Ken Essex, LSO principal viola who accompanied the Beatles hit Yesterday – obituary

Ken Essex in his 50s
Ken Essex in his 50s

Ken Essex,who has died aged 101, was principal viola of the London Symphony Orchestra in the 1960s; he also made chamber music with the cellist Amaryllis Fleming, can be heard on the theme music for Fawlty Towers and Last of the Summer Wine, and played in the string quartet that accompanied the Beatles’ melancholy ballad Yesterday. Last year he followed in the footsteps of Captain Sir Tom Moore, completing a 10km walk in aid of Moorfields Eye Hospital.

Over the years he played with orchestras at Royal Variety performances, the Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton in 1974 when Abba won with Waterloo, and for films including The French Lieutenant’s Woman, whose title music begins with a viola solo. He can also be heard on the backing tracks of countless music stars including Barbra Streisand, the Bee Gees, Kate Bush, Cilla Black, Dusty Springfield and David Essex – who was no relation – though he rarely met them.

The track for Yesterday, recorded at Abbey Road Studios in north London, on June 17 1965, was one of his more straightforward gigs. “The whole thing took so little time that we only got a half-session fee,” he said. “It may have been a worldwide hit but we got paid the standard rate – five guineas.” He also played on the band’s 1967 single Hello Goodbye.

Piano quartet featuring Howard Blake, Jack Rothstein, Ken Essex (second from left) and Peter Williamson - Bridgeman Images
Piano quartet featuring Howard Blake, Jack Rothstein, Ken Essex (second from left) and Peter Williamson - Bridgeman Images

Kenneth Essex was born in Hinckley, Leicestershire, on July 20 1920, the only child of Bertie Essex, a baker, and his wife Lilian (née Hutt). He learnt the violin from the age of eight and won the under-14 solo violin class at Loughborough Music Festival. He came second in the Leicester Music Festival despite having split his finger with a hammer while mending his boots.

He passed the grammar school entrance exam, but his father could not afford both an education and violin lessons, so young Ken opted for music. Leaving school at 14 he worked at Sketchley dye works from 6.30am to 5.30pm each day, practising his violin in the evenings.

A competition adjudicator was impressed by his playing but urged him either to get a better violin or switch to viola. The larger instrument appealed and he bought one for £20, a month’s wages. He entered the Royal Academy of Music in 1937 and in his first term won the viola prize, but at the outbreak of war joined the Royal Marines Band and took up the alto saxophone.

He served on HMS Belfast and HMS Euryalus, running convoys to Malta. After the war he returned to the viola and joined the London Philharmonic Orchestra. He had previously played with the Hurwitz Quartet and rejoined them to take part in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia at Glyndebourne, the opera house’s first postwar production.

Essex went on to play in the Fleming String Trio with Amaryllis Fleming and the violinist Granville Jones (replaced after his death by Emanuel Hurwitz), perform quintets with the Amadeus Quartet, and appear with John Dankworth’s jazz orchestra. He also worked with the Boyd Neel and Royal Philharmonic orchestras before joining the LSO. After a few years he left to go freelance but continued to play chamber music while working as a session musician into his eighties.

Last year Essex marked out a 500m course on the pavement outside the home in Muswell Hill, where he had lived for 55 years. He walked it twice a day for 10 days, finishing the day before his 100th birthday cheered on by friends and family singing For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow. He raised almost £22,000. A year later he did a similar walk for his 101st birthday to support Hospice Aid UK.

Ken Essex married Joan White in 1947. She died last year, and he is survived by a son and two daughters.

Ken Essex, born July 20 1920, died October 11 2021