The Free-Reed Journal
Articles and Essays Featuring Classical Free-Reed Instruments and Performers

Tribute to Larry Adler: 1914-2001

Larry Adler: born Lawrence Cecil Adler, 10 February 1914, Baltimore, Maryland, USA.

Died 7 August 2001, London.

Robert Barr: He Played Harmonica for Presidents and Kings
Colin Mort: Man of Many Parts

He Played Harmonica for Presidents and Kings

by Robert Barr

London: Larry Adler, the harmonica virtuoso who charmed kinds, commoners and composers with an instrument once disparaged as a toy, died Tuesday [August 7, 2001] of pneumonia. He was 87.

Mr. Adler played with the greats -- George Gershwin, Paul Whiteman, Jack Benny, Django Reinhardt and, late in life, Sting. Ralph Vaughan Williams, Malcolm Arnold, Darius Milhaud and Joaquin Rodrigo composed for him. Billie Holiday told him, "Man, you don't play that thing -- you sing it."

At heart, Mr. Adler remained the brash teenager who caused gasps in Britain by striding up to King George V to shake his hand, rather than bowing. When Mr. Adler played at the White House, President Harry Truman accompanied "The Missouri Waltz," When the music ended, Adler cracked: "You're a hell of a better president than you are a pianist."

He caught the showbiz bug growing up in Baltimore, reputedly entertaining players at a local pool hall at age 2 by singing "I've Got Those Profiteering Blues." At 10 he was the youngest cantor in the city, and got a place at the Peabody School of Music -- which shortly dismissed him as "incorrigible, untalented, and entirely lacking in ear."

At 14 he ran away to New York City, and sneaked into Rudy Vallee's dressing room to plead for a break. "You're a novelty, kid," he recalled Vallee telling him. "Save your money because once they hear you, that's it. They'll never want to hear it again." Vallee nonetheless hired him to play at the Heigh-Ho Club, and helped Mr. Adler get a job playing harmonica for Mickey mouse cartoons.

Mr. Adler became hugely popular in Britain in the 1930s after playing in a London revue called "Streamline." Fan clubs sprouted all over the country, and the composer William Walton said, "The only two young musical geniuses in the world are Yehudi Menuhin and Larry Adler." Mr. Adler teamed with dancer Paul Draper in 1941, a paring that lasted until 1949, and he toured with Jack Benny to entertain troops during World War II.

In 1947 his earlier activity in anti-fascist groups led to a summons from the House Committee on Un-American Activities. "My agent called me and said, 'Unless you're willing to come back to the States, make a complete public, noncommunist affidavit, and then go before the Un-American Activities Committee and name names, it's not worthwhile your coming back,' "Mr. Adler recalled in a 1995 interview. So he stayed in Britain. Mr. Adler's score for the 1953 film "Genevieve" was nominated for an Oscar, though in someone else's name. He was not acknowledged as the true composer until 31 years later.

One of Mr. Adler's favorite stories was about a party in Chicago, where a guest asked him whether he attended synagogue faithfully and wrote to his parents. Adler replied that he wrote every couple of weeks. As he told the tale to NPR, the man said:

"'What kind of kid are you? Look, kid, get your coat, go back to your hotel, sit down and write your mother and father a letter. And this Saturday, I don't give a damn how many shows you got to do, you're going to go to shul like a good Jewish boy.'

"And I went over to the comedian in my show, and I said, 'Who's that busybody I was talking to?' He said, 'You're kidding,' I said, 'What's his name?' He said, 'Al Capone.'"

Man of Many Parts

by Colin Mort
Chairman of NHL 1987-2000

So much has been written detailing every aspect of Larry's life that it must be public knowledge. During the week following his death there has been a torrent of correspondence about Larry on the internet. It has been impossible to read it all. Much of it reiterates public knowledge. However, there are several more personal tributes (and one or two criticisms, which have provoked strong responses). I wonder if anyone else has ever been so widely remembered. I will try to give you a more personal view of a man I would dearly love to claim was a friend.

