Obituary: Alan Hawkshaw, musician

Alan Hawkshaw, who has died at 84, was a Leeds-born musician who was among the most prolific of his generation. If his name and face were unknown to most of his listeners, his tunes were almost certainly on their lips.

Alan Hawkshaw

Alan Hawkshaw, who has died at 84, was a Leeds-born musician who was among the most prolific of his generation. If his name and face were unknown to most of his listeners, his tunes were almost certainly on their lips.

He specialised in TV themes and “library music”, the catalogues of instrumental jingles and symphonies from which background music is often drawn. His output took in the title music for Grange Hill and, perhaps most famously, Countdown, for which he also contributed the familiar eight notes played as the clock counts to zero.

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Other shows for which he composed the signature themes included Channel 4 News, Dave Allen at Large, and another Yorkshire-produced series, Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World.

As a session musician, Hawkshaw played keyboards on some 7,000 recording sessions with top-line artistes such as Olivia Newton-John, Serge Gainsbourg, Tom Jones, Barbra Streisand and David Bowie.

But it was the royalties from his TV music – often generating a fee each time they were heard – that were his bread and butter. For some 40 years, he donated a significant portion of these earnings to the Alan Hawkshaw Foundation at Leeds College of Music, which allows gifted young musicians from underprivileged backgrounds to study at the National Film & Television School and what is now the Leeds Conservatoire.

It was his way of giving something back into his home city.

William Alan Hawkshaw was born in the Meanwood district in March 1937, the youngest of four sons of Walter Hawkshaw, who was also a pianist, and Lillian (née Parker). Alan learnt to play the piano by ear, without giving a thought to formal tuition.

He left school at 15 to become a printer’s apprentice at Knight and Forster. But he had already established a reputation as a reliable keyboardist with groups on the city’s burgeoning music circuit.

One of those bands, the Crescendos, turned professional, and in 1960 Hawkshaw gave up his day job when they were offered a summer season in Blackpool. It lasted only a couple of months, and his services were dispensed with when the other band members realised they would no longer be able to afford him.

He jumped ship to Emile Ford and the Checkmates, who had a number one hit with What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For at the beginning of the 1960s, and went on TV and on tour with them. One gig took them to Hamburg, where they socialised with another British outfit serving their time there – The Beatles. John Lennon asked Hawkshaw what it was like to play on television. Later, the Checkmates appeared on the same bill as The Rolling Stones.

By the late 1960s Hawkshaw was in demand as a session musician, including on one occasion for John Peel’s Top Gear programme on Radio 1 with a young David Bowie.

In 1969 Hank Marvin recruited him for the Shadows’ tour of Japan, and he went on to work as musical director for Olivia Newton-John and collaborated with Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg.

Earlier this year, he received a British Empire Medal for service to the music industry.

In 1968, after an early first marriage was dissolved, he married Christiane Bieberbach and she survives him with a daughter, the singer Kirsty Hawkshaw, and a son, Sheldon.