Although he studied at Hendrix College and hailed from Arkansas, the main association with the multi-talented Joe Bishop should be the sound and music of the Woody Herman big band, not flaming guitars from the Ozark mountains.
Bishop was one of the founding members of the Herman outfit in the mid-'30s. He was forced to flee the bandstand for health reasons in 1940, but went back to work for Herman in the capacity of staff arranger a few years later. Bishop's writing appears on some 50 Herman albums, yet this opens the door of the man's discography just a crack. There are also cover versions of the material he wrote for Herman and others, leading through rooms normally reserved for Western swing and hard rock styles, to name a few. Bishop is one of the few composers whose tunes have been played by both the frenzied British blues band Ten Years After and the ultra-relaxed muzak institution of Lawrence Welk.
His musical activities began with piano lessons as a child. Later he switched to both trumpet and tuba, and would continue to experiment with a variety of brass instruments throughout his career, polishing a sound on the attractive flugelhorn and also making dates on the oh-so mellophone, a kind of hybrid of the tuba and the euphonium. Bishop's first real gigs were in 1927, playing tuba with the Louisana Ramblers, whose rambling got them down to Mexico and a series of Nuevo Laredo dates. He played mellophone with Mart Britt's Band, some tuba with bands led by Al Katz and Austin Wylie, then settled into a stint with saxophonist and bassist Isham Jones that lasted half a decade.
The birth of the Herman herd pulled him out of the Jones gang; contracting tuberculosis in 1940 made him rethink his lifestyle, forcing him to concentrate on arrangement activities rather than gigging and sleeping on a band bus. The intense freelancing that had led, in one year alone, to collaborations with R&B performers such as Cow Cow Davenport and bizarre outfits such as Jimmy Gordon's Vip Vop Band was also out of the question. In the early '50s, his health became a problem once more, and at this juncture even the composing activities seemed to become too much. He began running a store in the hinterlands of Saranc Lake, NY. Bishop retired in Texas and died in Houston in the mid-'70s. Like the chess figure of the same name, he left behind a series of brilliant compositional moves, including "Midnight Blue," "Woodchopper's Ball," and "Blue Prelude."