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Adler: Blowing Loud And Sweet

August 01, 1986|MARC SHULGOLD

When discussing his prowess on the harmonica, Larry Adler doesn't hesitate to toot his own horn, so to speak. But he much prefers to let others do the talking.

Adler, now 72, engages in some major-league name-dropping as he recalls a career that stretches back 58 years. Among the names:

Billie Holiday--"Duke Ellington introduced us after he and I did a duet one night. As I shook her hand she said, 'You don't play that (expletive) thing, you sing it!' "

George Gershwin--"I had nagged him to write something for me. But after we played 'Rhapsody in Blue' together at a party he told me, 'Why should I write anything? The Rhapsody is perfect the way you play it.' "

Busby Berkeley--"He said I had the most beautiful hands since Garbo."

These quotes are included in the harmonica player's story of his life, due to be published in this country next spring. Adler chuckles over the title: "The Man I Love--An Autobiography."

"I've never been known for having a small ego," he says during a conversation from his brother's North Hollywood home. The veteran musician is in town for pops concerts by the Los Angeles Philharmonic tonight and Saturday in Hollywood Bowl. The program, incidentally, includes Gershwin's Rhapsody.

If, as he suggests, Adler is still at the top of an elite group of players (Toots Thielemans, Stevie Wonder and the late Sonny Terry are the only other ones to gain his respect), why haven't we heard more from him in recent years? Where's he been?

"In the early '50s, I was heavily blacklisted," he recalls, the bitterness still evident in his voice. "I sued this woman who claimed that all the money I made went directly to Moscow. The trial ended in a hung jury, but after that I couldn't get work. So I went to England."

He's lived there since. "I like England," he says. "And I like being back here, although I don't really feel at ease. I just can't feel good about a system that can allow that (blacklisting) to happen to someone.

"You know, my score for the film 'Genevieve' (1954) received an Academy Award nomination but my name was not mentioned, because it had been removed from the film credits." On the agenda during his brief Southern California stay is a visit to the motion picture academy to pick up the nomination certificate--more than 30 years later.

The quiet, predictable path has seemingly never appealed to Adler, even in his early days in Baltimore. "I wanted to be a pianist, actually, so I enrolled in the Peabody Conservatory, but I couldn't handle all the practicing. I think I'm still the only student in the school's history to be expelled. At a recital, I played 'Yes, We Have No Bananas' and they sent my parents a letter asking them not to bring me back."

Adler's eventual move to Hollywood brought the proverbial fame and fortune. Commissioned works by the likes of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Darius Milhaud added to his stature.

Then came the McCarthy Era, and Adler's move to England. Despite his self-imposed exile, he has not lost touch with musical happenings here--particularly in regard to the harmonica, or mouth organ (he claims no preference). What he's seen and heard has not pleased him.

"I think (Bob) Dylan and the others have almost destroyed the instrument. They just strap on a holder and blow, but you need your hands to make a sound chamber and to help with the vibrato.

"Of course, the harmonica still carries the stigma of being a street-corner instrument. Back when I was in Hollywood, the musicians union didn't even recognize it--they thought it was a toy."

With the passing of years, Adler insists that his tone and technique are still intact: "If I meet someone better than me, I'll be his press agent." His youthful vigor likewise remains undiminished--he is engaged to a woman of 38.

The sole sign of modesty surfaces at the suggestion that Adler is a virtuoso. "I just don't like that term," he responds. "What does it mean? It certainly can't imply that I'm virtuous."

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