One internet message that says it all came from Michael Easton

"I would like to make a suggestion as a tribute all of us could be involved in. That would be for all the members of mouth organ list groups (harp-l, harpOn, HarpTalk, slidemeister) to voluntarily set late Friday evening to Sunday morning (NY/Baltimore Time since Baltimore is his birthplace) of this week as a day of silence to show respect for the man who elevated the mouth organ to the level of respect it CAN deserve. In other words we voluntarily not post any messages from midnight (NY time) Friday until midnight Saturday."

The Funeral, etc.

Larry Adler died during the evening of 6th August 2001 at the St. Thomas Hospital, London aged 87 surrounded by his family.

>From Roger Trobridge, current Chairman of the NHL,

"Larry Adler's funeral was held on Friday afternoon, 10th August in London, at a small service for close friends and family. The following message was read out on behalf of mouth organ players everywhere. He was the torch bearer. He lit the way for the many mouth organ players who were inspired by his style, technique and musicality. More than just the best mouth organ player, he was the consummate professional entertainer and performer to the end. He opened many doors through which others have since passed. There can never be another."

The funeral took the form of a non religious service as requested by Larry. His son, Peter organised first family members, then friends to give tributes which lasted for about two hours, and were followed by the reading of tributes. Then Peter invited family and friends to join him for drinks at his home. Harry Pitch who was a personal friend of Larry's was the only mouth organ player present and is a representative of the NHL. Harry spoke eloquently about Larry as a mouth organ player. In effect what he said can be summarised as, "Larry Adler equals Mouth Organ."

Many obituaries have reported that Larry is survived by a son and three daughters, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. His brother Jerry seems to have been largely hidden in his shadow - undeservedly. Where Larry won that contest in Baltimore playing "Minuet in G", his brother, five years his junior played the minuet five years later to win the same contest. Many correspondents on the internet remember a SPAH Convention at which the brothers played together. We listened to a cassette of Jerry's music at our monthly get together on 12th August. It was great. Jerry should not be forgotten. He is family too and admired and loved his elder brother deeply.

There will be a special memorial service for Larry, probably some time in October in London. It is for close friends and family and will be by invitation only. The contact is Gloria Leighton, 39 Viceroy Court, Prince Albert Rd., St. Johns Wood, London NW8 7PR.

The Musician

Larry's stature as a musician and as a mouth organ player is well documented and well known. An example of the performances that kept Larry and the mouth organ in the public eye, and popular: Sting is halfway through his sell-out concert to 6,000 people at the Albert Hall in London. Larry enters unannounced, takes up his place and goes straight into the backing. As he finishes the number Sting sweeps a hand in Larry's direction and announces, Mister Larry Adler." No more. The audience rises to give a standing ovation - this night and every other night of the show. Larry has bridged the generations incomparably - His CD, "The Glory of Gershwin", produced by Sir George Martin and recorded with a bevy of modern stars is further evidence of this. Cher, Sting, Sir Elton John, Robert Palmer, John Bon Jovi, Meatloaf, Carly Simon, Elvis Costello, Lisa Stansfield, Peter Gabriel and Sinead O'Connor: what a line-up! (1994 Phonogram Ltd, London - 522 727 - 2) In a newscast a couple of days after Larry's death Sting said of him, "He was one of the youngest old men I ever met. He was a great man. Sadly missed."

"The only two young musical geniuses in the world are Yehudi Menuhin and Larry Adler." - The late composer Sir William Walton. Says it all!

My personal view - Larry's great success as a musician was that when he played to an audience, it was always for the audience; a communication of the music rather than a demonstration of what he could do with the mouth organ. Even so, what he could do technically was amazing! I once heard him play at the King's Theatre in Portsmouth. He was playing every reed a semitone flat to accommodate a singer - an incomparable technical feat - but few in the audience would have known it. The music and the performance came first.

