Legendary harmonica player Larry Adler, who raised the status of the instrument’s music to high art and enjoyed a successful seven-decade career despite being blacklisted during the McCarthy era, died Aug. 6 in London’s St. Thomas Hospital following a battle with cancer. He was 87.
The Baltimore-born Adler was a virtuoso on his chosen instrument and worked with everyone from George Gershwin to Kate Bush, Sting, Vaughan Williams and, most recently, Welsh pop group Catatonia.
Adler scored a number of feature films, including 1953’s “Genevieve” – for which he was nominated for an Oscar – and 1965’s “A High Wind in Jamaica.” He also appeared as himself in a number of movies.
He was accused of pro-Communist sympathies prior to his move to the U.K. and was admired for electing to leave rather than accuse any of his colleagues.
Arguably the most celebrated harmonica player in history, Adler was an Orthodox Jew trained in religious music. He became a cantor by the age of 10 and learned to play piano and the mouth organ by ear from listening to 78 rpm records.
Expelled from the Peabody Conservatory of Music for his mischief-making (it forgave him when it celebrated its 90th anniversary and invited him as a guest of honor in 1985), he won the Maryland Harmonica Championship in 1927 when he was about 13 and ran away to New York.
Adler soon performed in vaudeville, appearing in the Lew Leslie Revue, and on Broadway, where he worked onstage with Eddie Cantor and accompanied Fred Astaire in Florenz Ziegfeld’s “Smiles.”
Introduced to George Gershwin, Adler became a Gershwin devotee for life. He eventually made definitive harmonica recordings of Gershwin’s works, including “Porgy and Bess” and “Rhapsody in Blue.”
In 1934, Adler enjoyed specialty roles onstage in “Flyin’ Colors” and in the Paramount film “Many Happy Returns.” During WWII, Adler entertained Allied troops in North Africa and the Middle East. By the time of the Korean War, Adler had gained a reputation as a high-profile liberal and found himself on Sen. Joe McCarthy’s blacklist.
Rather than name names, he moved to England only to find that the Red Scare had followed him there. In 1954, he was forced by the Rank film organization to give up his billing rights on U.S. prints of the film “Genevieve,” for which he had written the musical score.
In 1963, Adler appeared as a soloist at the Edinburgh Festival, helping to perform the premiere of “Lullaby Time,” a string quartet written by George Gershwin in 1921 and presented to Adler by Ira Gershwin.
In 1988, Adler appeared at New York’s Ballroom Club with Harold Nicholas, one half of dance team the Nicholas Brothers. Adler also made a guest appearance on Sting’s 1993 album “Ten Summoner’s Tales,” and Sting later appeared on Adler’s 80th birthday celebration album, “The Glory of Gershwin,” which also included such pop stars as Meat Loaf, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel and Sinead O’Connor.
Late in 1994, Adler embarked on “A Living Legend – The Final Tour.”
He married model Eileen Walser, in 1938; they had a son and two daughters before the marriage was dissolved in 1961. In 1967 he married journalist Sally Cline, by whom he had a daughter. That union ended in 1977.