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Larry Adler

Larry Adler was an internationally renowned harmonica virtuoso whose jazz and European classical interpretations brought unprecedented amount of attention and acclaim to the humble mouth organ. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants (the family name was changed from Zelakovitch), Lawrence Cecil Adler was born on February 10, 1914 in Baltimore. His first performing idol was Al Jolson; he also admired comedian George Jessel and worked as a sidekick for Eddie Cantor, whom he resembled. Adler's career as a professional mouth organist began when, at the age of 14, he won a statewide harmonica competition with an abbreviated rendition of Beethoven's Minuet in G. He then surprised his family by moving to New York City without parental permission.

After briefly serving as an intermission performer for Rudy Vallée, he convinced bandleader Paul Ash to help him secure a $100 per week contract with a traveling variety show that entertained audiences between films in Paramount theaters. Adler's direct involvement with cinema began when he synchronized a harmonica solo with the soundtrack of a newly developed animated "sound cartoon." He recorded with vocalist Ruth Etting and appeared with her, Gus Edwards, and tap dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson at Broadway's Palace Theater in 1929, and in Flo Ziegfeld's Smiles with Fred and Adele Astaire in 1931.

The catalyst for a turning point in Adler's career was Maurice Ravel's Bolero, which he initially presented at the Blackhawk in San Francisco, using a dance band arrangement by Hal Kemp. As a part of a "prologue" to Eddie Cantor's film Roman Scandals, Adler performed Bolero at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Unfamiliar with the time signature of the work as written and convinced that the orchestra was lagging, he improvised wildly while waving his free arm as if "chopping an invisible tree." This extroverted display, which he would later describe as "corny Sturm und Drang," brought down the house and earned him immediate renown. Adler became a high-profile participant in Hollywood social life. In 1934 he appeared in the film Many Happy Returns with Ray Milland, Burns & Allen, and Duke Ellington, and was filmed in heavy "Chinese" makeup for a sequence in Busby Berkeley's The Singing Marine. Adler performed duets with George Gershwin, whose "Rhapsody in Blue" would become one of the staples in his repertoire, which also included mouth organ adaptations of violin concerti by Antonio Vivaldi and J.S. Bach as well as works composed expressly for him and his instrument by Malcolm Arnold, Arthur Benjamin, Jean Berger, Darius Milhaud, Cyril Scott, Graham Whettam, and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Adler's adventures as a jazz musician included making records with Gypsy swing guitarist Django Reinhardt in 1938. He later wrote: "If I work with an Ellington, a Django, a Bill Evans, a Dizzy Gillespie, I play at the top of my form or even beyond it. I know that I could not duplicate the solos I recorded with Django Reinhardt, because there is no longer a Django to inspire me." During World War II, Adler performed worldwide, often appearing with comedian Jack Benny and at one point obtaining an emergency ration of mouth organs from the newly liberated Hohner factory at Trossingen in the Black Forest. An outspoken opponent of "any dogma that puts the mind in blinkers and forbids the free discussion of ideas," Adler was blacklisted during Senator Joseph McCarthy's witch hunts, and his Academy Award-nominated score for the film Genevieve was credited to studio orchestra conductor Muir Mathieson. In dramatic contrast to this indignity, Adler was the first person from the U.S.A. to receive the coveted Grand Prix du Disque for his recording of "Le Grisbi," a melody used in the French gangster film Touchez-pas au Grisbi, starring Jean Gabin. He performed and recorded with some of the world's top conductors, and claimed that the "musical high point" of his life occurred at the Royal Albert Hall in 1952 when he played before the London Symphony Orchestra under the leadership of Sir Malcolm Sargent.