Of course, Larry wasn't just a player. He composed music too. My favourites are "Genevieve" and "Screws Blues". He was a teacher too, befriending talented youngsters like Antonio Serrano Dal Mas.

Larry for President!

Soon after following John Walton as President of the National mouth organ League (UK) I changed my title to "Chairman", and invited Larry to become our President. I wrote to him as the "Grand Old Man of the mouth organ". His reply was typical of his sharp sense of humour, "I don't know about "Grand Old Man", more like "Dirty Old Man . . .". He was pleased to become our President, and lend us his name; what a name! More than a figurehead, he supported us faithfully, coming to perform at our events without fee, thus helping promote our club.

Larry Committed.

I'd like to tell you about Larry's sense of commitment. In 1993 he was due to come to our NHL festival at Ely. He had lunch at his favourite restaurant in London - chez Baroness Tatiana von Sax, I think. A (large) customer was being rude to the lady, and Larry stepped between them and remonstrated with the man. For his pains he was punched in the mouth, but he retired gracefully to eat his meal. Despite the great pain, he took a train (!) to Ely and performed for us. He was clearly shaky as he climbed the steps to the stage. He had made a commitment, and whatever happened he would honour it.

He was booked for another of our festivals in 1998, but his doctor had given him medicine which caused his mouth to swell, and made it impossible to play - for several months. He was devastated. Can you imagine a Harley Street Doctor being so inconsiderate? Perhaps he hated the mouth organ? Can you imagine the most apologetic man in the world telling me he wouldn't be able to come?

Larry was quite ill in hospital, but the request to play at the Duke of Edinburgh's 80th birthday celebration prompted him to leave the hospital to do the show - at the Albert Hall, where else! His entry in a wheelchair earned him a standing ovation. I always believed Larry would follow Dame Nellie Melba who died singing a song - substitute mouth organ. I'd like to believe he did.

The Writer

Larry wrote for The Sunday Times, Punch, The Spectator and New Statesman. He was also a restaurant critic for Harpers and Queen magazine. In Who's Who, he listed his "obsession" as writing letters to Private Eye, the satirical biweekly. Larry may have been the top earning performer in the USA in any field before being driven out by McCarthy, but it is rumoured that he earned even more money writing than playing the mouth organ.

Integrity - A Time to forget

McCarthy - how many people bowed to the pressure and saved their own skins at the expense of others? Larry stood out as a shining example. Friendship and loyalty were not to be sacrificed. Instead he sacrificed his career in the USA and was even denied credit for the award winning music he wrote for the film, Genevieve.

Mr Ego, or is it Mr Modesty?

Others have written about Larry's enormous ego. In 1987 Jim Hughes ran a World Championship in Jersey. Larry was to perform in one of the evening concerts. I saw him before the show and said how much I was looking forward to hearing him play. Guess what he replied! "I hope you won't be disappointed."

Larry didn't like the diatonic harmonica. Someone, a blues enthusiast, said in an internet posting, "Can someone please give me some reasons not to think that he was a bit egoistical?... I don't take it personally, but, I cannot respect his statements."

Doug Tate, President of SPAH responded, "Having known the guy as an acquaintance, tech person and sort of friend for a third of a century I can say without hesitation that Larry Adler was egotistical, loud mouthed , bigheaded and many other words like this on stage in interview and to an audience... and without being like that he would not have been able to do what he did for the mouth organ.

I can also say that Larry Adler was a kind, generous, witty, deep thinking, erudite man in his private life and a public life which many didn't hear about.

Now, if someone were to quote me I wonder which of the above statements, both of which were true would be plastered in headlines.

