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Chromatic Harmonica Player : Larry Adler

The chromatic harmonica player Larry Adler (Lawrence Cecil Adler aka Larry) was born in Baltimore, Md, 2/10/1914 and passed away in London, UK, 8/7/2001.

Chromatic harmonica player – Early Years

Young Larry wanted to become a piano player after he attended a concert by Rachmaninov. His mother therefore registered him at the Peabody Baltimore music school from which he got fired for “bad temper and lack of skills”. He still badly wanted to become a concertist and decided to take on the harmonica after he saw Fred Sonnen’s Baltimore Harmonica Band in 1926. He rapidly became a good enough chromatic harmonica player to win some local contests playing Beethoven’s minuet in G. He then rushed to New York to meet his idol Borrah Minevitch but the Harmonica Rascal leader rejected him and Larry would always have a tooth against Minevitch.

He managed to get hired by a few Vaudeville shows playing for instance behind a curtain while two wrestlers were fighting a bear. From there he hopped on Broadway shows like Smiles and Flying Colors featuring Fred Astaire. Even though he played minor parts he managed to catch Charles Cochran’s attention who loved the chromatic harmonica and dreamed about incorporating it into the classical repertoire. His new manager dressed him up in a tuxedo and had Larry Adler work hard on classical pieces that were unheard on the harmonica. In 1934 Cochran had Larry perform in England famous classical tunes by Mozart, Bach, Ravel, Poulenc, Stravinsky or Debussy accompanied by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Those concerts got him raves and severe critics. He recorded his first solo album Smoke gets in your eyes that historically promoted the chromatic harmonica to the public and sold over 200,000 copies. Hohner saw an opportunity and created a signature Larry Adler model.

Chromatic harmonica player : The Emperor

In the next few years he remained in London and toured all over the world with the Musical Streamline. In 1938 he recorded 4 tunes with Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. This session would help his reputation in the jazz genre as a chromatic harmonica player. Famous in Europe but forgotten in the US Larry decided it’s time to move back home and after he performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra he hooked up a recording contract with RCA-Victorthat included Ravel’s Bolero turning out into a big hit even though Ravel complained this was a treason to his work.  He then went to Hollywood where he performed in a lot of movies and made friends with Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo.

Finally an international and worldwide famous chromatic harmonica player Larry Adler recorded many Broadway, Musicals, Jazz pieces. The classical ones were always the ones that got more attention and popular success. There on classical composers such as Jean Berger and Darius Milhaud started to write for him.

During the 1940s, Adler and the dancer, Paul Draper, formed an act and toured nationally and internationally, performing individually then together in each performance. in 1949 the McCarthysm years pushed Larry back to Great Britain  where many classical composers wrote music for him. He also recorded more popular tunes like the popular soundtrack Touchez pas au Grisbi that made quite a success. He tried to make another come back in the US but his snobbism did not do him good and he finally moved back to England where he became the president of the National Harmonica League. His character showed up here and there with his acerbic critics against blues and folk players and he would even say that Little Walter lacked any talent …

In 1977  Aram Khatchaturian wrote the Armenian Rhapsody for Mouth Organ and Orchestra especially for Larry Adler. He also recorded many studio session with british pop singers : Sting, Elvis Costello, Kate Bush or Elton John. In 1994 he finally recorded his final album The Glory Of Gershwin for Mercury records that was a fantastic success and sold over 2,000,000 copies.
He died in St Thomas’ Hospital, London, at 87, on 7 August 2001. His brother Jerry was also a famous Chromatic Harmonica Player who recorded many soundtracks in Hollywood.

This video features Larry Adler on chromatic harmonica interpreting Debussy Clair de Lune.
It’s an excerpt from the 1944 MGM movie Music for Millions :


Get the Larry Adler 16 hole chromatic harmonica favorite by Hohner

There is also a 12 hole chromatic larry adler signature harmonica model

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