Born in Baltimore on February 10, 1914, to Sadie Hack and Louis Adler, Lawrence Cecil Adler would become well known as a musician and entertainer. By age ten, Larry was the youngest “cantor” in Baltimore. He convinced his parents to let him enroll in the Peabody Conservatory of Music, but he would be dismissed as untalented. At age 11, he ordered a piano for his parents’ home and then convinced them to keep it and pay for it.
Then he taught himself to play the “mouth organ,” the harmonica. A breakthrough! Although he could not read music, he listened to records and went to concerts (he took a job selling magazines), and learned the music. He won the Maryland National Harmonica Championship in 1927, playing a Beethoven minuet. He was playing professionally by age 14, accompanying silent cartoons. In 1928 he ran away to New York.
Singer and heartthrob Rudy Vallee caught sight of him, and referred him for theatre work. Soon orchestra leader Paul Ash saw him and got him into a Vaudeville act portraying a street kid who plays for pennies.
That shtick stuck. He played a street urchin thereafter for both Flo Ziegfeld and Lew Leslie. By 1934, however, he branched out, appearing in the movie Many Happy Returns, and then got a gig in London. Also that year he performed George Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue on the harmonica, prompting Gershwin to remark, “the goddam thing sounds as if I wrote it for you!” Not only did Mr. Adler become a star in the U.K., but he influenced harmonica sales as well.
Mr. Adler’s solo orchestral debut was in 1939 with the Sydney symphony orchestra. Then he found a need to learn to read music, as French composer Jean Berger wrote a harmonica concerto for him. Major orchestral works also were written for harmonica solo by such composers as Cyril Scott, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Darius Milhaud, Arthur Benjamin, and Malcolm Arnold; most were written for Adler and he recorded most of them.
He appeared in five movies, including Sidewalks of London (1938) in which he portrayed a harmonica virtuoso named Constantine. In other films, he generally played someone named Larry. He also performed in a musical revue with dancer Paul Draper touring the country and internationally, and on Broadway in 1943, among many other appearances.
Alas, the House Un-American Activities Committee of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy reared its head in Mr. Adler’s direction, and when he could not get work in the U.S. he decided to live in England, beginning in 1951.
Mr. Adler wrote scores for movies and television. He served as food critic for Harpers & Queen, and also wrote books, including How I Play (1937), Larry Adler’s Own Arrangements (1960), and his autobiography It Ain’t Necessarily So (1987). He also appeared on radio and television.
In later years, Mr. Adler worked with Sting, Elton John, Kate Bush, and Cerys Matthews. In 1994, he and George Martin produced an album of Gershwin songs, The Glory of Gershwin, with many famous pop stars singing with harmonica accompaniment. He also opened performances with “Summertime” played simultaneously on piano and harmonica.
Mr. Adler passed away on August 6, 2001, in Lambeth, London, England.