I believe that I can say without contradiction from anyone who knew him or heard him over any length of time, that he went further and faster and more widely than any other single mouth organ playing individual in the last century. He took his mouth organ from bars to palaces, from the film theatres to the greatest concert halls, literally thousands of players were touched by him, amazed by what he could do and catapulted forward in their own playing by the sheer vitality of what he was doing. Adler played by sick kids bedsides, on top of tanks in the desert in wartime, he played to gangsters, Kings and Queens, with symphony orchestras, for balletic Dance, had films written round him, wrote film scores. He had some of the greatest composers of the 20th Century writing for him.

This man, with little or no education, mixed with and amazed the finest musicians in the world in genres including popular, Jazz and Classical, he played with and was accepted by the great in the arts and music. He was truly an amazing individual and twice, to my knowledge, was called "the finest musician of the century". Even in his eighties he was breaking new ground and is the oldest recorded artist to sell over a million CDs (discs of any sort I believe). Yes Adler was not only proud of what he had done, he constantly proved why he was so great over 70+ years in the business. There are, and were, many other great mouth organ playing artists but I cannot think of one who did as much which was new, interesting and vibrant in such a wide sense. Most of the others we can all think of tend to be narrow in comparison.

Whilst writing this it came to me that I have never heard Adler say how good his playing was. I have, on the other hand heard him praise the abilities of others, even those whose style he was not fond of. At one stage I believe he said he would love to be able to play like Sony Terry.

Bigheaded? Egotistical.... um, I wonder what the persona of ANY player on this list is when on stage or in the glare of publicity. Rest in peace Larry.

When I finished my time as chair of the NHL my successor, Roger Trobridge, presented me with a CD - It started with a few kind words from Larry, and continued with some recordings of his music. He had also signed it and it is a memento that I treasure.

We will all miss Larry.


from Yahoo! Music

Larry Adler preferred to be described simply as a "mouth-organist" - yet he was arguably the most accomplished and celebrated exponent of the instrument there has ever been. His orthodox Judaism gave him the opportunity to train in religious music, and he became a cantor at the age of 10. He sang, and learned to play the piano and mouth-organ by ear from listening to phonograph records, and could not actually read music until 1941. After being expelled from the Peabody Conservatory of Music, he won the Maryland Harmonica Championship in 1927. Shortly afterwards, he ran away to New York and joined one of the Paramount units, playing in movie theatres between features. He was also presented as a "ragged urchin" ("just in from the street, folks!") in vaudeville, and in Lew Leslie's revue, Clowns In Clover (1928). He also served as Eddie Cantor's stooge for a time, and accompanied Fred Astaire in Florenz Ziegfeld's Smiles.

His lifelong admiration and appreciation of George Gershwin began when he was introduced to the composer by Paul Whiteman, and his interpretations of Gershwin's works, especially Porgy And Bess and "Rhapsody In Blue" (on which Adler was sometimes accompanied by a piano-roll made by Gershwin himself), are definitive. (Many years later in 1981, Adler's haunting version of Gershwin's "Summertime" played a significant role in the success of the enormously popular UK ice dancers Torvill and Dean.) In 1934, after further specialty roles on stage in Flying Colors and on film in Paramount's Many Happy Returns (the first of his five movies), in which he was backed by Duke Ellington's Orchestra, Adler was spotted at New York's Palace Theatre by the English producer Charles B. Cochran, who engaged him for the London revue Streamline. Shortly after the show opened, sales of mouth-organs in the UK increased by several thousand per cent, and fan clubs proliferated. Adler played the top nightclubs, and the 1937 revue Tune Inn was built around him. After marrying top model Eileen Walser, he toured South Africa and Australia before returning to the USA in 1939, where he gained national recognition in the classical field when he appeared as a soloist with the Chicago Women's Symphony Orchestra.

