Harmonica virtuoso dies at 87

NEW YORK, Aug. 14 (JTA) — Larry Adler, a harmonica virtuoso whose musical partners ranged from George Gershwin to Elton John to classical orchestras, died in London on Aug. 7 at the age of 87.

Adler also composed music for several film scores, including an Oscar-nominated score for the 1953 film “Genevieve.”

The composer William Walton — one of many classical composers who wrote music specifically for Adler — once said of him, “The only two young geniuses in the world are Yehudi Menuhin and Larry Adler,” referring to the world-renowned violinist.

Adler grew up in Baltimore as the son of two observant Russian immigrants. His father ran a business called “Adler’s Plumbing Shop On Wheels.”

Like many of his generation, particularly in the arts, Adler abandoned formal Jewish observance and adopted left-wing politics. He moved to Britain in the 1950s after he was blacklisted during the McCarthy era.

In 1945, he played for concentration camp survivors, according to the London Jewish Chronicle

“I was playing to these living skeletons when one of them called out, ‘Play “Mein Shtetle Belz,” ‘ a Yiddish folk song. He began to hum and I began to play,” Adler recalled.

The Chronicle also reported that Adler was one of the first overseas entertainers to play to Israeli troops during the 1967 Six-Day War, although he recently said he no longer felt at home in Israel.

In addition to his musical talents, Adler was known for his iconoclasm, a trait he apparently developed early in life.

He was kicked out of Baltimore’s prestigious Peabody Conservatory at the age of 9, when, he says, he played “Yes, We Have No Bananas” instead of a classical piece by Edvard Grieg during a piano recital. In 1985, he returned to Peabody and was given an honorary degree.

His individuality paid off when, as a teen-ager, he won a local harmonica contest by playing a classical piece, Beethoven’s “Minuet in G.”

He left for New York soon thereafter.

“I couldn’t wait to get out of Baltimore,” he once told the Baltimore Jewish Times. “I got beat up quite often because I was a Jew.”

Once in New York, he encountered some difficulties. Borrah Minovitch, who at the time headed the biggest harmonica act in show business, turned him down for a job, reportedly telling him, “You stink.”

But not everyone agreed.

Bandleader Rudy Vallee hired him, launching a career that featured a long stint with Jack Benny, performances with dancer Paul Draper during the 1940s — and, more recently, playing on a Gershwin tribute CD with performers such as Sting.

Adler was mainly self-taught, and said he could not read music until he was well into his career.

“I have a very good ear,” he recently said. “If it’s in my head, I can play it.”

He is survived by four children, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

(JTA correspondent Richard Allen Greene in London contributed to this report.)

NEXT STORY