Born Lawrence Cecil Adler in Baltimore, Maryland, on 10 February 1914, of Yiddish-speaking, orthodox Russian Jewish parents, Larry was an instinctive performer. At the age of two he was already charming grown-ups with his imitations of Al Jolson, at six he played piano “after a fashion” and at ten he was Baltimore’s youngest cantor. That same year he became the Peabody Conservatory of Music’s shortest-serving student before being expelled as “incorrigible, untalented and entirely lacking in ear” for reputedly substituting “Yes, We Have No Bananas” for the set test piece! Nothing daunted, at 13 the self-taught Larry won the Maryland Harmonica Championship for his performance of a Beethoven minuet and, by the time he was seventeen, despite his virtual lack of formal tuition (he was unable to read music properly until about 1940), he had achieved a certain fame as a stylish virtuoso of the mouth-organ.
At fourteen Larry ran away in search of fame and fortune to New York. Through the good offices of NBC Orchestra violinist Nat Brusiloff, he was introduced there to Borrah Minevitch (of Harmonica Rascals fame) but failed his audition. Soon afterwards he appeared—again without success—at Rudy Vallee’s club, before Brusiloff secured him a job playing harmonica in Mickey Mouse film soundtracks. This work, in turn, led to a $100-per-week off-screen touring contract. In 1928 he appeared in Clowns In Clover and by 1930 he was busily engaged as onstage foil (in page-boy attire and sans harmonica) to comedian Eddie Cantor and as session musician to, among others, Ruth Etting. In 1931, at seventeen, he made his first Broadway appearance, in Smiles, a show with music by Vincent Youmans which, although a virtual flop, featured Marilyn Miller and Fred and Adele Astaire.
Larry stayed on Broadway for Flying Colours (a 1932 revue by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz) and in 1934 made an inauspicious film debut (in Operator 13, an “elaborate period romance with action highlights”, for MGM-Cosmopolitan). Later that year he was spotted at the New York Palace Theatre by the English impresario C.B. Cochran who brought him to London to appear in the Vivian Ellis musical comedy Streamline. In December, billed “The Mouth Organ Virtuoso from Streamline”, he made the first of a series of recordings for Columbia (some of which were later reissued on the subsidiary Regal-Zonophone label). The earliest of these, with instrumental backing from members of the studio house band under the direction of the pianist Carroll Gibbons (1903–1954), illustrate Larry’s skilfully improvised arrangements and cover a wide variety of music, ranging from such film-music items as Con Conrad’s “The Continental”, Jerome Kern’s “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” and Cole Porter’s “Night And Day” to Ravel’s “Bolero”, Fritz Kreisler’s “Caprice Viennois” and the “Ritual Fire Dance” from Manuel de Falla’s ballet E l amor brujo. They also graph the start of Larry’s lifelong love-affair with the music of George Gershwin (when the composer first heard Larry play “Rhapsody In Blue”, he reportedly exclaimed “It sounds as if the goddamned thing was written for you.”).
During 1938 and 1939 Larry toured South Africa and Australia (here he made his first solo appearance in a classical concert with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra) before returning to the USA. During the 1940s he toured the States with the dancer Paul Draper and with him entertained American troops in Africa and the Middle East. He also appeared in the South Pacific, notably with Jack Benny, and in 1951 entertained troops based in Korea. After 1947, however, his overtly anti-Fascist stance had made him a prime target for investigation by the Un-American Activities Committee. From 1949 he was domiciled in Britain where, in 1953, he wrote—albeit at that time and for the next 31 years “anonymously”—the filmscore for the Oscar-nominated film Genevieve (the “red spectre” of Communism meant that he was compelled by the Rank Organization to relinquish his US rights on the film). He also scored The Hellions (Columbia, 1961), The Hook (MGM, 1962), King And Country (BHE, 1964) and A High Wind In Jamaica (20th Century Fox, 1965).
By 1952, when he premiered Vaughan Williams’ Romance at the Royal Albert Hall, London had become his adopted home (he was still on the McCarthy blacklist), although throughout the 1950s he continued to appear in the USA and at various other international venues. In 1963 and 1965 he was a soloist at the Edinburgh Festival and in 1967 and 1973 he lent his services to Israel in aid, respectively, of the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars. In 1988 he was the guest of the New York Ballroom Club and in 1989 his 75th birthday was marked by a Royal Albert Hall concert with pianist John Ogden and the Wren Orchestra under Stanley Black. During the early 1990s Larry appeared regularly at London’s Pizza On The Park. In 1993 he guested on Sting’s album Ten Summoner’s Tales and the following year was joined by the rock star for his 80th birthday celebration, The Glory Of Gershwin (this also featured Meat Loaf, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel and Sinead O’Connor) and later went on to sell-out appearances at the Jazz Café and Café Royal. In 1994 he embarked on A Living Legend—The Final Tour, a show which in 1996 he took to Japan, Australia and New Zealand. In 1998 he presented the BBC Radio 2 series Larry Adler’s Century and as late as 2001, although already in poor health, commissioned John Tavener to write him a new work. Larry left two volumes of autobiography, both every bit as colourful and forthright as the man himself: It Ain’t Necessarily So (1985) and Me And My Big Mouth (1994). To the very last a high-profile liberal spokesman for many causes, he was a regular correspondent to Private Eye, The Spectator and the New Statesman and a recidivistically outspoken media manipulator and “pain in the a s s” on all manner of subjects, political and apolitical, in addition to being a noted gourmet writer for Harper’s & Queen.
Larry Adler died in St Thomas Hospital, London on 6 August 2001, aged 87 years.