Legendary harmonica player Larry Adler, who enjoyed a highly successful seven-decade career despite being blacklisted during the McCarthy era, died Monday night in London’s St. Thomas Hospital following a battle with cancer. He was 87.
Baltimore-born Adler was considered a virtuoso on his instrument and worked with everyone from George Gershwin to Kate Bush to Sting to Vaughan Williams to most recently Welsh pop group Catatonia.
Adler scored a number of features, including 1953’s “Genevieve” – for which he was nominated for an Oscar – and “A High Wind In Jamaica” (1965). He also appeared as himself in a number of movies.
Adler had been 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.
Adler’s autobiography, “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” was published in 1985.
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.
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Expelled from the Peabody Conservatory of Music, he won the Maryland Harmonica Championship in 1927 and soon ran away to New York where he joined one of the Paramount units, performing in movie houses between features.
Adler performed in vaudeville, appearing in the Lew Leslie Revue and on Broadway worked on stage with Eddie Cantor and accompanied Fred Astaire in Florenz Ziegfeld’s “Smiles.”
Introduced to George Gershwin through orchestra leader Paul Whiteman, Adler became a Gershwin devotee for life. He eventually made definitive recordings of Gershwin’s works including “Porgy and Bess” and “Rhapsody in Blue.”
In 1934, Adler enjoyed specialty roles on stage in “Flyin’ Colors” and in the Paramount film, “Many Happy Returns” in which he was backed by Duke Ellington’s orchestra.
During World War II, Adler entertained Allied troops in North Africa and the Middle East with such luminaries as Jack Benny and Carole Landis. By the time of the Korean War, Adler had gained a reputation as a high profile liberal and found himself on Senator McCarthy’s blacklist. Rather than name names, he moved to England only to find that the “Red scare” had follwed him there.
In 1954, he was forced by the Rank film organization to give up his billing rights on U.S. prints of of the film “Genevieve” for which he had written the musical score. When the film was nominated for an Oscar, an embarrassed Rank offered orchestra conductor Muir Mathieson’s name as the composer.
In 1963, Adler appeared as a soloist at the Edinburgh Festival and performed for the first time “Lullaby Time,” a string quartet written by George Gershwin in 1921 which was presented to Adler by Ira Gershwin.
In 1988, Adler appeared at New York’s Ballroom club with Harold Nicholas, one half of the famous dance team, the Nicholas Brothers.
Adler 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,” whcih also included such pop stars as Meat Loaf, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel and Sinead O’Connor.
Late in 1994, Adler embarked on a “A Living Legend-The Final Tour” and two years later appeared at a few of the same venues including Japan, Australia and New Zealand. In 1998, he presented the BBC Radio 2 series “Larry Adler’s Century.”