Larry Adler


Born: February 10, 1914; Baltimore, MD   Died: August 6, 2001; London, England  
Contrary to publicity perpetuated in his obituaries, Lawrence Cecil Adler was a music student early on. The son of Russian Orthodox Jews, he was already a cantor in Baltimore at age ten, and enrolled in the Peabody Institute's music school to become a pianist. Although precocious, young Adler was also "incorrigible, untalented and entirely lacking in ear" according to his expulsion notice. He was also "brash and rebellious" -- a likelier cause of Read more his dismissal -- which included ordering a piano without parental permission. The amused dealer added a free harmonica (more properly a "mouth organ"), which Adler mastered sufficiently to win a contest at age 13 playing Beethoven's Minuet in G. Prize in hand, he ran away to NYC. His irate parents issued an ultimatum: succeed fast or come back home.

Despite initial rebuffs, he sneaked into the dressing room of Rudy Vallee and persuaded the popular crooner to hire him for his Heigh-Ho Club. Adler graduated to vaudeville at the Paramount Theater on Times Square, then to urchin roles in two Florenz Ziegfeld revues, Smiles and Clowns in Clover. Anxious, however, to perform in a dinner jacket, he accepted Hollywood's offer of a role in Many Happy Returns, a 1934 film starring George Burns, Gracie Allen, and orchestra-leader Paul Whiteman (who couldn't read music at all). Adler moved next to London, where he appeared in revues on the condition that he be allowed to wear "dapper suits." Not only in England, but on the Continent he enjoyed between-wars acclaim; shows were created around him as mouth-organ sales multiplied, culminating in the 1938 film Sidewalks of London, co-starring Charles Laughton, Vivien Leigh, and Rex Harrison.

His stateside return in 1939 was uneventful until he played with the Chicago Women's Symphony, a success that led to engagements with the Cleveland and NY Philharmonic orchestras. It also nudged him to study with composer Ernst Toch. Throughout the 1940s he toured in concert with tap-dancer Paul Draper, earning as much as $200,000 annually. In 1942, Adler introduced Jean Berger's Caribbean Concerto for Harmonica and Orchestra in Saint Louis -- the first work of its kind. At Paris in 1947 he premiered Milhaud's Suite for Harmonica and Orchestra (based on a 1945 violin work which had already been played). But trouble was brewing at home, despite Adler's White House performances for Presidents Roosevelt and Truman. In 1948, he vigorously supported Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party's presidential candidate, thereby antagonizing right-wing Congressmen who were witch-hunting Communists. Denounced in print as a Red sympathizer, Adler countered with a libel suit that ended in a hung jury.

In consequence, when concert engagements dried up, Adler moved permanently to England. Before self-exile, however, he premiered Vaughan Williams' Romance in D flat for harmonica, strings, and piano with the NY Little Symphony on May 3, 1952. In London the next year he introduced a new concerto by Arthur Benjamin, and in 1954 another by Malcolm Arnold. In 1957, Joaquín Rodrigo wrote a ten-minute solo work, Rincones de España. Abroad, Adler gave command performances for England's King George VI and Sweden's King Gustav, in addition to a busy concert schedule. To commemorate his 80th birthday, former Beatles' producer George Martin released The Glory of Gershwin, pairing him with Elton John, Cher, and Meat Loaf: their CD "went gold" in 1994. From time to time Adler returned to the U.S., including a Kennedy Center appearance in 1984, but always returned to England where he died of cancer, complicated by pneumonia, at the age of 87. Read less
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