Now 80, mouth organist Larry Adler inspires a new generation with his renditions of Gershwin classics.
GIDEON KEREN SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH NEWS
playing of Bolero that he left a provision in
his will for Mr. Adler to perform the com-
position whenever he liked without paying
And when Duke Ellington introduced Mr.
Adler to Billie Holliday, Lady Day ex-
claimed, "Man, you don't play that thing,
you sing it!"
Now at the age of 80, Mr. Adler is more
in demand than ever, following the success
of his recent recording, The Glory of Gersh-
win. On the album, the harmonica man per-
forms Gershwin classics with the likes of
Peter Gabriel, Sting, Elton
John, Cher and Sinead O'Con-
Indeed, Mr. Adler has en-
tered the Guinness Book of
World Records as the oldest
person to play on the BBC's
"Top of the Pops" television
program and has topped the
album charts in France, Ger-
many, Holland and Australia.
Meeting Mr. Adler — a spry,
agile, yet slightly frail man —
in his fiat in Chalk Farm, near
Camden, England, one can't
help noticing that the home is
well-lived in. His living room
is crammed with papers, com-
pact discs, and books and mag-
azines that fight for space with
the piano, television, video and
Mr. Adler admits to being
surprised by the runaway suc-
cess of The Glory of Gershwin.
"At my age, you don't think
life has any more surprises for
you," he said.
Glory came about after Mr.
Adler performed on Sting's Ten
Summonors Tales album. Mr.
Adler subsequently wrote to
Sting and Elton John, asking
if they would consider partic-
ipating on an album to cele-
brate his 80th birthday. Not
only did they agree, they also
recruited the other singers,
and the rest is history.
Mr. Adler said he is partic-
ularly pleased that he and
Gershwin — whom he consid-
ers the greatest of composers
— have been brought to the at-
tention of a younger genera-
Mr. Adler's story began in
Southwest Baltimore, where
his father ran a business called
"Adler's Plumbing Shop on
Wheels." He lived at 774 Co-
lumbia Ave., later to be re-
Larry Adler's most recent album The Glory of Gershwin features Sting, Peter Gabriel, Elton John, Sinead O'Connor
named Washington Boulevard.
hen one thinks of the harmonica,
among the people who most often
come to mind is Larry Adler. Mr.
Adler is the Baltimore native who
singlehandedly transformed the mouth
organ from a musical plaything to an
expressive instrument capable of tackling
jazz and popular music, as well as the great
George Gershwin, when first hearing Mr.
Adler play Rhapsody in Blue, told him, "The
thing sounds as if I wrote it for you." Mau-
rice Ravel was so impressed with Mr. Adler's
Mr. Adler received his introduction to mu-
sic at the age of 5 when he was taken to a
When walking home from the Shaarei
Tfiloh Synagogue near Druid Hill Park one
Shabbat evening a few years later, he heard
beautiful piano music while passing by a
house. Caught listening at the front win-
dow, he was invited in by the matriarch of
the family. The pianist turned out to be the
young prodigy Shura Cherkassky, who lat-
er became Mr. Adler's friend and rival.
Although determined to become a musi-
cian, Mr. Adler says he knew he was too lazy
to succeed as a pianist and took up the
mouth organ. It was not until many years
later that he actually learned how to read
Mr. Adler recalled being determined to
get out of Baltimore as soon as possible.
"Everyone hated each other. The Protes-
tants hated the Catholics, the Catholics hat-
ed the Jews, everyone hated the blacks," he
said. "Every week I was beaten up for hav-
ing killed Jesus Christ."
At the age of 14 he ran away to New York,
determined to break into show business. Mr.
Adler said his parents ran after him but re-
turned to Baltimore empty-handed because
a doctor said he was a neurotic child and
should remain in New York.
Mr. Adler was given his first break in show
business when Rudy Vallee allowed him to
perform at his club. He went on to perform
with Eddie Cantor, Fred and Adele Astaire,
Duke Ellington, Jack Benny and Charles
Laughton. Among the illustrious people he
met at parties was Al Capone, whom Mr.
Adler remembers as a kindly man who was
concerned that he was not keeping kosher
and regularly writing to his parents.
During the 1930s, Mr. Adler says he led
a charmed life. There was plenty of money,
a great deal of glamour and many women.
He admits to being largely unaware of the
effects of the Depression.
"I was just living, totally mesmerized and
fascinated by the glamour of show business,"
he said. "It was only later when I read John
Reed and George Orwell that I began to de-
velop a social conscience."
Mr. Adler believes he has been success-
ful because he has sunk everything into his
music, whether recording or performing. He
despairs when he hears of Frank Sinatra
singing his Duets albums without even meet-
ing the other singers, or of Barbra Streisand
reading lines from a teleprompter at
"To call someone professional now is a GD
compliment, but in my time everyone was
professional," he said.
Politics has played a large part in Mr.
Adler's life. He remembers the McCarthy
ADLER page 106