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Larry Adler

We remember the world best known player of the mouth organ, Larry Adler. He died recently at the age of 87. He got started on vaudeville, and went on to perform with Fred Astaire, George Gershwin, Jack Benny and many others. When George Gershwin first heard Adler play Rhapsody in Blue on the mouth-organ he said, "It sounds as if the goddamned thing was written for you." Adler also played classical music and performed with a number of symphony orchestras. Adler moved to England after being blacklisted during the McCarthy hearings.




Related Topic

Other segments from the episode on August 9, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 9, 2001: Interview with Mondli Makhanya and Howard Barrell; Obituary for Larry Adler.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Mondli Makhanya and Howard Barrell discuss racial
issues in South Africa

This is FRESH AIR. Terry Gross is on vacation. I'm Neal Conan.

Negotiators from more than a hundred countries are still trying to agree on a
draft document that would be adopted at the upcoming World Conference against
Racism, which is set to begin at the end of the month. The United States and
Israel have threatened to boycott the conference unless anti-Israeli
references are removed. Arab delegations insist that the treatment of
Palestinians in the occupied areas must be addressed. There is another
dispute about reparations for slavery, which does appear to be near

The conference itself will be held in Durban, South Africa at the end of the
month. South Africa made a peaceful transition to majority rule seven years
ago. The African National Congress, which led the struggle against apartheid,
is now the dominant political party. But race and racism are still major

I spoke earlier this week with two South African journalists in Johannesburg.
Mondli Makhanya, the political editor of the Sunday Times, and Howard Barrell,
editor of the Mail and Guardian. Howard Barrell has written about politicians
who play the race card. And I asked him what that means in South Africa.

Mr. HOWARD BARRELL (South African Journalist): Generally what it means is
that, in the course of a disagreement, one or other party--in this case, the
way it's used now, usually a black person--will say that whoever is
disagreeing with him--if that person is white, perhaps even if they're colored
or Indian--that he or she is being racist. So, it does occur quite a lot.

We have found the number of arguments curtailed by the deployment of the race
card--very important arguments about poverty relief, about the economy, about
how best to address issues of welfare, about how best to report the news, in
fact. Both Mondli's paper and my paper were heavily criticized by a
commission which was set up last year to look into what was termed racism in
the media. And the view there was that race was--well, certainly the view of
my newspaper, and my own view, was that race is being used disingenuously to
seek to establish the compliance of newspapers such as my own, and also
Mondli's newspaper, which have been willing to criticize government in quite
forthright terms over important issues.

Mr. MONDLI MAKHANYA (South African Journalist): But, also, I think there is
a great deal of entitlement. I mean, you find that criticism that comes from
particularly newspapers--I mean, you get different kind of criticism from
opposition parties, but from newspapers the kind of criticism that comes in,
is criticism that is aimed at protecting the interests of poor people and, in
fact, the people that the ANC fought to liberate. But those people are now
kind of like slowly being etched out of the debate because there's been a lot
of emphasis on creating this middle class. And this middle class--this black
middle class is busy enriching itself, and it is wanting to consolidate its
interests and build on the work that it has managed to accumulate in the past
seven years.

CONAN: Howard, we continue to talk--and for obvious reasons--about blacks and
whites, if you'll excuse the expression. But obviously, there are many
colored people--people of mixed race in South Africa, as well as a substantial
Indian community as well. Do they see these racial politics in the same

Mr. BARRELL: Well, I think that certainly the minorities and the so-called
colored or mixed-race people and those of Indian and Asian origin are smaller
than the white minority.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BARRELL: I think that they have, indeed, felt threatened. And if one
looks at the electoral support enjoyed by the opposition parties, it's quite
pronounced in those two communities. In the case of the so-called Indian
community, or Asian community, leading members or leading intellectuals from
that community played an extraordinarily proud role in the struggle against
apartheid and managed to achieve, during that struggle, a significant degree
of mobilization of the Indian community around the African National Congress
and its ideas--the ANC and its ideas. But with the actual onset of majority
rule--and that means largely black African rule--the Indian community has
swung, almost in total, across to the opposition parties, which is quite a
surprising development.

