Sheila Bromberg, orchestral harpist picked to play solo on The Beatles’ She’s Leaving Home – obituary

·3-min read
Sheila Bromberg: ‘Watcha got on the duss?,’ asked Paul McCartney as she tuned her harp at Abbey Road Studios
Sheila Bromberg: ‘Watcha got on the duss?,’ asked Paul McCartney as she tuned her harp at Abbey Road Studios

Sheila Bromberg, who has died aged 92, was a professional harpist; she was also the first female instrumentalist to be heard on a recording by the Beatles thanks to her solo sequence on She’s Leaving Home, a track on their 1967 album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

A well-established musician appearing in concert halls, recording studios and on television, she recalled being asked to join an ad hoc string orchestra at Abbey Road Studios. The session was to run from 9pm to midnight and paid £9 (about £171 today). Having already accepted recording commitments from 8am that day she was not keen, but agreed because she did not want to upset the fixer who booked the sessions.

She had no idea who she would be working with. “I was sitting here, tuning the harp, thinking of nothing in particular,” she said. “Suddenly a piece of music was plonked on my music stand. I gave it a brief look. Then this voice said, ‘Well watcha got on the duss?’, meaning ‘What’s written on the music?’ I recognised the Liverpool accent, turned round and of course it was Paul McCartney.”

Initially she played exactly what was written. “He said, ‘No I don’t want that, I want something, er …’.” She tried variations on the theme, but he was still not satisfied. “So then I brought out the big guns,” she said, referring to the harp flourish that introduces him singing “Wednesday morning, at five o’clock…”, a vocal part he recorded separately. “I think he had an idea in his head of what he wanted it to sound like, but he couldn’t describe it,” she added.

By midnight the orchestra had done six takes. Erich Gruenberg, the leader, stood up and declared that the players had to go home because they were working in the morning. “A voice from the control box said, ‘Well, I suppose that’s that then’,” Sheila Bromberg recalled, mimicking McCartney’s Liverpudlian accent.

On hearing the finished track she noticed that, despite their many takes, the producers had used the first one. She also spotted that the engineers had used a doubling effect on her sequence to create the sound that McCartney wanted. “That’s what he was after,” she exclaimed. “Clever.”

Sheila Zelda Patricia Bromberg was born in London on September 2 1928, the daughter of Michael Bromberg, an orchestral viola player of Russian descent, and his wife Rose (née Lyons), a seamstress. She took piano lessons with a paternal uncle, studied harp with Gwendolen Mason at the Royal College of Music and soon became one of the go-to harpists in London.

Over the years she played with many big names including Sammy Davis Jr, Spike Milligan and Frank Sinatra, whose jealous wife would not let him shake her hand. She was heard on the soundtracks of two James Bond films, Dr No (1962) and Goldfinger (1964), performed on the disco single Boogie Nights (1976) by the appropriately named Heatwave, keeping her feet cool in a bucket of icy water during the hot summer recording sessions, and played for Phantom of the Opera in the West End. Later she became a music therapist,

A few years ago Sheila Bromberg appeared with Ringo Starr on The One Show, telling the presenter Chris Evans about the Beatles’ recording session and accompanying them on her harp in a rendition of Yellow Submarine. Looking back on She’s Leaving Home, she said she was proud to have worked with McCartney and Co, but added: “At the time I could have wrung his neck.”

In 1949 Sheila Bromberg married Sydney Laurence, who owned a fishing-tackle shop. The marriage was dissolved in 1978 and she is survived by a son and a daughter.

Sheila Bromberg, born September 2 1928, died August 17 2021

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting