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Famously private and staunchly resistant to the notion of celebrity, John Williams has been a reluctant public figure for the best part of six decades. Which makes this first authorised biography of the guitarist who inherited Segovia’s mantle as the most technically assured exponent of his instrument (and who celebrated his 73rd birthday in April) something of a surprise.

Williams was born in Australia and raised in England, where his father Len (who later founded the London Guitar School) became his first teacher, adeptly drawing enough out of his precociously able son to merit his taking lessons at the age of 11 with Segovia and to gain entrance to the Royal College of Music when he was barely into his teens. There he was obliged to study piano, the conservatory having no guitar department at the time, and made his professional debut, in Wigmore Hall, in 1958 while still a student. It is a measure of his abilities that on graduating he was asked to correct the RCM’s omission and created and managed its guitar department during its first two years. When he left his first teaching post, Williams was still just 21.

There were not many notional niches that Williams didn’t venture into with an ease that belied his absolute attention to detail and an insistence on quality that was as evident in his championing of music from as far afield as South America and Africa, as in Sky, his phenomenally successful group project with ubiquitous bass player Herbie Flowers and prog rock pioneer Francis Monkman.

William Starling writes from the vantage of long friendship with his subject and with an engaging informality that seems wholly appropriate, not least because of the imposing shadow the guitarist’s father cast and the complex and often contested relationship that resulted. More illustrious figures come in for criticism, too, Segovia reprimanded for his ‘musical conservatism and snobbishness’. It is in such uncharacteristically blunt moments that one gets a glimpse, strikingly at odds with his public persona, of the mettle of both the man and the musician, which adds necessary grit to this otherwise somewhat cosy portrait.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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