Sgt. Pepper’s Jewish harpist dies at 92

Sgt. Pepper’s Jewish harpist dies at 92

Sheila Bromberg shares a laugh with Ringo Starr on a BBC talk show in May 2011.
Sheila Bromberg shares a laugh with Ringo Starr on a BBC talk show in May 2011.

Sheila Bromberg kept busy as an in-demand harpist in London in the 1960s, but when she got a request for a gig at EMI’s Abbey Road studio from 9 p.m. to midnight she felt she couldn’t turn it down: She was, after all, a single mother of two small children.

Yet it wasn’t until the Jewish harpist heard a man with a Liverpudlian accent behind her that she realized she was about to make history.

“Well, what you got on the dots?” she recalled Paul McCartney asking her that night early in 1967. McCartney, who could not read music, wanted to hear her play the score he had dictated to Mike Leander, a music arranger.

Bromberg, who died at 92 on August 17 at a hospice in Aylesbury, England, was about to become the first woman to perform on a Beatles album. She played the harp accompaniment on “She’s Leaving Home,” the agonizing snapshot of the void between parents and a daughter, on the Beatles’ music-changing album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

In a 2011 profile on the BBC, Bromberg, who had a pitch-perfect ear for accents, mimicked McCartney struggling to explain precisely what he wanted from her and the string orchestra. “No, no, I want something, eh … ” she quoted him as saying. “He couldn’t describe it, he couldn’t express it, and he was waiting for someone to bring it out of the air.”

Bromberg and the orchestra went through three hours of takes. At midnight, Bromberg recalled, Erich Gruenberg, the German-born Jewish lead violinist who had trained in Mandatory Palestine and who also was much in demand as a session musician, “tucked his violin under his arm and said, ‘Now it is midnight, ve have to go home because ve are vorking in ze morning.’”

“Well, I suppose that’s that then,” McCartney responded, according to Bromberg.

When the album came out, she realized McCartney had gone with her first take, but dubbed it so it had a doubling effect. “That’s what he was after,” she recalled herself thinking. “Yes! Clever!”

Her delicate arpeggios set the scene for a young woman “silently closing her bedroom door, leaving the note that she hoped would say more.”

The parents’ anguish — “Daddy, our baby’s gone,” the mother cries out — cut to the bone of a generation watching their children drifting away. “Something inside that was always denied for so many years,” McCartney sings, as Bromberg’s gentle strokes reemerge at the end of the track.

Bromberg was born in London. Her paternal grandfather was a noted Jewish musician in Ukraine before fleeing the pogroms, and her father and son also were orchestral musicians.

She got nine British pounds for her Beatles gig — about $190 in today’s money. For a while, she seemed to resent that the song was the apparent apex of her career. “I’m noted for four bars of music,” she once said. “I found that a little bit bizarre.”

Jewish Telegraphic Agency

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