I think the move is being less pronounced among the so-called colored or mixed
race community. But nonetheless, one has seen evaporate very quickly the
support that developed among ordinary people in those racial minorities for
the ANC. It's been a remarkable and speedy shift.

CONAN: When you say the Indian community is moving from support to the ANC to
other political parties, do they tend to move to the right or to the left?

Mr. BARRELL: Well, no, very much to the right. I mean--well, when I say the
right, I mean these terms are all, of course, relative--but towards the
opposition parties, which--well, the main opposition party is one that is by
in large white led. It's called the Democratic Alliance. It consists of old
liberal elements, some of them with a very proud history of opposition to
apartheid, and, also, significantly, members of the old National Party, which
is the party that actually formulated apartheid. And the significant numbers
of these Asian people have joined up with that party; moving, substantially,
to the right of the ANC.

CONAN: The instrumentalities of apartheid, where the South African police
force and the army. Do most people--do most black people in South Africa
trust the police?

Mr. MAKHANYA: I think that trust levels for the police have increased
greatly. I mean, like in the past, I mean, like their police service was an
enemy of the people. If a police van was seen driving down a township's
street, there was a--children were afraid of the police, I mean. And youths
use to stone the police. And adults use to fear the police because the police
would come in to arrest them for not having the correct documentation, or
because they were political rivals of the regime.

But I think now, it has changed dramatically, because people can actually go
up to a policeman and ask them for the time. And that may not make much of a
diff--I mean, like, it may not be very surprising in a normal society, but
kind of like in South Africa, it is something that, 12 years ago, you'd never
do. But there is still an element of distrust, in a sense that people
perceive the police as being very corrupt, and people perceive the police as
being very slow and unable to solve crimes. So I think it's more a societal
distrust of the police as an instrument of law and order than an enemy of the
people, as they were in the past.

CONAN: Land is an explosive issue in southern Africa, in general, and South
Africa, in particular. Under apartheid farms were taken away from blacks; now
they are demanding that their land be returned. The government has promised
to do this by buying back the land at market rates. How is this going?
Howard, you first.

Mr. BARRELL: Well, it's not going very wall so far. I mean, at least it
hasn't reached Zimbabwe in proportions of breakdown. The issue in South
Africa is both one of land and also of housing, and one needs to sort of
separate these two out.

One has huge inflows of people into the cities and their surrounds, and have
vast squatter camps around the major cities of South Africa. The issue there
is the provision of land on the large scale to people who want nothing more
than, you know, a quarter-acre plot on which to erect, you know, a
shanty--some sort of shanty housing structure, in the short-term, at least,
but to have title to that land. And then for the government to--gradually, to
provide services and the finance to help these people upgrade that dwelling
structure into something permanent and habitable and healthily habitable.
That is one of the major requirements of government at the moment. And that
is an area in which government has fallen down very badly.

CONAN: Mondli Makhanya, we just mentioned the situation in Zimbabwe where
blacks, with government encouragement, are taking over and squatting on some
white-owned farms. This has caused a tremendous problem in Zimbabwe. And
recently in South Africa there were squatters that set up camps on government
and private-owned land and the government was forced to go in and evict them.

Mr. MAKHANYA: Historically, the South African--the difference between the
South African liberation struggle and the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe and
in many other southern African countries--is that in other countries, land was
very central in the liberation struggle. Whereas in South Africa, it was very
much a struggle against racial domination--against white domination. And that
was the rallying call of the liberation movement here. So, once liberation
came, there wasn't that much of an urgency in this country to, kind of like to
restore land and to put land at the top of their agenda, in so much as kind of
like creating racial equity. What's happening now is that you're seeing a lot
of impatience, particularly in the rural areas--people who are now, kind of
like, wanting that plot of land that Howard spoke about.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MAKHANYA: But more particularly in urban areas, because there is this
huge influx of, basically, people coming from the rural areas into the cities,
and from neighboring southern African countries, into South Africa in search
of jobs and in search of a better life, and in the belief that things are much
better here, there's huge pressure on, basically, kind of like, urban housing
land. When the government's housing program--I'm like--which has to its
credit--it has achieved something. There were five million people that
they've managed to house in the past seven years. And--but it's just--it is
just not keeping up with the pace of urbanization.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MAKHANYA: And it is partly, kind of like, the slowness of the government
in doing so. But also the banking community also has not come on board
because they just do not want to lend to low-cost housing projects.

