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Tuesday, 7 August, 2001, 08:45 GMT 09:45 UK
Larry Adler: Mouth organ virtuoso
Larry Adler
Larry Adler made the mouth organ a revered artform
Virtuoso musician Larry Adler has died aged 87, having elevated the humble harmonica from being a playground toy to a serious concert hall instrument.

Larry Adler was the best-known mouth organist in the world.

His music for the classic film Genevieve in 1953 made him a wealthy man - and famous in England, his adopted home.

His life was a who's who of celebrity associations. He played with everyone from Fred Astaire to Sir Elton John and counted kings and prime ministers among his friends.

Lawrence Cecil Adler was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on 10 February 1914, the son of Louis and Sadie Adler.

At the age of five, he was taken to a Rachmaninov concert and developed his own musical skills within the framework of the Adler family's orthodox Judaism.

He was the youngest cantor, singer in a synagogue, in Baltimore and made himself unpopular by chiding his schoolmates for their lack of religious piety.


He was enrolled at the prestigious Peabody School of Music to study the piano.

Larry Adler in white tie
Larry Adler: friend of Chaplin and Ingrid Bergman

Shortly afterwards he started playing the harmonica, which he always called a "mouth organ".

Still a teenager, he ran away to New York where, with his parents' eventual consent, he became a professional musician.

Adler's virtuosity was such that he could pick out a tune simply by hearing it once and he brought to the harmonica the musical richness which was once the reserve of purely classical soloists.

The Chicago Herald said Adler was able to produce "a tone reminiscent of many instruments, which tone is as varied as those that emerge from a symphony orchestra".

After seeing Adler play in New York in 1934, the English impresario C B Cochrane was so impressed that he immediately offered to sign the young man to star in his London review, Streamline.

Before long he was playing for, and being fêted by, the crowned heads of Europe as well as former monarchs like the Duke of Windsor.


In the 30s and 40s he worked with everyone from big bands to George Gershwin and the British composer Vaughan Williams, who wrote a work especially for him.

To many he was the man who made the mouth organ respectable - though he never meant to.

George Gershwin
George Gershwin was a major influence

He once admitted, "All I wanted to do was to get the hell out of Baltimore, which I hated. I wanted to go on the stage, which I was magnetically drawn to."

A friend of the stars, Charlie Chaplin was a personal friend and he romanced such screen goddesses as Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman.

The war years saw Larry Adler entertaining Allied troops. It ended with him personally liberating the Hohner harmonica factory in Germany.

The company rewarded him with a crateful of the instruments.

But Adler's life changed forever in 1949. While on a tour of Britain, he was called to testify to the McCarthyite House Un-American Activities Committee. Refusing to do so, he stayed and made his home in England.


Branded a communist in his homeland where he was blacklisted, Larry Adler re-built his life.

A friend of The Duke of Edinburgh, he belonged to theThursday Club, whose members, including the actors David Niven and Peter Ustinov, enjoyed long, boozy, lunches at Wheeler's restaurant in London's Soho.

Sir Elton John
Sir Elton John called him "a genius"
Like his hero George Gershwin, Larry Adler understood both jazz and classical music. He introduced Gershwin's music to classical stars like the violinist Yitzhak Perlman.

Gershwin produced a piano-roll accompaniment for perhaps his most famous work, Rhapsody in Blue, for Larry Adler to play to.

Right into his late 80s, he would delight audiences with the haunting spectacle of the playerless piano backing his music, an echo through the ages which never failed to spellbind.


In recent years, Larry Adler had become known to a younger audience through The Glory of Gershwin, the platinum-selling album of critically-acclaimed duets with modern stars like Sting, Lisa Stansfield and Meatloaf.

Tom Jones, whom he knew but did not perform with, held him in great affection, as did Sir Elton John who once remarked, "Larry Adler is a genius and the greatest player of his instrument ever."

Most recently, he recorded a version of Tony Bennett's The Autumn Leaves, with the Catatonia singer, Cerys Matthews.

He had a parallel career as a celebrity, a raconteur and funnyman. He wrote endless letters to the satirical magazine Private Eye.

But Larry Adler's real achievement was to take the harmonica, until then thought of as a children's toy, onto the concert stages of the world.

The BBC's Nick Higham looks back on a remarkable life
See also:

07 Aug 01 | Music
Adler in his own words
07 Aug 01 | Music
Adler inspires warm tributes
15 Dec 99 | Entertainment
America's 20th century greats
17 Oct 00 | Education
Mouth organ degree awarded
07 Jul 01 | Wales
Catatonia given Royal approval
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