Forced to leave the country of his birth by the hostile political climate of the early 1950s, world-famous harmonica player Larry Adler never let this exile silence his musical genius. During his lifetime, Adler transformed his humble instrument of choice—the harmonica—into a widely respected musical instrument, worthy of performances before some of the world’s best-known symphony orchestras. Adler died on August 6, 2001, in London’s St. Thomas’s Hospital at the age of 87.
Describing himself simply as a mouth-organist, Adler remained active in music into his early 80s. A number of the biggest names in contemporary music—Sting, Meat Loaf, Kate Bush, Sinéad O’Connor, and Peter Gabriel—joined Adler on The Glory of Gershwin, a recording released on the musician’s eightieth birthday. He made a final tour of Japan, Australia, and New Zealand in 1996, and two years later on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Radio 2, he presented Larry Adler’s Century, a show packed with anecdotes and other reminiscences from his rich musical past.
Lawrence Cecil Adler was born on February 10, 1914, in Baltimore, Maryland, to Orthodox Jews. Both his parents were recent immigrants from Russia. Adler grew up listening to religious music and at the age of ten became the youngest cantor—a synagogue official who leads the congregation in singing or chanting prayers—in Baltimore. Eager to broaden his musical skills, Adler enrolled in the city’s prestigious Peabody Conservatory of Music, where he hoped to learn to play the piano. He was not in Peabody’s piano training program for long, however, before he was abruptly dismissed for being “incorrigible, untalented, and entirely lacking in ear.” Left to his own devices, Adler decided to pursue the piano lessons on his own, ordering a piano for his home without the permission of his parents. Impressed by the ten-year-old’s chutzpah, or self-confidence, the music store’s owner delivered to the Adler residence not just the piano, but a harmonica as well. In no time at all, Adler had this new musical instrument mastered, playing the harmonica along with songs he heard on the radio.
Adler’s first musical triumph outside the synagogue came in 1927 when he won the Maryland Harmonica Championship. The 13-year-old performed Beethoven’s “Minuet in G,” a far more impressive musical feat than anything offered by his competitors, most of whom stuck to more traditional, folksy harmonica fare. Soon after this victory and over the objections of his horrified parents, Adler headed to New York City to look for work in the motion picture industry, which at that time had not yet made the move to Hollywood. His first job was providing live entertainment between film features at Paramount movie theaters around the New York metropolitan area. During this same period, Adler also made something of a name for himself in vaudeville and won parts in the Flo Ziegfeld revue Smile, as well
Born Lawrence Cecil Adler on February 10, 1914, in Baltimore, MD; died on August 6, 2001, in London, England; son of Louis (a plumber) and Sadie Hack Adler (a homemaker); married Eileen Walser, 1938; divorced, 1959; married Sally Cline, 1967; divorced, 1976; children: (with Walser) Carole, Peter, and Wendy; (with Cline) Katelyn.
Mastered piano and harmonica largely on his own; received top prize in a Baltimore harmonica contest, 1927; moved to New York City shortly thereafter; worked sporadically in vaudeville; became a major stage figure in Europe, 1930s; returned to the United States, appeared as soloist with the Chicago Women’s Symphony, 1939; moved to Britain after being blacklisted in Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communist investigation, early 1950s; toured and recorded extensively.
as Lew Leslie’s Clowns in Clover. In both the Ziegfeld and Leslie revues, Adler presented a routine in which he portrayed a street urchin playing for money. In time he graduated to working in films themselves, appearing in motion pictures with such stars as Fred Astaire and Eddie Cantor.