CONAN: Howard Barrell, how did the government manage to put itself on the
wrong side of this issue in terms of seeing pictures on television of mothers
weeping as their homes are destroyed?

Mr. BARRELL: Well, it's a question that I think a lot of members of the
government are asking themselves as well. The point that Mondli made is a
very important one; that the government has scored massive achievements in the
area of housing. I think with the best will in the world, and with--given
budgetary restraints, the government could not have done a great deal more
than it has thus far in housing. What people are asking now, however, is the
government's commitments to spend what is about--what is now about 50 billion
rand, which, I think--if my math sense hasn't let me down--is about five to
six billion US dollars on a new arms deal.

The people are questioning whether that kind of expenditure on an arms deal in
a situation in which we, in South Africa itself, face no immediate military
threat. Certainly, there is instability far to the north of us, but we,
ourselves, face no immediate military threat. But that shows a cock-eyed and
perhaps, in the view of some people, a corrupt mind-set among some elements or
former elements in government, and the business sector.

As regards to how on Earth the government got on the wrong side of this, I
think that there is, among the sort of newly enriched, let's say, bureaucratic
and business middle-class among black people, an insensitivity--an
extraordinary insensitivity, that perhaps one sometimes associates with the
first generation rich of any race or in any country towards those who haven't
been able to make good as a result of the change in South Africa.

And there was some astonishing statements, one by the minister of agriculture
and land, who said that the people who had squatted or settled on this piece
of land, which became the source of dispute--just outside Johannesburg a few
weeks ago--that they should just merely go back to where they came from. But
where they came from was a completely untenable situation.

These are people who have no place in the cash economy whatsoever, unless
they're engaged in crime. There are no jobs for them and there is,
realistically, no prospect of any job for them in the medium, and perhaps even
in the long term. Now how are they to go back to townships, which is where
some of them were living, where they were expected to pay 200 to 300 rands a
month in rent, to share a room with perhaps five or six other people in a
black township?

Those people had no where to go to, and I think that what we're looking at is,
in the case of some individuals in government, a gross insensitivity that has
developed towards those--the less privileged people and the deprived.

CONAN: My guests are South African journalists Howard Barrell and Mondli
Makhanya. We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: We're speaking today with two journalists from Johannesburg, South
Africa: Mondli Makhanya is political editor of the Sunday Times in
Johannesburg, and Howard Barrell is editor of the Mail and Guardian in the
same city.

Let's talk, now, about health care and particularly the crisis that we, in
this country hear so much about in South Africa, and that is the extent of the
difficulties with HIV and AIDS. Twenty percent of the population--the adult
population is estimated to be suffering from HIV and AIDS. This is clearly a
dramatic and critical situation. Is this seen in racial terminology, Howard

Mr. BARRELL: I think there are tremendous racial sensitivities around the
issue. What President Mbeki has indicated, at times, is being exactly this
racial sensitivity. He has tended, at times, to present--or to seek to
present the AIDS crisis, as others would identify it, as a slur on black
African people, and the implication seems to be that it's a slur on black
African people's sexual practices of sexual habits. Now, I'm not aware that
there's any justification for that sensitivity issue. I've never heard AIDS
spoken of in that way or heard people, perhaps, indicate, you know, a slur of
that kind.

CONAN: Outside of South Africa, in this country for example, there's
incredulity at some of the statements made by President Mbeki, who denied for
several statements that HIV was connected with AIDS, and seems to be reluctant
to act quickly to bring in the cocktail of drugs; this after the drug
companies finally bowed in that lawsuit, and allowed generically priced drugs
to go into South Africa. Yet, this is still not happening. What is the
political context for President Mbeki's attitude? Mondli?

Mr. MAKHANYA: Only he can tell us.

Mr. BARRELL: I'm very pleased you asked Mondli that question.

Mr. MAKHANYA: Yeah, first of all, I think he will take you to task for
saying that he denied a link between HIV and AIDS. He always corrects people
and says, no, all he did was to question the link between HIV and AIDS. And
his officials will correct you on that.

