Adler, 80, records his pal Gershwin with pop stars


London -- Larry Adler, the bad boy of Baltimore who became the world's first harmonica virtuoso, will celebrate his 80th birthday here Thursday with vigor, lots of parties and a new CD recorded with a clutch of collaborators mostly less than half his age.

He is recording "The Glory of Gershwin" with a bunch of semi-ju- veniles, fitting since he is one of a handful of performers still around who played duets with the great composer.

Working with Mr. Adler on the recording will be more than a dozen other pop stars, among them Sting, Elvis Costello, Elton John, Sinead O'Connor, Robert Palmer, Boy George and Carly Simon, all singing Gershwin tunes.

The only non-Gershwin work on the CD will be "The Gettysburg Address" recited by Ingrid Bergman as Mr. Adler plays "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." He's reconstructed a performance they gave together at the end of World War II at Hitler's blasted chancellery in Berlin.

"I don't think Lincoln could have done it better," he says.

His producer is George Martin, who's making the new Beatles reunion album. Mr. Adler advised against it: "George, I don't think you ought to record the Beatles. They're too old."

Mr. Adler has recorded with Sting before, on a tune called "The Shape of My Heart." Sting volunteered immediately when he heard Mr. Adler was making his CD, which does not yet have a release date.

The storied career that brought Mr. Adler to this 80th birthday recording started when he won The Evening Sun harmonica contest in Baltimore at age 13. He was born on Washington Boulevard when it was known as Columbia Avenue.

"When I saw in The Sun I was the state's best mouth organ player, it went straight to my head," he says. "That was my trouble in my early years: I believed all my publicity."

By that time he'd already been canned from the Peabody Institute for insubordination at the piano: He played "Yes, We Have No Bananas" when he should have played a waltz by Grieg. The teacher had annoyed him with condescension: "And what are we going to play today, my little man?"

"I didn't like that 'we' business and I don't like being called a little man," Mr. Adler says.

In 1928 with his Evening Sun award in hand he headed for New York and the big time: Borrah Minevich and His Harmonica Rascals. Mr. Minevich wanted slapstick. Mr. Adler played Beethoven's Minuet in G. Mr. Minevich said: "You stink."

Mr. Adler lost the $18-a-week job. A couple days later he got a $100 weekly vaudeville job. He never looked back and his long collection of show-biz tales began.

Gershwin was a natural subject for Mr. Adler's CD, given their long friendship.

"The first time I ever played 'Rhapsody in Blue' was at a party in New York," Mr. Adler says. "A man named Jules Glaenzer, he was a vice president at Cartier's jewelers, he was known for his parties.

"At one of these parties, he suddenly said Larry and George are going to play the 'Rhapsody in Blue.' He didn't ask us. But I have a very good ear and I'd heard the 'Rhapsody in Blue' so many times, and once it's in my head I can play anything."

"So George sat at the piano. I played the 'Rhapsody in Blue.' And when we finished playing George got up and said 'The . . . thing sounds as if I wrote it for you.'

"And later whenever I asked him to write something for me, he said 'What are you talking about kid, I already have.'

"I met him in 1928 or 1929 and I knew him all through his life. Whenever I was in California, I'd see him and I'd play tennis with him and we were after the same girl at one point, this delectable actress Simone Simon."

Simone Simon was a French star imported to Hollywood and remembered now mostly for her role in the 1942 cult classic "Cat People."

"Simone," Mr. Adler says, "invited George Gershwin and me to dinner at the same time. And we thought, 'What kind of sadistic woman is this?' We found out. "Two sound technicians came in after dinner and set up their stuff. She wanted to sing 'Porgy and Bess,' George at the piano and me at the mouth organ."

Mr. Adler is going to play "Rhapsody in Blue" on his CD, in an orchestration for mouth organ and symphony by Robert Russell Bennett authorized by Gershwin himself.

Mr. Adler can be pretty tough when he gets riled. Which is why he's in England. He was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. He was never a communist, he says, he could never follow anybody's party line. But he also wouldn't name names. "That was never in my provenance at all," he says. "You know as you get older you're supposed to get mellower. Not me."

But he thinks he may be playing better. "I think that applies to any musician who is a musician," he says. "As he gets older he gets better. He gets to know more about sound and his interpretation of it. And he just . . . plays his instrument better."

He's still playing tennis, too. But his game's not getting any better.

"I play Cinderella tennis," says Mr. Adler. "I never get to the ball."

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