Born Lawrence Cecil Adler, on the 10 Feb. 1914. Generally acknowledged as the best and most prominent mouth organ player ever.
Larry Adler began playing the mouth organ at the age of 13. He had been enrolled in the Peabody School of Music to study the piano, but was expelled for playing “Yes, We Have No Bananas” instead of his recital. He joined a mouth organ class – unable to read music – and learned by ear. At the age of 14 he won his section of an eisteddfod (playing Mozart – the main judge was the conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra…what chance did St. Louis Blues have?!) and ran away to New York and went on the stage.
Adler played in theatres and movies, occasionally appearing in them, and accompanied such people as Fred Astaire. He toured during World War II, entertaining the troops with Jack Benny and with Ingrid Bergman – with whom he had an affair. It was Bergman who persuaded him to learn to read music.
Larry wrote the soundtrack for the film “Genevieve” – his arrangement with the producers was that his payment would be a percentage of the profits – they couldn’t afford to pay him up front. As Adler says: “…my children went to college on ‘Genevieve’.” Larry Adler had been blacklisted in the US at the time (“I was suspected of trying to overthrow the US Government with a chromatic mouth organ”) and the cinemas were given a copy of “Genevieve” with Adler’s name removed. When the score was nominated for an Oscar, the producers submitted instead the name of the conductor. “Genevieve” didn’t win, and 32 years afterwards, in 1987, the Academy sent Adler his nomination certificate.
Adler could name drop with the best of them – but then, he’d earned the right. He was friends with some of the greatest names in show-business – George and Ira Gershwin, Ingrid Bergman, Charlie Chaplin, Sir Elton John…the list seems endless. Maurice Ravel gave Adler the right in perpetuity to play his Boléro without paying a performance fee – a fact that he reminded audiences of every time he played it: (“We’re now going to play it…FREE!”) Works have been written for him by various musicians, including Ralph Vaughan-Williams and Gordon Jacobs. He had certainly earned his friends’ loyalty – the fact that his blacklisted status continued was greatly to do with the fact that he would not accuse his friends of conspiracy. Shopping your friends was about the only way to get off the blacklist.
Larry played in some amazing places and did some amazing things. Gritchka has already referred to the first time Adler played the Rhapsody in Blue by Gershwin. In 1945 just after the war, he played the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” while standing on the balcony of Hitler’s Reichschancellery, with Ingrid Bergman reading the Gettysburg Address. He did this in concerts several times, as Bergman made him a recording with which to do it. He also cherished the memory of playing Rhapsody in Blue in the Nuremberg stadium where Hitler rallied his troops – a Jewish musician playing a work by a Jewish composer.
Larry Adler was an amazing guy. He kept performing almost to the end – he was 87 and still considering his next concert, despite his battles with cancer. He used a wheelchair in his later years – when I went to his concert in 2000 he came on in a wheelchair (and carpet slippers…). Several of his fingers on each hand were paralysed, he couldn’t sign an autograph. And yet he kept going. The man was pure show-biz, and his death in 2001 was a huge loss to the music world.
Acknowledgements: All quotations come from the Larry Adler concert in Sydney, 2000, or from the Larry Adler Live CD from 1997. Information from the CD notes, and from http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/music/198252.stm.