But I think it essentially boils down to the personality and the character of
President Mbeki. I mean, kind of like he sees himself as somebody who is more
than just a president, more than just a politician--somebody who can and
should, sort of like delve into like the nitty gritties and the sophistries
which the experts who he has around him should be dealing with and advising
him on directions to take.

I mean, like, on this particular question, he has basically overruled and one
could say, actually, kind of like, ruptured over a lot of people who are
actually committed to fighting the disease, people who do not question the
link between HIV and AIDS, and people who actually do want to, kind of like,
arrest this catastrophe; people like his minister of health. I think his
minister of health would--if she was given, basically, the ...(unintelligible)
model she would unleash all her forces in the fight against HIV-AIDS. But she
is constrained by the fact that--and like, she answers to somebody who is a
bit ambivalent about fighting this disease.

CONAN: Howard Barrell, inevitably, people who are better off will get better
health care, better sanitation, all kinds of better services than people who
are not better off. In South Africa, the situation, as it exists now, most of
those people who are better off are white. Is this seen in racial terms or in
class terms?

Mr. BARRELL: I think, at this stage, I think it is accurate to make your
observation, Neal, that by and large at this stage, it's the whites who
proportionally, anyway, have a greater access to the kind of medical care they
need, than perhaps black people living with AIDS. And, you know, the results
are fairly horrific. I mean, there's this--the famous story of this young boy
in Nkosi Johnson, and it may well have--the story may well have run in the
US as well. This young child, who was born to a mother with HIV, who,
himself, contracted it as a baby, and was eventually adopted by a middle-class
white woman, and that enabled him to get access to medicines which prolonged
his life for quite some time. That was really a story of, for want of--and
this is a bit of a caricature really, but sort of a racial rescue in the sense
that here was somebody who had this privilege by an accident of birth had the
right to life almost.

Whereas somebody like in Kosi Johnson from, you know, the desperate beneath
class--that I refer to--here was somebody who, without the intervention of
this woman, just didn't have that access and wasn't going to get it from the
state because of positions adopted by the president and passed on by
bureaucrats or ministers too afraid to break decisively with him on a issue of
vital importance in the country: the treatment of the millions of people with

CONAN: Thank you both very much.

Mr. BARRELL: Well, thank you.

Mr. MAKHANYA: Thank you.

CONAN: Howard Barrell, editor of the Mail and Guardian. And Mondli Mathanya,
political editor of the Sunday Times. Both those newspapers are published in
Johannesburg. UN's World Conference on Racism is scheduled to begin in
Durban, South Africa, at the end of this month.

I'm Neal Conan. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Larry Adler, harmonica virtuoso, who died recently at the
age of 87

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Neal Conan, filling in for Terry Gross.

The great harmonica virtuoso, Larry Adler, died earlier this week at the age
of 87.

(Soundbite of Larry Adler preforming with his harmonica)

CONAN: Larry Adler grew up in Baltimore in an Orthodox Russian-Jewish family.
He moved to London in the 1950s after he was blacklisted during the McCarthy
era. His extraordinary career began in Vaudeville. He went on to perform
popular tunes with Fred Astaire, jazz with Duke Ellington and may be best
remembered for his classical repertoire, in particular, George Gershwin's
"Rhapsody in Blue." He also played Bach, Beethoven and Liszt with some of the
world's great symphony orchestras. Vaughan Williams and Darius Milhaud
composed pieces specifically for his talents.

Terry Gross interviewed Larry Adler in 1987.


It's been said of Adler's musicianship that what he can't do on the harmonica
can't be done. And Adler has said of his own work that he would like his
epitaph to repeat what Billie Holiday once said to him, `You don't play that
thing, you sing it.'

Larry Adler, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. LARRY ADLER (Musician): Thank you. I'm very ashamed of you. I may as
well start off playing the right...

GROSS: Now what did I do?

Mr. ADLER: Oh, you cleaned up the Billie Holiday story.

GROSS: No. I know. I took out the expletive.

Mr. ADLER: You know, why can't we tell it this way? She heard me play with
Duke Ellington, and then Duke took me over and said, `Larry, this is Billie
Holiday.' And I put out my hand to say, `How do you do?' And she says, `Man,
you don't play that bleeping thing, you sing it.' Now see, you can get it
that way.

