Larry Adler

On this date in 1914, musician and composer Lawrence Cecil Adler was born in Baltimore to immigrant Russian parents Sadie (Hack) and Louis Adler. He grew up listening to religious music and at age 10 became the youngest cantor in Baltimore. 

Dismissed from the prestigious Peabody Conservatory of Music for being “incorrigible, untalented, and entirely lacking in ear,” he learned to play the piano on his own as well as a harmonica the piano store threw in as a bonus. The latter, which Adler called a mouth organ, would bring him fame. A triumph outside the synagogue was winning the state harmonica championship in 1927 by playing Beethoven’s “Minuet in G.”

Running away from home to New York, he entertained between movies at theaters and had parts in vaudeville and the Ziegfeld revue “Smile” and other shows. In 1934 he impressed George Gershwin by playing the composer’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” (His 2001 Washington Post obituary said Adler “was credited with elevating the wheezy favorite of campfire musicians and cowpokes into a respected instrument.”)

He became especially popular in the United Kingdom, where harmonica sales skyrocketed and 300,000 people joined fan clubs. His performances included transcriptions of pieces for other instruments, such as violin concertos by Bach and Vivaldi. He played his arrangement of Vivaldi’s “Violin Concerto in A Minor” with the Sydney Symphony.  He and dancer Paul Draper formed an act in the 1940s and toured internationally, performing individually, then together. One popular number was Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.”

His career suffered a huge setback during the “Red scare” that started after World War II. As a supporter of Progressive Party candidate Henry A. Wallace in the 1948 presidential race, he was accused of having Communist sympathies by the wife of a Time magazine editor. A jury deadlocked on his libel suit against the woman and the publicity cost him many engagements. He moved to England and never again lived in the U.S.

He married model Eileen Walser in 1938 and they divorced in 1959 after having three children: Carole, Peter and Wendy. He married writer and academic Sally Cline in 1967, divorcing in 1976 after having a daughter, Marmoset Katelyn. Marmoset established a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music after his death. The scholarship did not specify a specific instrument, she said, because “it’s so unlikely that hordes of mouth organists will apply to the academy.” (The Independent, Nov. 2, 2001)

Adler played with several generations of renowned musicians. Beatles producer George Martin commemorated Adler’s 80th birthday with the release of “The Glory of Gershwin,” in which he performed with Sting, Cher, Elton John, Meat Loaf, Carly Simon, Sinéad O’Connor, Jon Bon Jovi and numerous others.

Concerts to support the album showed Adler was also a competent pianist. He opened each performance with Gershwin’s “Summertime,” playing piano and harmonica simultaneously. The release went gold in 1994.

Adler died of cancer at age 87 in St. Thomas’ Hospital, London, where his cremated remains are interred. (D. 2001) 

PHOTO: Adler in New York City in 1947 at age 33; public domain photo by William P. Gottlieb.

Freedom From Religion Foundation