The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sheila Bromberg, harpist on Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,’ dies at 92

Sheila Bromberg played on a number of pop albums and in symphony orchestras. (Courtesy of David Laurence)
Placeholder while article actions load

Sheila Bromberg was a busy harpist in British symphony orchestras when an agent called on March 17, 1967, to offer her a three-hour stint that night as a session musician at the EMI recording studio on Abbey Road in London.

The pay was 9 pounds — about $17. With two young children to feed, she showed up at 8:30 p.m. to tune her harp and was handed a piece of sheet music. Only later did she learn that the notes she played were to be the intro on “She’s Leaving Home” by the Beatles. The song was released months later on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which Rolling Stone magazine ranked in 2003 as No. 1 of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

Mrs. Bromberg’s harp intro and rhythm, backed by a full string section, set the poignant tone of the track before Paul McCartney (who recorded separately) began the lyric “Wednesday morning at 5 o’clock as the day begins.”

It “is the most important rock & roll album ever made, an unsurpassed adventure in concept, sound, songwriting, cover art and studio technology by the greatest rock & roll group of all time,” Rolling Stone wrote of “Sgt. Pepper.” (“She’s Leaving Home” was one of only a few tracks in the Fab Four’s career on which they did not play any instruments but only sang.)

Mrs. Bromberg, who became first female musician ever to record on a Beatles album, died Aug. 17 at a hospice center in Aylesbury, England. She was 92 and had a heart ailment, said her son, David Laurence, who spent years as an orchestral French horn player.

Although her three and a half minutes of playing on “She’s Leaving Home” brought her anonymously into millions of homes over the last five decades, Mrs. Bromberg was regarded by classical and session players as more than a one-hit wonder.

She played harp on two early James Bond films starring Sean Connery — “Dr. No” (1962) and “Goldfinger” (1964) — in the pulsing musical scores by John Barry. She also performed the solo intro to the 1976 hit disco single “Boogie Nights” by the band Heatwave. She recalled that the heat in the studio was so intense, she played with her feet in a bucket of icy water.

John Barry, film composer known for Bond movies, dies at 77

During the 1960s and ’70s, she was a member of the BBC’s Top of the Pops orchestra, backing some of the world’s biggest stars on the TV program of that name, Britain’s most popular music show of the time.

Mrs. Bromberg couldn’t afford child care, her son recalled, and he was dragged along to the Top of the Pops studio and sat in the control room alongside Michael Jackson (at the time part of the Jackson Five), the Osmonds, Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones. “The producers let me push some of the control buttons,” he told The Washington Post, “but not when they were going live.”

His mother was also part of the orchestra on Britain’s “Morecambe and Wise,” a comedy, dancing and general Saturday-night entertainment show that was the highest-rated program of the era, its repeats still running regularly on British TV channels. She played harp on countless ads and jingles and appeared on the hit comedy series “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” when the Python comedian John Cleese had her play her harp in a wheelbarrow.

Laurence recalled his mom constantly holding parties for artists at their house in upmarket Hampstead, London, famed for its artistic community. “As kids, my sister Naomi and I would sneak downstairs, and there would be Dudley Moore making faces and hammering out a tune on piano,” he said. “I had the most bulging autograph book of any of the kids at school.”

Sheila Zelda Patricia Bromberg was born in London on Sept. 2, 1928, into a family steeped in music on her paternal side.

Her Ukrainian grandfather (at the time Ukraine was part of the Russian empire) was a principal trumpet player in Kiev’s symphony orchestra before fleeing anti-Jewish pogroms. He settled in London, where he made a scant living playing in coffeehouses. Other members of the family moved to the United States, and a cousin of Mrs. Bromberg, the multi-instrumentalist David Bromberg, became one of Bob Dylan’s favorite guitarists, playing on several of his albums.

Her father, Michael Bromberg, became an orchestral viola player in Britain, including with the Scottish National Orchestra, while her mother, Rose Lyons, was a seamstress.

Young Sheila first took piano lessons from a paternal uncle and was an accomplished classical pianist before studying harp from the age of 14 at the Royal College of Music in London. She graduated in 1949 and that same year married Sydney Laurence, a shoe trader and owner of a fishing and sports shop.

Mrs. Bromberg played harp in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and the BBC Concert Orchestra, among other ensembles. She also performed in the orchestral pit of the musical “Phantom of the Opera” during its long London run.

She earned a few extra “quid” (pounds) as a recording session musician not only for British artists but also for foreigners who came to London to get the “swinging Sixties” vibe, including Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Bing Crosby, for whom she played on one of his best-selling Christmas albums.

Her marriage ended in divorce. In addition to her son, survivors include a daughter, Naomi Venables, a leading events organizer in Britain; and five grandchildren.

After retiring from performing, Mrs. Bromberg dedicated her life to teaching music, latterly to children with learning difficulties. At 70, she obtained a degree in music therapy from the University of Greenwich in London and gave “humanistic counseling” to mentally challenged children at St. Lawrence’s hospital in Caterham, south of London, well into her 80s, encouraging them to respond instinctively to her piano or harp.

Referring to her part in “Sgt. Pepper” in a 2011 interview with the Oxford Mail newspaper, she said: “I feel very grateful to have been chosen to have been on it. And I feel very proud that that piece of work has given such a tremendous amount of pleasure to everyone. But what amazes me, of all the music I’ve performed in, I’m noted for four bars of music. I found that a little bit bizarre.”

Read more Washington Post obituaries