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.
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.