Adler had a weakness for fine clothes and leaped at a chance to appear in the film Many Happy Returns, released in 1934, because it called for him to wear a dinner jacket. His appearance in Many Happy Returns brought an offer of a spot in an upcoming London revue. When the revue’s producers promised that he could appear in fashionable attire, Adler promptly signed on for the project. The trip to London soon brought another revelation: audiences on the other side of the Atlantic were far more receptive to harmonica music than their counterparts in America. For much of the rest of the 1930s, Adler played venues throughout Europe to enthusiastic audiences eager to hear his unique brand of music. Sales of harmonicas skyrocketed. One clear indicator of how his star had risen came in 1938 when Adler received fourth billing—after stage greats Charles Laughton, Vivien Leigh, and Rex Harrison—in the film Sidewalks of London. That same year brought Adler’s first marriage to popular model Eileen Walser. The two eventually had three children: Carole, Peter, and Wendy. The couple divorced in 1959.
After his heady success in Europe, Adler’s return to the United States in 1939 presented him with a unique challenge: winning a following for his music in his own country. He found a new audience for the harmonica when he appeared as a soloist with the Chicago Women’s Symphony later that year. Music critics lavished praise on Adler for his interpretations of classical music, and he soon played engagements with a number of major symphony orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic and the Cleveland Symphony. In the early 1940s, Adler teamed with dancer Paul Draper to perform in a worldwide tour. Together they spent much of their time entertaining American troops, both at home and abroad. Something of a pioneer in the civil rights movement, Adler was among the first white entertainers to insist on integrated seating for his military performances.
In the years following the end of World War II, the United States became increasingly concerned that communism would spread into virtually all aspects of American life. An enthusiastic backer of Henry Wallace—Progressive Party candidate for president in the 1948 election—Adler was identified in print as a Communist sympathizer by the wife of a Time magazine photo editor. Adler sued for libel, but the jury deadlocked, leaving open the question of Adler’s loyalties, at least in the mind of the public. A number of upcoming engagements were cancelled, and Adler found the climate so hostile that he felt compelled to leave the country for England in the early 1950s.
If his political enemies thought they could silence Adler’s music, they were sadly mistaken, as he remained musically active for most of the rest of the twentieth century. Shortly after moving to England, Adler became very active in composing soundtracks for motion pictures. He supplied the music for a number of films; he is perhaps best known for his work on Genevieve, released in 1954, for which the musical score was nominated for an Academy Award. Sadly for Adler, the American controversy over his supposed political sympathies meant that the British-made film did not carry his name in the credits when it was screened in the United States. As a consequence, when the film’s score received the Academy Award nomination, Adler’s name was not listed as composer. Adler’s score for Genevieve did not win the Academy Award. It wasn’t until more than 30 years later that the Academy officially acknowledged Adler as the composer of this nominated score.
In addition to his work on film scores, Adler toured extensively from his new home base in the United Kingdom. He returned to the United States frequently for solo performances with symphony orchestras and for other kinds of performances as well. A longtime fan of George Gershwin’s music, Adler introduced at the 1963 Edinburgh Festival a little-known Gershwin composition entitled “Lullaby Time.” In the mid-1960s he toured the United Kingdom and other European countries in a one-man show called “Hand to Mouth.”
In 1967, Adler married Sally Cline. The couple had one child, Katelyn. They were divorced in 1976. Throughout his life, Adler had a passionate interest in the game of tennis. One of his most memorable moments came when he played in a doubles match with comedian Charlie Chaplin, actress Greta Garbo, and artist Salvador Dali.
By the late 1960s, his popularity much diminished from his heyday, Adler had settled into a somewhat lower-profile life devoted largely to composition. He continued to perform from time to time, but mostly within the United Kingdom. A resurgence of interest in Adler’s work came when he agreed to guest on Sting’s 1993 album Ten Summoner’s Tales, a favor the singer returned a year later when he—along with Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Meat Loaf, and Sinéad O’Connor—guested on Adler’s The Glory of Gershwin, released on Adler’s eightieth birthday. In 1998, Adler delighted British radio listeners with tales of the highs and lows of his life in music. That year BBC Radio 2 premiered Larry Adler’s Century, a retrospective on Adler’s musical career, spiced up with plenty of anecdotal humor from the musician himself.
