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PEOPLE IN AMERICA - September 16, 2001: Larry Adler - 2001-09-14


I’m Doug Johnson.


And I’m Bob Doughty with the VOA Special English program, PEOPLE IN AMERICA.

Today, we tell about a world famous musician, Larry Adler, who played the harmonica.

The harmonica, or mouth organ, is a simple musical instrument. You blow air into it and it produces sound. Most people consider it nothing but a child’s toy.

Anyone can learn to play a few songs on a harmonica. It is not difficult.

In the hands of Larry Adler, however, the simple harmonica became an important musical instrument.



Lawrence Cecil Adler was born February Tenth, Nineteen-Fourteen in Baltimore, Maryland. Music was always very important to Larry Adler. As a child, he sang Jewish religious songs in the synagogue. He was admitted to a famous music school in Baltimore to study the piano.

Larry Adler was not a student at the school for long. He was asked to leave because of a song he played at an important school performance. He was supposed to play a classical music piece. But the head teacher of the school had made the young Larry Adler angry. So, he played a silly popular song called “Yes, We Have No Bananas.” The head teacher became extremely angry. Larry Adler was expelled from the school.


That simple incident tells a lot about Larry Adler. He was a rebel. He did not like to follow orders from anyone. He lived his life the way he thought best. Perhaps that is why he chose a musical instrument that most people considered a toy. In fact, Larry Adler won a music contest in Baltimore playing classical music with the harmonica. He entered the contest and defeated four-hundred other young people by playing music written by Ludwig van Beethoven. The others played mostly simple popular songs.

You must listen to his music to understand how serious an instrument the harmonica was for Larry Adler. Here he plays a popular song called “Blues in the Night.”



Larry Adler ran away from home when he was fourteen years old. He already knew he wanted to be a musician. He wanted to play the harmonica.

He arrived in New York City and went to see the popular singer Rudy Vallee. The man listened to him play. Then he said, “Save your money because once they hear you, that is it. They will never want to hear you again.”

However, Rudy Vallee did help Larry Adler find work. One of his first jobs was playing the harmonica for some of the first Mickey Mouse Cartoons produced by Walt Disney.


As a young man, Larry Adler did not know how to read music. He could listen to a record played a few times and then play the song with his harmonica. He could do this with extremely difficult songs.

Not being able to read music did not seem to harm his career. He was already a famous musician when a friend told him that reading music would increase his understanding of what he was playing. Larry Adler learned to read music.


Larry Adler met the famous music composer George Gershwin at a party in New York. Mister Gershwin’s famous “Rhapsody in Blue,” was very popular. Friends asked the two men to play the famous work.

At first George Gershwin refused. He did not think a harmonica should play his beautiful song. But friends said they should play, so Mister Gershwin agreed. When they were done, George Gershwin praised Larry Adler’s playing. He said it sounded almost as if he had written “Rhapsody in Blue” for Mister Adler and his harmonica.


Several years later, George Gershwin used a special device called a recording piano to play and record “Rhapsody in Blue.” After the famous composer’s death, Larry Adler often played the harmonica with the recording piano of George Gershwin playing “Rhapsody in Blue.” Mister Gershwin’s sister attended one of the performances. Later, she told Mister Adler, “I could almost see him sitting there playing the piano.”

Listen as Larry Adler and George Gershwin play one of the most famous pieces of American music, “Rhapsody in Blue.”



Larry Adler appeared in movies, produced records and performed around the world for many years. In Nineteen-Forty-Nine, he was asked to appear before a congressional committee that was investigating Americans who were members of the Communist Party.

Mister Adler was in Britain at the time. He refused to return to the United States and appear before the committee. He made his home in Britain and did not return to the United States for many years. Larry Adler was not a Communist, but he could not take orders from anyone, or any political party. The congressional committee had made him angry. He said later that was why he refused to appear.


In recent years, Larry Adler became famous to a new group of young people. He appeared with many famous young musicians. He also introduced the music of George Gershwin to younger audiences.

Larry Adler’s musical career began at the age of fourteen in Nineteen-Twenty-Eight. It ended with his death August Seventh, Two-Thousand-One. He was eighty-seven years old.

We leave you with Larry Adler playing another of George Gershwin’s famous works, “I Got Rhythm.”



This Special English program was written and produced by Paul Thompson. I’m Doug Johnson.


And I’m Bob Doughty. Join us again next week for another PEOPLE IN AMERICA program on the Voice of America.