Adler spent most of the second half of his life in the U.K.; was featured with violinist Itzhak Perlman in a telecast duet performance of "Summertime" in 1981; collaborated with Sting on Ten Summoner's Tales; accompanied vocalist Kate Bush in a version of "The Man I Love" in 1994 on his last great project, the all-star tribute album The Glory of Gershwin; and passed away in London on August 7, 2001, at the age of 87. Larry Adler's autobiography, It Ain't Necessarily So, is filled with historic insights and the sort of humorous gut-level honesty that characterized his personality. ~ arwulf arwulf
full bio

Selected Discography

x

Track List: Dope & Glory

Disc 1

1. Sendin' The Vipers

2. Viper's Drag

3. When I Get Low I Get High

4. I'm Gonna Get High

8. Knockin' Myself Out

9. Reefer Man?

11. Here Comes The Man With The Jive

12. If You're A Viper

13. Texas Tea Party

15. Jack I'm Mellow

16. Sweet Marihuana Brown

18. Weed Smoker's Dream

19. The 'G' Man Got The 'T' Man

20. All The Jive Is Gone

21. Stuff Is Here

22. Weed

23. Knockin' Myself Out

25. Save The Roach For Me

Disc 2

1. Killin' Jive

3. Sweet Sue, Just You

6. Golden Leaf Strut

11. Jive Man Blues

14. Mellow Stuff

15. Minor Goes A Muggin'

16. Reefer Man

18. Dopey Joe

20. Don't Credit My Stuff

21. A Vipers Moan

23. Smoking Reefers

25. Willie The Weeper

x

Track List: Produced By George Martin - 50 Years In Recording

Disc 1

1. Pickin' A Chicken

8. Ae Fond Kiss

15. Portrait Of My Love

21. My Kind Of Girl

22. Hi-Flutin' Boogie

23. Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine?)

24. Don't You Rock Me Daddy-O

26. Be My Girl

28. Sun Arise

29. You're Driving Me Crazy

Disc 2

1. The Q5 Piano Tune

2. Unchained Melody

4. A Transport Of Delight

5. Nellie The Elephant

6. Little Red Monkey

7. Goodness Gracious Me

8. The Wormwood Scrubs Tango

9. The Hippopotamus Song

10. Any Old Iron

11. The Hole In The Ground

13. All The Things You Are

14. The Horse Show

16. My Boomerang Won't Come Back

17. A Drop Of The Hard Stuff

20. I've Lost My Mummy

21. My Brother

24. Right Said Fred

25. Football Results

26. Jake The Peg

28. A Hard Day's Night

Disc 3

1. Please Please Me

2. How Do You Do It

3. Do You Want To Know A Secret

4. Hello Little Girl

5. I Want To Hold Your Hand

6. The Cruel Sea

8. Bad To Me

9. Anyone Who Had A Heart

10. Don't Let The Sun Catch You Crying

11. I'll Keep You Satisfied

12. A Little Loving

13. Little Children

14. You're My World (Il Mio Mondo)

15. Yesterday

16. You'll Never Walk Alone

17. I (Who Have Nothing)

19. It's For You

20. It's You

21. Ferry Cross The Mersey

22. Can't Buy Me Love

23. I've Been Wrong Before

24. In My Life

25. Land Of 1000 Dances

26. Alfie

27. Michelle

28. Step Inside Love

29. She's Leaving Home

30. When I'm Sixty-Four

31. Time

Disc 4

14. No One Will Ever Know

18. From Russia With Love

20. Goldfinger

Disc 5

2. Icarus

5. Live And Let Die

6. Juniper Bear

8. Tin Man

9. Pinafore Days

11. Diamond Dust

12. Sister Golden Hair

15. Get Back

16. The Highwayman

18. World's Greatest Lover

Disc 6

1. Ebony And Ivory

2. Hymn

3. Say, Say, Say

4. Our Perfect Song

12. My Man's Gone Now

14. Summertime

Comments

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LOVE Larry Adler! What a great shame I never got to see or hear him perform live. Would that there was a contemporary mouth harpist that was following in his footsteps. To hear classical music on the harmonica is an incredible thrill.

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