Live at the Ballroom, Newport Classic, 1986.
Larry Adler in the Thirties, Living Era, 1995.
The Great Larry Adler, Flapper, 1996.
Rhapsody in Blue, Empress Recording Company, 1996.
Harmonica Virtuoso, Legacy International, 1997.
Reuters, August 7, 2001.
Washington Post, August 8, 2001, p. B6.
“Artist Biography: Larry Adler,” Musicplex, http://www.musicplex.com/c_listen_artistbio.cfm?aid=6209 (October 1, 2001).
“Larry Adler: Biography,” Yahoo! Music, http://musicfinder.yahoo.com/shop?d=hc&id=1800209212&cf=11&intl=us (September 12, 2001).
On the short list of musicians who have played the harmonica at a virtuoso level, Larry Adler (1914–2001) ranks at or near the top. His musical skills were matched by an outsized personality that delighted interviewers, attracted some of the top musicians of the 20th century as collaborators over his seven-decade career, and awakened memories of the classic era of Broadway entertainment in which Adler's career got its start.
Adler brought a level of respectability to the harmonica, often regarded as primarily an instrument played by enthusiastic amateurs. He preferred the term "mouth organ" to "harmonica," and he crossed into the realm of classical music, playing with symphony orchestras and commissioning works from prestigious composers. His playing was lyrical, often melancholy. Yet the public also prized Adler for his fund of stories about the rich, famous, and beautiful. He numbered physicist Albert Einstein and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff among his friends, and, an enthusiastic tennis player, he once participated in a doubles match with comedian Charlie Chaplin, actress Greta Garbo, and surrealist artist Salvador Dali. He and Chaplin won.
Family Changed Name to Advance Alphabetically
Lawrence Cecil Adler was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on February 10, 1914. His parents were Russian Jewish immigrants (and fluent Yiddish speakers) who had changed the family name from Zelakovitch because they were tired of waiting at the end of long alphabetically organized lines in offices. Though they had faced discrimination in Russia, they told their son not to play with any of the African-American children in the neighborhood. Adler showed his stubborn streak for perhaps the first time by trying to make as many black friends as he could find, and he often spoke out in favor of civil rights later in his life.
Adler seemed to show musical talent, becoming a cantor in the local synagogue by the time he was ten. His parents signed him up for piano lessons and were even talked into buying a piano on an installment plan. The owner of the music store where they made the purchase threw in a harmonica as part of the deal, and Adler took to that instrument enthusiastically. When he enrolled in classes at Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory of Music, however, it was with the intention of studying piano. His lessons there came to an end after one semester (according to London, England's Guardian newspaper) when a teacher at a recital offended him by asking "What are we going to play, little man?" Adler substituted "Yes, We Have No Bananas" for the Grieg waltz he had planned, and he was thrown out of the program. Undaunted, Adler entered a Baltimore Sun harmonica contest and won, playing a minuet by Beethoven instead of the simple folk tunes the other contestants offered.
Not long after that, at the age of fourteen, Adler left Baltimore for New York with seven dollars in his pocket. Playing on the streets and auditioning wherever he could, he was turned down by a group called Borrah Minevitch and His Harmonica Rascals but was befriended by singer Rudy Vallee, who steered him toward work playing on the soundtracks of Mickey Mouse cartoons. That led to a nationwide tour playing the harmonica at intermission in movie houses, and then to opening-act slots for the likes of Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny, and Fred Astaire—top entertainers who straddled the divide between live musical shows and the growing world of cinema.