GROSS: OK. Well, thanks. You shamed me. Well, you have brought your
harmonica with you, and before we talk about your life, I'd love for you to
maybe play a pop song for us and maybe I'll ask you to do...

Mr. ADLER: All right.

GROSS: ...some classical music later.

Mr. ADLER: I'll tell you what. You name the song, and I'll play it.
Anything you like.

GROSS: How about something by Rodgers & Hart...


GROSS: ...or Gershwin? I'll give you your choice.

(Soundbite of Larry Adler playing on his harmonica)

Mr. ADLER: Now do you know what chorus I'm about to go into?

GROSS: No. Was that the verse?

Mr. ADLER: That's the verse.

GROSS: No, I was trying to figure out why I didn't recognize it.

Mr. ADLER: Well, here comes the chorus.


(Soundbite of Larry Adler playing on his harmonica)

GROSS: Oh, that was great. "My Funny Valentine."

Mr. ADLER: Now, see nobody knows the verse. So nobody knows that that verse
leads into that chorus.

GROSS: That's great.

Mr. ADLER: I don't think anybody knows the verses of anything.

GROSS: You know, your tone is so different than the kind of tone that blues
players have. You really have a different kind of vibrato.

Mr. ADLER: Oh, yes. Quite.

GROSS: It's a completely different kind of tone.

Mr. ADLER: Well, you must remember, my tone is the sum total, probably, of
every musician I ever admired: Jascha Heifetz, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke
Ellington, Andres Segovia, Django Reinhardt, Louis Armstrong. All of
them--Bill Evans--all of them shape my playing. Because the minute I admire a
musician, something rubs off.

GROSS: The way you tell it in your autobiography, you ran away from home when
you were 14...

Mr. ADLER: Yes.

GROSS: the hopes of joining Borrah Minovich and his harmonica band,
and I think it's a pretty brave thing to run away when you're 14. But why did
you have to run away to do it?

Mr. ADLER: Well, I certainly couldn't have gotten permission from my mother
and father. They wouldn't let me at the age of 14 go to New York, and I
wanted to get away. And I had won this mouth organ competition. I was
Baltimore's mouth organ champion. I read in the paper, `Lawrence Cecil
Adler'--this is the man you're talking to--`is the champion of Baltimore,' and
boy, I believed it. Went right to my head. And I was stage struck. I'd seen
Al Jolson, I'd seen Eddie Cantor. I'd also heard Rachmaninoff. I'd seen Otto
Klemperer conduct. I wanted to do what they did. And the best way was to get
on the stage somehow. Now I had about $50 that my parents didn't know about
because I sold Liberty magazines. So simply without telling them, I went down
to Union Station in Baltimore, got on a train. I had met a musician named Ned
Bruceloff(ph), who'd the great mistake of saying to me, `If you ever come to
New York, kid, look me up.' He didn't know, because I looked him up. And the
poor man had to take care of me.

GROSS: Well, you never made it into the Borroh Minovich band.

Mr. ADLER: Well, that was thanks to Borroh Minovich because I auditioned for
him and I played my guts out, because this to me--this was the epitome, this
was God. And I played the Beethoven "Minuet in G," which was the piece
that I'd used to win the Baltimore mouth organ competition. And when I
finished playing, Mr. Minovich said, `Kid, you stink.' I started to cry. I
still can't imagine the savagery of talking to a young kid like that. And
Borroh had a dwarf in his band named Johnny Palayo(ph), and Johnny said,
`Borroh, why don't you let the kid come on with us for one show?' And
Minovich says, `Ah, get him out of here. He stinks.'

Now how does one go on from that? That is the thing that baffles me.

GROSS: Well, how did you go on after that?

Mr. ADLER: Well, I got on a streetcar--they had streetcars in those
days--and I was going down to Penn Station, and I intended to go back to
Baltimore because if Minovich didn't want me, what future was there? When the
streetcar got to the Paramount Theatre on Broadway, there was Rudy
Vallee's name in lights and I remembered hearing him on the radio, and on
impulse, I got off the streetcar, sneaked past the doorman, played to Vallee,
who put me on that night at his nightclub, where I flopped. It didn't mean a
thing. But Vallee had noticed me. He didn't say, `Kid, you stink.'