During the 40s, Adler appeared at Carnegie Hall with the dancer Paul Draper, and toured with him extensively in the USA, Africa and the Middle East, entertaining troops, and insisting on a non-segregation policy between whites and blacks at concerts. Adler also entertained in the South Pacific with artists such as Carol Landis, Martha Tilton and comedian Jack Benny, and worked consistently for the war effort and the Allied forces. He was "on duty" again in 1951 during the Korean conflict. By then, as a high-profile liberal, he had been included on McCarthy's "communist" blacklist, and moved to live and work in England, only for the "red spectre" to follow him even there. In 1954, he was forced by the Rank film organization to give up his billing rights on US prints of the classic comedy film Genevieve, for which he had written the gentle but highly distinctive score. The music was duly nominated for an Academy Award, and an embarrassed Rank could only offer orchestra conductor Muir Mathieson's name as composer. Fortunately for them it did not win the Oscar - voters preferred Dimitri Tiomkin's music for The High And The Mighty - and Adler had to wait until 1986 for the Academy's official recognition of his work.

In 1952, Adler performed at a Royal Albert Hall Promenade Concert, when he was "forced' to encore Ralph Vaughan Williams" "Romance For Mouth-Organ, Piano And Strings", a piece that had been written especially for him. In the 50s, although domiciled in the UK, Adler made frequent, although often difficult, trips to the USA and worked in many other countries of the world with major symphony orchestras. In 1963 as a soloist at the Edinburgh Festival, Adler gave the first performance of "Lullaby Time", a string quartet written by George Gershwin in 1921, and presented to Adler by Ira Gershwin. That piece, and several other unpublished works by composers such as Cole Porter, Harold Arlen and Richard Rodgers, were included on Discovery.

Adler's own most familiar composition is the music for Genevieve, but he has composed the music for other films, including The Hellions, King And Country, High Wind In Jamaica and The Great Chase. His work for television programmes and plays includes Midnight Men, along with concert pieces such as "Theme And Variations". Works have been specially written for him by Malcolm Arnold, Darius Milhaud, Arthur Benjamin, Gordon Jacobs, and others. In 1965 Adler was back at the Edinburgh Festival with his one-man show, Hand To Mouth, and in 1967 and 1973, gave his services to Israel in aid of those affected by the Six Day and Yom Kippur wars. In 1988, as busy as ever, he appeared at New York's Ballroom club with Harold Nicholas, one half of the legendary dance team the Nicholas Brothers. To many, the engagement brought back memories of Adler's tours in the 40s with his friend, tap-dancer Paul Draper. As usual on these occasions, Adler skillfully blended classical selections with a "honky-tonk jazz" approach to numbers written by the great popular songwriters of the past. The following year he performed in concert at London's Royal Albert Hall, marking his 75th birthday, accompanied by pianist John Ogden, and the Wren Orchestra conducted by Stanley Black.

During the early 90s he played regularly at the Pizza on the Park, sometimes accompanied by "The Hot Club Of London", and recalled numbers forever associated with him, such as Ravel's "Bolero". After Adler guested on Sting's 1993 album, Ten Summoner's Tales, the rock singer returned the compliment and appeared on Adler's 80th birthday celebration, The Glory Of Gershwin. They were joined by other stars from the rock world such as Meat Loaf, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel and Sinead O'Connor. The media interest generated by this project - the album just failed to reach the top of the UK album chart, although it gained Adler a place in The Guinness Book Of Records - led to him making sell-out appearances at venues such as the Jazz Cafe and the Cafe Royal. He also embarked on A Living Legend-The Final Tour late in 1994, and encored with appearances in Japan, Australia and New Zealand two years later. In 1998, he presented the BBC Radio 2 series Larry Adler's Century, which he laced with fascinating anecdotes. In the year 2001 the composer Sir John Tavener was commissioned to write a piece especially for Adler, and the cabaret space at the Pizza On The Park was re-named Larry's Room as a tribute to this great artist.

As a musician, journalist, and author, Larry Adler seemed to have met and worked with almost everyone who is (or has been) anyone in show business, politics, and many other walks of life. A tennis fanatic, he once played in a doubles match with Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, and Salvador Dali, and was always prepared to talk about it.

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