The teenage Adler was spotted by a British promoter and invited to try his luck across the Atlantic. Before he left, he managed to improvise a performance of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue on the harmonica, with Gershwin himself accompanying on piano, although he had never tried to play the highly virtuosic piece before. Adler became an instant hit in England, spending several years there in the mid-1930s as the featured attraction in a musical revue called "Tune Inn." Larry Adler fan clubs were formed all over Britain, and his popularity there would stand him in good stead later on. At the time, however, Adler decided to return to the United States and reactivate his Broadway and Hollywood connections. He had no trouble landing parts in such films as The Singing Marine (starring Dick Powell), The Big Broadcast of 1937 and St. Martin's Lane (1938). Gangster Al Capone was another Adler friend.
Claimed Affair with Ingrid Bergman
At that time, Adler did not know how to read music. He did learn the skill, however, around the early 1940s, saying that he had been inspired to do so by either French composer Darius Milhaud or Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman (depending on the interview). Adler entertained U.S. troops on USO tours during World War II, and at one appearance in Augsburg, Germany, he was quoted as saying in the San Diego Union-Tribune, that Bergman entered the room, complimented him on his playing, and asked him if he was going to notate the tune. "No, I can't, and I don't need to," Adler recalled saying, to which Bergman retorted, "You're very smug, aren't you? You're ignorant, and you're proud of your ignorance." According to Adler, he and Bergman embarked on a two-year affair although each was already married; Adler and his first wife, British model Eileen Walser, had three children before divorcing; his second marriage, to British journalist Sally Cline, produced another daughter.
After the war, Adler's increasing musical sophistication began to show. He once filled in for Miles Davis at New York's famous Village Vanguard jazz club when the trumpeter failed to show up for a gig, and he appeared with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. But his efforts on behalf of the troops during the war were not enough to save him from the anti-Communist frenzy that overtook the U.S. in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Adler found that jobs were drying up as left-leaning performers such as himself and Paul Draper, a dancer with whom he often worked, were blacklisted by Hollywood studios that tried to avoid running afoul of crusading Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin and his campaign to root out the Communist influences he perceived as having infiltrated U.S. politics and culture.
When a Connecticut woman wrote a letter to a newspaper accusing Adler and Draper of Communist sympathies in 1948, Adler and Draper sued. The case dragged out for three years, draining the resources of the pair, and it ended in a hung jury in September of 1951. Shortly after that, Adler departed for Britain. Though he would sometimes return to the U.S. to perform after McCarthy was discredited and the anti-Communist hysteria died down, he lived in Britain for the rest of his life.
Building on the name he had made for himself in the 1930s, Adler succeeded in adapting his performing repertoire to the greater frequency with which classical music was heard in Britain. Some of Europe's best-known composers expanded the tiny classical harmonica repertoire with new compositions for Adler, including the Romance for Mouth Organ, Piano, and Strings by Ralph Vaughan Williams and concertos by Malcolm Arnold an Darius Milhaud. Composer William Walton (as quoted in the Guardian) even said that "the only two young musical geniuses in the world are [violinist] Yehudi Menuhin and Larry Adler." Adler composed the score for the 1953 film Genevieve, which garnered an Academy Award nomination even though Adler's name was stripped from American prints of the film. He composed scores for several more British films, including The Hellions (1961) and King and Country (1963). In 1963 he premiered "Lullaby Time," a George Gershwin work given to him by the composer's brother Ira.
Wrote Restaurant Reviews
The positive side of Adler's exile in England was that he fit easily into British life. He learned to play cricket, and when he tried to explain the rules of that arcane British sport to Einstein, the great physicist said (according to an Adler recollection quoted by a letter writer in London's Independent), "You know, Larry, I used to think time was relative, but suddenly I'm not so sure." Adler branched out beyond music, writing a book called Jokes and How to Tell Them and contributing articles to the Spectator and New Statesman periodicals. He served as restaurant reviewer for a magazine called Harpers & Queen. Quick with a one-liner, he told the same Independent letter writer, when she asked whether he had been christened Larry, "Honey, they've done some terrible things to Jews over the years, but christening wasn't one of them."