So on the strength of that minute encouragement, I stayed on, and within a
week, I had a job on the Paramount circuit, including, by the way, playing in
Philadelphia. And I played 44 weeks, doing four, five and six shows a day,
and that's how I began.

GROSS: You were in Vaudeville for quite a while.

Mr. ADLER: Oh, yes.

GROSS: What was your act like and what were some of the roles you had to take
on in the act?

Mr. ADLER: Well, it was--it's a bit embarrassing because when I first had
this contract with Paramount and I tried to do an act, well, I didn't have an
act. I didn't know how to do an act. And it was the comedian in the show--it
was a traveling road show. He thought of the idea of making me a local boy.
So in 44 cities, I was a local boy. I was a local boy in Philadelphia. I was
a local boy in Chicago and Denver. And I used to get the most applause of
anyone on the bill because, `This is our local boy. Give him a big hand.' So
the other acts hated my guts, but there I was local boy making good.

One thing that does puzzle me. In those days, we did not use microphones and
there were stage bands. How in hell could they hear me? A mouth organ has
very little projection power, and yet, when I finished playing, they
applauded. So do you suppose--and this is one theory--did they listen better
in those days? Without the amplification, they would have to listen to hear
the sound, and maybe that is the explanation.

CONAN: Larry Adler speaking with Terry Gross in 1987. The harmonica virtuoso
died earlier this week. More of his conversation after a break. This is

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: Before we get back to Terry Gross' 1987 interview with Larry Adler,
let's hear him perform "With Plenty of Money and You" recorded in 1937.

(Soundbite of Larry Adler playing the harmonica)

GROSS: How did you break into pop music, American popular song, playing
Rodgers & Hart, meeting the Gershwins...

Mr. ADLER: Well, mind you, look who was around in those days.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. ADLER: Not only Rodgers & Hart, Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Harold
Ireland(ph). Well, these people were like Schubert and Mendelssohn. They
just wrote wonderful things, and you wanted to play them. Now I was in Gus
Edwards' act, it was a kiddy act. And while I was with him at the Palace,
Paul Whiteman was playing at the Roxy with his own ...(unintelligible) the
Kings of Jazz.

And I was dying to have Whiteman listen to me. So between my shows, I would
go up to the Roxy and stand outside the stage door. And whoever came in or
out, I'd blow the mouth organ in their face, hoping someone would say, `What a
talented little boy this is.' Well, finally, someone did--Frankie
Trumbauer--the very, very famous saxophone player. Took me into Whiteman's
dressing room, he says, `Paul, listen to this kid.' So I played "Poet and
Peasant." And when I finished playing it, Whiteman said, `Let me hear you
play the "Rhapsody in Blue".' I was 15. I couldn't handle the "Rhapsody in
Blue." But I was a very arrogant, snotty little kid, and success has not
changed me. I couldn't let him know that I didn't know "Rhapsody in Blue"
and that it was too tough for me. So, I said, `I don't like "Rhapsody in
Blue." So he turns to a young man I hadn't noticed before, and he said, `How
do you like that, George?' And that's how I met Gershwin.

GROSS: Were you friends after that?

Mr. ADLER: Well, that was the end of that...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. ADLER: ...because I got out fast.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. ADLER: But, however, about three years later, a man named Jules Glaenzer,
who was the vice president of Cartier, gave me a farewell party. I was
going to England for the first time. This was 1934. And at this party, there
was Johnny Green, there was Harold Ireland, there was Cole Porter, Irving
Berlin, George Gershwin. And with them all, I played a song of theirs.

Now I knew that sooner or later, I was going to play something with George.
And then our host, Jules Glaenzer, said, `Larry and George are going to play
the "Rhapsody in Blue."' Well, by now, I had heard it so many times, it was
in my head. And I've got a very good ear. If it's my head, I can play it.
So George sat at the piano, I started to play, and when we finished playing,
George got up and he put his hand on my shoulder and he said, `The God damn
thing sounds as if I wrote it for you.' Now that's beautiful...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. ADLER: ...because, to me, the God damn thing still does sound that way.
And in my act now, I have a piano role made by George Gershwin. And that is
on that record also. And I put scotch tape over the melody line, it sounds
literally as if Gershwin is accompanying me. It's wonderful. And it's an
eerie feeling.

