If Adler's harmonica could talk: words and music of a virtuoso

September 30, 1994|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

It's hard to say which is Larry Adler's greater talent -- playing harmonica or telling stories.

Granted, his reputation on the mouth organ is formidable. It would be tempting to call him the Casals of his instrument, except that Adler's interests extend well beyond the classical repertoire. True, he has had pieces written for him by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Hector Villa-Lobos, Darius Milhaud and Malcolm Arnold. But the Baltimore-born musician has also recorded with everyone from Duke Ellington and Django Rheinhardt to Sonny Terry and Sting.

In fact, his new album, "The Glory of Gershwin" (Mercury 314 522 727), places him alongside a who's who of contemporary pop. In addition to Sting, Adler's duet partners include Elton John, Peter Gabriel, Sinead O'Connor, Lisa Stansfield, Meat Loaf and Cher -- pretty good company for a man who turned 80 earlier this year.

Even so, what Adler can do with a melody is nothing compared to the way he can spin a story. It helps that's he's quick-witted, well-spoken and often wickedly funny, but he also seems to have known everyone and been everywhere. As such, he can drop names with breathtaking ease.

"I once won a contest with Walter Cronkite," he says, as he sits in a conference room at his label's New York offices. "I said, 'I'll bet I can drop more names in one story than you can.' And all he could do was one with John and Jackie Kennedy, and Bobby."

Surreal story

So what was Adler's topper? It had to do with his old tennis buddy, Charlie Chaplin.

"I used to play tennis with him a lot, because he lived near me in Beverly Hills," says Adler. "He had a court with a cork surface, so your feet never got tired.

"My great name-dropping story is, he once called me and said, 'Come up right away. Bert Tilden has dropped out, and we need somebody to make up a fourth.' Tilden was only the world's greatest tennis player. So I came up there, and we're hitting against two people: Greta Garbo and Salvador Dali."

If it seems hard to imagine a more surreal sight than Salvador Dali playing tennis, don't worry. Adler says the painter was hopeless on the court. "Couldn't hit a ball," he says. "Garbo wasn't bad, and Chaplin was easily the best of the four of us."

As for his own abilities, Adler adds that he tried to get into "The Guinness Book of World Records" as the world's only tennis player who couldn't beat anybody. "They rejected that. But now, I'm in the 'Guinness Book.' I came in this year as the oldest musician ever to make the pop charts. So I'm in the next edition of the 'Guinness Book.' "

"The Glory of Gershwin" is, in fact, a smash in Britain, where it sits in the Top-40 albums chart alongside the likes of Eric Clapton, Oasis and the Pet Shop Boys. To say that Adler is pleased would be an understatement; truth is, he almost didn't make this album.

When he began planning the album, more than a year ago, the idea was to celebrate his 80th birthday (which took place in February). "I wanted to make a record," he says. "But my idea was to make a classical record. I had already approached Itzhak Perlman, Placido Domingo and Isaac Stern, and they all seemed agreeable. Because I'd worked with all of them, I knew them. In fact, if you want to go into it, Placido told me I was responsible for his first paid engagement."


When Domingo was 17, relates Adler, he was knocking around in Mexico City, unsure of what he wanted to do in life. Word came along that there was a part for him in a film, playing mouth organ.

Domingo told him he didn't know how to play the mouth organ, but he had a record of Adler's on which Adler played "Caravan." He told Adler: "So I bought a mouth organ, took it home, put your record on, and in four days of playing along with your record, I found I could do a pretty good impression of you. So I went out to the studio, played 'Caravan,' got the job, and that was my first paid engagement."

"I said," adds Adler in perfect deadpan, " 'Placido, are you telling me you gave all that up to become a singer?' "


But back to the album. "So I was planning this classical record, and then Sting calls me and says, 'I heard you're making a birthday record. Would you like me on it?' "

Sting, it turns out, became an Adler acolyte after the mouth organ man played on his album "Ten Summoner's Tales." The two got on so well that Sting asked Adler to join him for shows at the Albert Hall in London. "At the first concert, I had to make a beg-off speech," says Adler. "I said, 'At my age, it's unlikely that I'll have any more children. But if I adopt one, I'd like it to be Sting.' And he came to the mic and said, 'Thanks, dad.' "

Sting's eagerness to get involved "changed my whole conception," Adler continues. "I then decided to make it with pop stars, rather than a classical record. I got Elton John, Sting and Issy van Randwyck for the album; [producer] George Martin got everybody else."

Out of nowhere

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