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.

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 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.

by Don Amerman

Larry Adler's Career

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.

Larry Adler's Awards

Duke Ellington Fellowship, Yale University, 1988.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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