“I came here to play harmonica and have copious amounts of affairs, and well, I just finished playing harmonica.”
When you hear the word “famous” there are a lot of words that could follow without knocking you off balance. Famous movie star? Makes sense. Famous doctor? Somewhat more rare, but not particularly shocking. Famous drunk blogger? Well now you’re just lifting lines from the vision board in our office. But if you were given a million guesses to name professions or identities that could make you famous, we’re willing to bet that “harmonica player” would not even come close to making the list. But that’s only if you’ve not heard of Larry Adler, the famed mouth organ player. (And yes, he referred to the harmonica almost exclusively as the mouth organ, and yes a part of him no doubt did this to allow for all the easy jokes that come from building a career blowing air into a thing you call a mouth organ.)
Larry Adler somehow managed to go from harmonica street performer who didn’t know how to read music to bonified international star who had affairs with famous actresses and recorded music with the likes of Elton John and Cher (as well as a bunch of people who were famous in like the 1950s but if we started this article with stuff like “oh he knew Jack Benny and worked with Dizzie Gillespie” about two thirds of our readers would lapse into an hour-long coma).
Hell, we’ve written AFFotDs for far less impressive careers. So fuck it, we’re going to talk about a harmonica player now.
Larry Adler Was Better At Harmonica Than You Are At Anything
Larry Adler was born in Baltimore in 1914 to a Jewish family, and though his family wasn’t particularly musical (his dad was a traveling plumber), he was obsessed with music from a young age, teaching himself how to play piano as a child until, at the age of 11, deciding his family’s piano wasn’t nearly good enough. Instead of asking for a better piano, he instead went out and bought a $2,500 piano without his parent’s permission. When the piano arrived at the house, his parents (not surprisingly!) flipped out at the price until the shop owner offered to set up a payment plan of 50 cents a week, making this piano shop either the nicest shop owner ever or the worst businessman ever. Probably a bit of both.
The owner tossed in a harmonica, just for shits and giggles, and we just have to think that his parents ended up kind of irked that Adler would make his living playing the free add-on, while more or less ignoring the piano that cost the equivalent of $30,000 in 1920s money.
He taught himself how to play music by ear, selling newspapers and to pay for his habit of purchasing records and sneaking off to classic music concerts so he could mimick the songs later with his harmonica. His motivation was less an inherent lust for music, and more a strong desire to get the fuck out of Baltimore, which damn we didn’t realize The Wire has been around that long.
♫You Gotta Keep the Devil Way Down in the Hole♫
He enrolled in the Peabody School of Music for piano training around this time, where he was expelled shortly thereafter for being “incorrigible, untalented and entirely lacking in ear” (it didn’t help that he hadn’t bothered to learn to read sheet music). After changing his instrumental focus, he played with his first harmonica band (yes that was a thing) at the age of 14, the same year he managed to win a music competition by using the mouth organ to play Beethoven’s “Minuet in G” (while most of the competition stuck with folk songs like “Turkey in the Straw”), and shortly thereafter moved to New York City with seven dollars in his pocket, desperate to get whatever gig he could.
In New York, he auditioned for the most famous harmonica band at the time, a band who you clearly know so there’s no point to even name them. But, just in case you don’t know about the more popular harmonica acts in the 1920s, the band was Borah Minevitch and his Harmonica Rascals, and the best way to sum up how it went was to point out that Minevitch’s advice to Adler was to say, “Kid, you stink.” He didn’t let that deter him, and soon auditioned for some other guy who probably was a big deal at the time but who you almost assuredly have never heard of (ugh, fine, the guy’s name was Rude Vallee). Vallee invited Adler to play with him at a Manhattan club, and with his foot in the door he began getting more and more gigs as his skill and notoriety grew.
When we say his skill grew, we mean it grew. He taught himself to read music for one reason, and one reason alone—people wanted to write original songs for him to play, and he couldn’t play them if he was only learning music by listening to previously-recorded songs. Some of the greatest composers of the day, like George Gershwin, were working with him throughout the 30s and 40s, and it was during this time that he partnered up with a tap dancer named Paul Draper. The two of them formed and act and toured internationally which helped lead to his exposure in the United Kingdom.
Now, Larry Adler was about as famous as a harmonica player could get in the United States, but in England he was essentially a God. In the UK he had a fan club with 300,000 members, and it’s believed that he single handedly was responsible for a 2,000% increase in harmonica sales. He was a star. He befriended actors such as Charlie Chaplin, and had a literal affair with Ingrid Bergman.
Oh you want to hear more about him hooking up with one of the most famous actresses of all time? Sure we can talk about it, because he never shut up about it. Nor should he have, if you sleep with Ingrid Bergman you’re allowed to tell that story until the day you die. Which Adler absolutely did. Admittedly, both of them were married at the time, so it was probably a little unwelcome to keep talking about it, but again, it’s Ingrid Bergman. Here’s a picture to remind you why he felt the need to brag about this so much.
