Arthur, Jerry and Grace, her brother Sydney and sisters Molly and Jan.

Pat Sheil

This information is extracted from the Obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald, July 26, 2008