HARMONICA virtuoso Larry Adler dies at 87

Tuesday, August 7th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LONDON (AP) _ Larry Adler, the virtuoso of the humble harmonica, has died at age 87, his manager said Tuesday.

Adler died Monday night at St. Thomas's Hospital in London, said manager Jonathan Shalit. The cause of death was not announced, but Adler has been treated for cancer and had suffered two strokes.

``Only three weeks ago we were talking about him doing a concert in China. He was very active until the end, that was one of the things which made him such a remarkable man,'' Shalit said.

Adler played with the greats _ George Gershwin, Paul Whiteman, Jack Benny, Django Reinhardt and, late in life, with Sting. Ralph Vaughan Williams, Malcolm Arnold, Darius Milhaud and Joaquin Rodrigo composed for him. Billie Holiday told him, ``Man, you don't play that thing _ you sing it.''

All his life, Adler remained at heart the brash teen-ager who caused gasps in Britain by striding up to King George V to shake his hand, rather than bowing as protocol demanded.

When Adler played at the White House, President Harry Truman sat down at the piano to accompany ``The Missouri Waltz.'' When the music ended, Adler cracked: ``You're a hell of a better president than you are a pianist.''

He caught the showbiz bug as a youngster growing up in Baltimore, reputedly entertaining players at a local pool hall at age 2, singing ``I've Got Those Profiteering Blues.''

At 10 he was the youngest cantor in the city, and got a place at the Peabody School of Music _ where he was shortly dismissed as ``incorrigible, untalented, and entirely lacking in ear.''

Adler joked that he took up the harmonica to impress girls. What he loved about the instrument, he said in a 1997 interview with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, is ``the lonesomeness of it, the intimacy.''

A year after winning a talent contest in Baltimore, playing a Beethoven minuet on the harmonica, he ran away to New York City. Only 14, he sneaked into Rudy Vallee's dressing room to plead for a break.

``You're a novelty, kid,'' he recalled Vallee telling him. ``Save your money because once they hear you, that's it. They'll never want to hear it again.''

Vallee nonetheless hired him to play at the Heigh-Ho Club, and helped Adler get a job playing harmonica for Mickey Mouse cartoons.

Adler teamed with dancer Paul Draper in 1941, and their successful act continued until 1949.

He toured with Jack Benny to entertain troops during World War II, but in 1947 his earlier activity in anti-fascist groups led to a summons from the House Committee on Un-American Activities

``My agent called me and said, 'Unless you're willing to come back to the States, make a complete public, noncommunist affidavit, and then go before the Un-American Activities Committee and name names, it's not worthwhile your coming back,''' Adler said in a 1995 interview with National Public Radio. So he stayed in Britain.

In an interview with The Associated Press in 1989, Adler said the communist witch hunts made him ``lose all respect for the country,'' but said he declined to describe himself as an exile.

``That's too dramatic,'' he said. ``I wasn't driven out ... It wasn't unbearable. I just didn't like it.''

Adler's score for the 1953 film ``Genevieve'' was nominated for an Oscar, though in someone else's name. He was not acknowledged as the true composer until 31 years later.

Adler had become hugely popular in Britain in the 1930s, when he played in a London revue called ``Streamline.'' Fan clubs sprouted all over the country and a 1937 revue, ``Tune Inn,'' was written around him. The British composer William Walton said: ``The only two young musical geniuses in the world are Yehudi Menuhin and Larry Adler.''

Still playing in his 80s, Adler showed a shaky memory at the Edinburgh Festival in 1999 when he played Gershwin's ``Someone To Watch Over Me'' twice. When he realized his mistake, he told the audience: ``Demand a refund.''

Adler wrote books including ``Jokes and How to Tell Them'' in 1963 and an autobiography, ``It Ain't Necessarily So'' in 1985. He wrote for The Sunday Times, Punch, The Spectator and New Statesman, he was a restaurant critic for Harpers and Queen magazine. In Who's Who, he listed his ``obsession'' as writing letters to Private Eye, the satirical biweekly.

In 1988 Adler starred on an 80th birthday album, produced by Sir George Martin, assisted by Cher, Sting, Sir Elton John, Robert Palmer, John Bon Jovi, Meatloaf, Carly Simon, Elvis Costello, Lisa Stansfield, Peter Gabriel and Sinead O'Connor.

One of Adler's favorite stories was about a party in Chicago, where a guest interrogated the young performer about whether he attended synagogue faithfully, and wrote to his parents.

Adler said he wrote every couple of weeks. As he told the tale to NPR:

'``What kind of kid are you?' he said. 'Look, kid, get your coat, go back to your hotel, sit down and write your mother and father a letter. And this Saturday, I don't give a damn how many shows you got to do, you're going to go to shul like a good Jewish boy.'

``And I went over to the comedian in my show, and I said, 'Who's that busybody I was talking to?' He said, 'You're kidding.' I said, 'What's his name?' He said, 'Al Capone.'''

Adler's two marriages ended in divorces. He is survived by four children, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, Shalit said. Funeral arrangements were not immediately announced.