Adler had played "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" on the balcony of Adolf Hitler's abandoned headquarters as American troops overran Berlin at the end of World War II, and he became a supporter of the young nation of Israel, performing there during the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Harboring little bitterness toward the U.S., he frequently returned there to perform, and he and Paul Draper staged a reunion at New York's Carnegie Hall in 1975. He never renounced his American citizenship, but he deplored the country's new rightward drift during the later decades of the century. "I come from a generation that revered Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and I admired Harry Truman" (with whom he had once performed "The Missouri Waltz"), Adler was quoted as saying in the San Diego Union-Tribune. "But look who they had later on—Nixon and Reagan. Wow. This does not encourage respect." Though he had lived the high life in California in the 1930s, his life in Britain, in a small apartment in London's Hampstead district, was more modest.
Adler's performing career slowed in his old age but never came totally to a halt. He issued several albums that mixed classical music and pop standards, and he wrote a book of memoirs called It Ain't Necessarily So. In 1994, to mark his 80th birthday, he joined with a host of pop stars—Sting, Elton John, Elvis Costello, Kate Bush, Jon Bon Jovi, and Meat Loaf among them—to record a new album, The Glory of Gershwin. Becoming acquainted with rock musicians prompted one of Adler's rare self-deprecatory sentiments. "I knew their names but not their work," he was quoted as saying in the Union-Tribune. "That is not the kind of music I usually listen to. I realized there's more to this music than I thought. I don't like admitting I was prejudiced." The album made its debut at No. 2 on British pop charts, making Adler the oldest person to ascend to top chart levels in Britain. In 1997 he recorded a new film score, one for a compendium of silent-film chase scenes called The Great Chase.
Surviving cancer and two strokes, Adler returned to the studio to record with other rock stars. In his 87th year, he cut a duet with Cerys Matthews, a Welsh rock star. "I'm surprised not only I'm still playing, but that I'm improving as I get older," the irrepressible Adler told Simon Hattenstone of the Guardian in April of 2001. A bout with pneumonia that summer, however, ended his life in a London hospital on August 6, 2001. "Resist the pressure to conform," he advised young people, as quoted in his New York Times obituary. "Better be a lonely individualist than a contented conformist."
Adler, Larry, It Ain't Necessarily So, Collins, 1984.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), August 8, 2001.
Guardian (London, England), April 12, 2001; August 8, 2001.
Independent (London, England), October 22, 2001.
New York Times, August 8, 2001.
San Diego Union-Tribune, August 12, 2001.
Variety, August 13, 2001.
ADLER, LARRY (1914–2001), harmonica (mouth organ) player. Born in Baltimore, Adler won the Maryland Harmonica Championship at the age of 13. He first performed in revues and films, developing the technique of the 12-hole chromatic harmonica. He worked in England from 1934 to 1939, with many prominent jazz musicians. In 1939 he made his debut as a concert soloist with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. In 1940, determined to read music, he studied with Ernst Toch.
During World War ii Adler joined the dancer Paul Draper touring for U.S. organizations abroad. On his return to the U.S. in 1959, he embarked on a career as a concert performer appearing as a soloist with leading symphony orchestras. Adler was acknowledged as the first harmonica player who elevated the instrument to concert status. His repertoire included arrangements of classical works, and famous composers wrote for him such as Darius *Milhaud, R. Vaughan Williams, Gordon Jacob, and Malcolm Arnold. Adler toured extensively and broadcast frequently on radio and television. He appeared in films and composed scores for the cinema, such as Genevieve and A High Wind in Jamaica.
In 1988 Adler was made a fellow of Yale University. His cdThe Glory of Gershwin earned him a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest artist to reach the British pop charts. He also recorded as a pianist and singer and published several books, including How I Play (1936), Harmonica Favorites (1944), the autobiography It Ain't Necessarily So (1984), and Have I Ever Told You (2001).
Grove online, s.v.; Baker's Biographical Dictionary (1997).
[Naama Ramot (2nd ed.)]