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Larry Adler was an internationally renowned harmonica virtuoso whose jazz and European classical interpretations brought unprecedented 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, who 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 notoriety. Adler now 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.
Lawrence "Larry" Cecil Adler (February 10, 1914 – August 6, 2001) was an American musician, widely acknowledged as one of the world's most skilled harmonica players. Composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Malcolm Arnold, Darius Milhaud and Arthur Benjamin composed works for him. During the later stage of his career he was known for his collaborations with popular musicians Sting, Elton John, Kate Bush, and Cerys Matthews.
Adler was born in Baltimore, Maryland, into a Jewish family and graduated from the Baltimore City College high school. Adler taught himself harmonica (which he preferred to call a mouth-organ) and began playing professionally at the age of 14. In 1927, the harmonica was popular enough that the Baltimore Sun newspaper sponsored a contest. His rendering of a Beethoven minuet won him the award, and a year later, he ran away from home to New York. After being referred by Rudy Vallée, Adler got his first theatre work, and caught the attention of orchestra leader Paul Ash, who placed Adler in a vaudeville act as "a ragged urchin, playing for pennies". From there, he was hired by Florenz Ziegfeld and then by Lew Leslie (again as an urchin). Adler finally broke the typecasting and appeared in a dinner jacket in the 1934 Paramount film Many Happy Returns, and was hired by British theatrical producer C. B. Cochran to perform in 'Streamline' a London revue, where Cecil Beaton is given a design credit for some costume and scenery design. Adler found stardom in the United Kingdom and the British Empire, where, it has been written, harmonica sales increased twenty-fold and 300,000 people joined fan clubs.".
Adler was one of the first harmonica players to perform major works written for the instrument, often written expressly for him: these include Jean Berger's Concerto for Harmonica and Orchestra "Caribbean" (1941), Cyril Scott's Serenade (harmonica and piano), Vaughan Williams' Romance in D-flat (harmonica, piano and string orchestra; premiered New York, 1952), Milhaud's Suite Anglais (Paris, May 28, 1947), Arthur Benjamin's Harmonica Concerto (1953), and Malcolm Arnold's Harmonica Concerto, Op. 46 (1954, written for The Proms). He recorded all these pieces, some more than once. Earlier, Adler had performed transcriptions of pieces written for other instruments, such as violin concertos by Bach and Vivaldi - he played his arrangement of Vivaldi's Violin Concerto in A minor with the Sydney Symphony. Other works he played in harmonica arrangements were by Bartók, Beethoven (Minuet in G), Debussy, Falla, Gershwin (Rhapsody in Blue), Mozart (slow movement from the Oboe Quartet, K. 470), Poulenc, Ravel (Boléro), Stravinsky and Walton.
During the 1940s, Adler and the American virtuoso dancer, Paul Draper, formed a popular act, touring nationally and internationally. He moved to the United Kingdom in 1949, and settled in London, where he remained for the remainder of his life.
The 1953 film Genevieve brought him an Oscar nomination for his work on the soundtrack (though his name was originally kept off the credits in the United States due to blacklisting). He scored a hit with the theme song of the French Jacques Becker movie Touchez pas au grisbi with Jean Gabin, written by Jean Wiener.
In 1994 for his 80th birthday Adler, along with George Martin, produced an album of George Gershwin songs, The Glory of Gershwin, on which Adler and Martin performed "Rhapsody in Blue." The Glory of Gershwin reached #2 in the UK Albums Chart in 1994. Adler was an entertaining performer and showman. The concerts in support of The Glory of Gershwin also revealed that he was a competent pianist, when he opened each performance with Gershwin's "Summertime", playing piano and harmonica simultaneously. The album featured an all-star lineup of artists, including Peter Gabriel, Oleta Adams, Elton John, Sting, Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora, Meat Loaf, Sinéad O'Connor, Robert Palmer, Cher, Kate Bush, Elvis Costello, Courtney Pine, Issy Van Randwyck, Lisa Stansfield and Carly Simon, all of whom sang Gershwin tunes live with an orchestra and Adler adding harmonica solos.
He died peacefully in St Thomas' Hospital, London, at the age of 87, on August 7, 2001. He was cremated at the Golders Green Crematorium, where his ashes remain.
Other fields 
Apart from his career as a renowned musician, Adler also made appearances in several movies, including Sidewalks of London (1938), in which he played a busker. He was also known as a prolific letter writer, with his correspondence with the satirical magazine Private Eye becoming very popular in the United Kingdom. Adler wrote an autobiography — entitled It Ain't Necessarily So — in 1985, and worked as a food critic for Harpers & Queen for some time. Adler also appeared on the Jack Benny radio program several times, entertaining disabled soldiers stateside during World War II. A further biography, Me and My Big Mouth appeared in 1994 but, in an interview for The Free-Reed Journal, he made clear that it should not be considered as such: 'That's a lousy book and I don't like it; it's ghosted . ... [It] has a certain amount of factual material but the author completely missed my style and my voice. That's why I hate the book.'
Personal life 
Adler had four children, two grandchildren and two great grandchildren, one of whom was Peter Adler who fronted a band called the Action and others, in Dublin, Ireland in the late 1960s. Adler was an atheist. His brother, Jerry Adler (1918–2010) was also an accomplished harmonica player.