Larry Adler, 87, a legendary harmonica player who performed with everyone from George Gershwin to Sting and was credited with elevating the wheezy favorite of campfire musicians and cowpokes into a respected instrument, died Aug. 6 at a London hospital. He had pneumonia and cancer.
Mr. Adler, a Baltimore native, established his reputation through a variety of Broadway revues, concerts and films during the last 80 years -- including an Oscar-nominated score for the breezy British film "Genevieve" (1953).
He played with several generations of renowned musicians, including bandleader Paul Whiteman and guitarist Django Reinhardt. Sir George Martin, best known for producing the Beatles, commemorated Mr. Adler's 80th birthday with the release "The Glory of Gershwin," in which he performed with Sting, Cher, Elton John and Meat Loaf. The release went gold in 1994.
Among the composers who wrote scores for him were Ralph Vaughan Williams, Malcolm Arnold, Darius Milhaud and Joaquin Rodrigo. He paired with tap dancer Paul Draper in a formidable act that earned as much as to $200,000 annually throughout the 1940s.
It was a marvelous accomplishment for the mouth organ, long associated with songs of the lonesome prairie and a staple of folk musicians. "I'm not going to change" that stereotype, Mr. Adler once told The Washington Post. "I can play for the next hundred years and it won't change that. Even friends of mine, if they haven't heard me play for a while, are amazed that I can make music out of it."
Singer Billie Holiday once told him, "Man, you don't play that thing -- you sing it."
At the Kennedy Center in 1984, Post critic Joe Brown was similarly dazzled by Mr. Adler's prowess on an instrument seldom associated with genius. Brown wrote that Mr. Adler "coaxed complex and delicate sounds from the simple and versatile instrument, making his 'tin sandwich' sound like a trumpet, an accordion and strings, along with the tangy, twangy tones of the harmonica."
Yet he barely learned to read music until his mid-twenties, when composers began writing for him. He was known to hear a recording only twice before perfectly mimicking long passages of a score.
Lawrence Cecil Adler, the son of Orthodox Jews, grew up listening to religious music. At 10, he became the youngest cantor in Baltimore and enrolled at the Peabody Institute's music school. Brash and rebellious, he was dismissed from the piano training program for being "incorrigible, untalented and entirely lacking in ear."
He persisted on the piano and ordered one for his home without his parents' permission. The amused music store owner threw in a harmonica along with the piano, and he soon mastered the rectangular gadget.
In 1927, he received a top prize in a harmonica contest by blowing Beethoven's Minuet in G while his rivals offered such folk fare as "Turkey in the Straw."
His parents hoped he would become a doctor or lawyer, but Mr. Adler ran away to New York shortly after the contest to begin his musical career. His parents, both Russian immigrants, were not amused and said he had to make good fast or come home.
After several rejections, he let himself into crooner Rudy Vallee's dressing room and talked Vallee into letting him perform at the Heigh-Ho Club.
He moved on to vaudeville work at the Paramount Theater, followed by parts in the Florenz Ziegfeld revue "Smiles" and Lew Leslie's "Clowns in Clover." In both shows, he perfected a routine as a street urchin playing for pennies but longed for a better showcase, with nicer clothes.
He accepted a Hollywood film offer that would place him in a dinner jacket. After making "Many Happy Returns" (1934), he was engaged to play in a London revue with the promise that he could appear in dapper suits.
During the 1930s, he became a major stage figure in Europe, and his popularity caused a spike in harmonica sales. Shows were written for him, and he received fourth billing -- after Charles Laughton, Vivien Leigh and Rex Harrison -- in the tender and compelling drama "Sidewalks of London" (1938).
Returning to the United States in 1939, he was virtually unknown and found work scarce until appearing as a soloist with the Chicago Women's Symphony. That assignment solidified his reputation as a keen interpreter of classical music, and he next played with such orchestras as the Cleveland Symphony and New York Philharmonic.
His career suffered a huge setback during the Communist purge of the entertainment field that began in the late 1940s. An avid supporter of Progressive Party candidate Henry A. Wallace in the 1948 presidential race, he was fingered in print as a Communist sympathizer by the wife of a Time magazine picture editor.
Though a jury deadlocked on his libel suit against the woman, the publicity cost him many engagements, and Mr. Adler settled in England for the rest of his life.
He went on to write soundtracks for films, including "Genevieve." His name was removed from the credits in the United States, despite the Oscar nomination for the musical work. It was restored more than three decades later.
Mr. Adler's marriages to Eileen Walser and Sally Cline ended in divorce. Survivors include four children, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.