GROSS: You toured with Jack Benny for a...

Mr. ADLER: Yes.

GROSS: ...long time. Did you ever play music comedy with him? We all
remember his attempts at being a violin virtuoso.

Mr. ADLER: Well, we would do a duet together, and Jack would hit one note
like this.

(Soundbite of Larry Adler playing his harmonica)

Mr. ADLER: And me on the mouth going.

(Soundbite of Larry Adler playing his harmonica)

Mr. ADLER: Jack.

(Soundbite of Larry Adler playing his harmonica)

Mr. ADLER: Jack.

(Soundbite of Larry Adler playing his harmonica)

Mr. ADLER: See, all that did one note. And it was very funny, and I probably
learned as much from Jack Benny as one could learn from any individual
performer because, first of all, he was an encyclopedia. And he gave me
advice once in two words, which is the most valuable lesson I think you could
ever learn in show business, and the two words are `Don't press.' And, boy,
that is a hard lesson to learn, because if you're playing for an audience that
doesn't like you, the impulse is `Work harder! Win them over!' He says do
just the opposite, relax, wait for them to find you. And, boy, it sure takes
you a long time to do that.

GROSS: Well, he had some of the best timing in all of show business.

Mr. ADLER: There is nothing like Jack's timing.

GROSS: And one of the subtlest performers.

Mr. ADLER: Yes. And also, he was one of the most considerate of people.
See, I did three overseas tours with Jack Benny during World War II, and he
encouraged me to do comedy. And if I got a bigger laugh than Jack--to him,
that just made the show better. There's many a comedian I know who, if you
got a bigger laugh than they, you were out, you were fired. That was not
Jack's way.

GROSS: We should talk about your classical music playing. We talked a little
about Vaudeville and pop. Very, very few people have played classical music
on the harmonica. Why did you drift toward that?

Mr. ADLER: I was always inclined toward the classical because the first
musical impression I think I ever had was Sergey Rachmaninoff. An uncle took
me to a recital of his at the Lyric Theater in Baltimore. And I believe
that I can still remember the impression that that magnificent musician made
on this little kid, five years old. And when I first played with the
Baltimore Symphony in the same building where I heard Rachmaninoff, I
remember walking around the hall, seeing if I could remember where I was
sitting to hear Rachmaninoff.

But once having heard Rachmaninoff, I wanted to play classical music. And
then I heard Jascha Heifetz, I heard Pablo Casals. Well, of course I wanted
to do what they did. This was great music I was listening to. And it didn't
occur to me to consider whether or not the instrument was right for it. If
I wanted to do it, that was my medium and I thought that I would be able to
express myself on it. And I think I do.

GROSS: Can I ask you to play some classical music for us now? Some Bach

Mr. ADLER: You can ask me. Maybe I won't answer you.

GROSS: Well, let's try.

Mr. ADLER: Well, what would you like?

GROSS: Something by Bach?

Mr. ADLER: By Bach. Sure.

(Soundbite of Larry Adler playing his harmonica)

CONAN: Bach on the harmonica, performed by Larry Adler. More of Terry
Gross's 1987 interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: Let's hear more of the late Larry Adler, who spoke with Terry Gross
in 1987.

GROSS: Several composers have written works for you.

Mr. ADLER: Yes.

GROSS: And I'm sure those were composers who had never written for your
instrument. What did you have to tell them about how to play harmonica and
what a harmonica can or can't do?

Mr. ADLER: Well, I would lay out a diagram showing the limitations and
capabilities. Like, for example, Vaughan Williams. I gave him a diagram
showing which intervals, which chords were possible, which ones we couldn't
play. And Vaughan Williams told me he pasted my instructions on his shaving
mirror. And while he shaved, he would study what to write and what not to
write. When the work was finished, there were a few things he'd written that
were unplayable. For example, he had me playing C and F together. And you
can't do that, because you exhale C and you inhale F. And even with my two
heads, I've never been able to figure out a way to do that.