To give you an idea about the larger-than-life personality of Larry Adler, not only did he have an affair with one of Hollywood’s most beautiful starlets, his wife knew about it and was kind of alright with it? As he said in an interview shortly before his death, “[My wife] was tolerant of Ingrid. There were other affairs she was less tolerant of. She liked Ingrid very much. My wife and I were in Paris and she bought a present for her.” Not surprisingly, both of Adler’s marriages ended in divorce. That didn’t stop him from his general horn dog ways—the same interview was held in a restaurant where he once wrote a review that ended with him proposing to the owner. She was married at the time, but they absolutely ended up having an affair together.
Adler saw the harmonica as an incredibly versatile instrument that was wildly unappreciated. Where most mouth organists played more low-brow and folk-based music, Adler played all sorts of music, from concertos as a soloist backed by an entire orchestra to the center of a big band performance. If you have a hard time picturing that, his career spanned a good seven decades, so there’s definitely no shortage of footage of him doing his thing. Here’s him playing Rhapsody in Blue.
Unfortunately, while his huge talent and huge, um, appetites deserve to go down in the annals of American history, he spent most of his life outside of our fair nation. And it was completely our fault. After World War II, where he performed for troops throughout Europe (that’s also where he met Bergman), America got a little communist crazy. We’re sure you know what McCarthyism is (not to be confused with McCartneyism, which is far more delightful) and well, our boy Adler got caught right up in it.
Adler wasn’t a communist, but he also wasn’t a goddamn snitch. He sympathized with Americans who were members of the communist party, since, you know, it’s not illegal to be part of a political party in America, but mostly he didn’t like the bullying tactics, and he hated the notion of being forced to rat out people. He was even offered an easy out—the House of Un-American Activities Committee give him a list of names that had already been named, and he just had to say those names again without throwing anyone new under the bus. He still refused, and spoke out publicly against McCarthy.
Between that and his endorsement of Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party candidate running for President, Adler found himself losing gigs and revenue. In 1948, for example, a woman named Hester T. McCullough tried to stop Adler and Draper (the tap dancer and his most steady professional partner) from appearing before the Greenwich Concert Association in Connecticut, claiming they were “pro-Communist in sympathy.” The performance was cancelled, and while Adler and Draper tried to sue McCullough $100,000 each for libel, the case ended up stalling in the courts.
Before McCarthy, Adler was making over $200,000 a year (or the spending equivalent of $2.75 million today). After McCarthy, all his gigs in America dried up and he was left with little choice but to move his family to England, where he was still wildly popular. He continued to perform, and started composing harmonica-only scores for movies (his name was removed from the credits in some instances when the films would come out in America), even garnering an Oscar nomination for Best Soundtrack for the 1953 film Genevieve.
In 1994, at the age of 80, he teamed up with George Martin (yes, that George Martin) to produce an album of George Gerswin songs called The Glory of Gershwin, that saw Gershwin’s songs played by a full orchestra with contemporary singers and Adler himself adding harmonica solos. It reached number 2 on the UK charts, and we would laugh at the fact that a harmonica album of Gershwin songs was charting in England in the 90s, but he apparently knew what singers the kids were listening to in those days. His, and we cannot stress this enough, harmonica album, featured Peter Gabriel, Elton John, Sting, Jon Bon Jovi, Meat Loaf, Sinead O’Connor, Cher, Cate Bush, Elvis Costello, Carly Simon and like 5 other singers who we decided weren’t quite famous enough to get listed here. That is a lineup, and the fact that Adler got all of them to appear on his album really speaks to his charming personality. Not surprisingly, a man who somehow was able to make harmonica playing popular, and who had seen Ingrid Bergman naked, had a huge personality and knew, essentially, everyone. He was close friends with Prince Phillip (for Americans reading this we’ll assume you’re not sure which one he is—he’s the Queen’s husband), and at one point lent his harmonica to the Queen Mother who said, “No one will believe me when I tell them I held Larry Adler’s organ.” (Yes she knew what she was saying.)
Adler spent the rest of his days playing harmonica concerts and writing prodigiously. He sent articles to American newspapers, wrote restaurant reviews for Harper’s Bazaar, and wrote a few books he liked (such as a joke book) and one he didn’t (he hated his autobiography, which was ghost-written). He lived a full and rich life, well into his 80s, before being diagnosed with cancer around the turn of the century. Still, despite his maladies and even the paralysis of two of his fingers due to gout, he still played his harmonica to the very end—just two and a half months before he passed away at 87, he blew the crowd away playing, in a wheelchair, at Prince Phillip’s 80th birthday concert in 2001.
While Larry Adler may have left America a good fifty years before he should have, he at least made a point to represent the best of America, so long as the best of America involves trying not to giggle at the word mouth organ while hitting on married actresses. And hell, that’s good enough for us. So next time you try to hear someone mangle “Home on the Range” on the harmonica, just remember that Larry Adler could bust out Beethoven without breaking a sweat, and feel free to tell them, “Kid, you stink.” It worked for Larry after all.