So I went down to Dorking, where he lived, after I'd received the manuscript.
And I said, `Mr. Vaughan Williams, please forgive me, but there are certain
things in the work that do not lie naturally for the mouth organ.' And he
interrupted me. He says, `So you don't like what I wrote, eh?' Well, I
wasn't saying that at all. But, of course, I know now he was doing this for
effect--in his way he was like Jack Benny. He says, `Well, if you don't like
the way I wrote it,' and he paused in that time, and then he says, `I'll
change it, and if you like it the second time I'll revise it once more. But
if you don't like it the third time, I'm going to re-score the whole bloody
thing for bass tuba!'

GROSS: Would it be imposing to ask you to play a line or two...

Mr. ADLER: No.

GROSS: ...that one of the composers wrote for you?

Mr. ADLER: Well, here's the beginning of the Vaughan Williams. Now he used
the chord possibility of the mouth organ better than almost any other
composer. And here's the beginning of the Vaughan Williams "Romance" for
mouth organ, piano and strings.

(Soundbite of Larry Adler playing the harmonica)

Mr. ADLER: You see how he uses the chord possibilities?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. ADLER: Now against that, he has a steady B-double flat and it just sounds
wonderful. You hear the bass note of the B-double flat and those chords you
just heard me play.

GROSS: When you play with an orchestra, the orchestra has to tune to you, is
that right?

Mr. ADLER: Yes. Well, the only man who ever gave me a hard time was your own
ex-conductor of the Philadelphia Symphony, Eugene Ormandy. There was the Ford
Symphony Hour, and Mr. Ormandy was the conductor and I was going to be the
soloist playing the Vivaldi A-minor concerto--the Vivaldi violin concerto.
And I heard later he did not want to conduct for me at all, and he tried to
get me cancelled. But we each had a contract; mine was as valid as his. Now
he rehearsed the orchestra and didn't let me come out until the last 10
minutes of rehearsal time, which was really awful. So I came out and I gave
my A to the violinist, and Ormandy says, `What is this?' I said, `Well, you
see, they have to tune to me. The mouth organ's a fixed reed. I cannot tune
to them.' He said, `This is ridiculous.' And I'd never talked back to a
conductor--I'm a coward anyway--but I said to him, `Mr. Ormandy, I have played
this work with this orchestra last year. If it embarrasses you to conduct it,
I think we could do it without you.'

GROSS: Oh, I'm sure you got a great response to that.

Mr. ADLER: Oh, the orchestra loved it.

GROSS: Oh, dear. So what happened?

Mr. ADLER: Well, we--he conducted it perfectly well for me, but he didn't
talk to me after the concert.

GROSS: I'm sure. I'm sure. Geez, you know, I would've liked to see you when
you were 10 years old and you were a cantor in...

Mr. ADLER: Oh, I was so cute. You would've loved me. I was the most
adorable little schmuck you've ever seen in your life.

GROSS: But you were a 10-year-old--and for any listeners who don't know what
a cantor is--the cantor is the person who conducts the singing part...

Mr. ADLER: Yes.

GROSS: ...of the religious ceremony in a Jewish temple. And I'm wondering if
you did that when you were 10 for reasons of show business or religion.

Mr. ADLER: No. What had happened was, I was in a choir in Baltimore, and at
the end of the High Holidays, they gave each choir boy a gold watch, which I
found very unsatisfactory. There was a choir on the synagogue across Drewid
Hill Park(ph), where they paid money. So I went over there and auditioned for
them and got in their choir. Religion had nothing to do with it. Now the
cantor--his name was Adolf Veiscolf(ph)--decided to create a children's
synagogue and had me as the cantor. And I must admit that during my term as
cantor, I was so religious. But then, during my term as cantor, I became 13.
I was barmitzvahed, which meant I was a man. And I lost my job as cantor, and
the religion began to fall away as of that moment.

GROSS: There's no money...

Mr. ADLER: No.

GROSS: ...or fame in it anymore.

Mr. ADLER: I lost my power base.

CONAN: Harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler spoke with Terry Gross. He died
Tuesday at the age of 87.

(Soundbite of harmonica music)


CONAN: For Terry Gross, I'm Neal Conan.

(Soundbite of harmonica music)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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