Zero to 180 – Three Minute Magic

Discoveries of a Pop Music Archaeologist

Larry Adler & His Dime Store Harmonica

Larry Adler became a “professional” musician in the eyes of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) when he joined Local 47 in Beverly Hills, where he lived, on July 10, 1948. As the front page of Billboard‘s July 17, 1948 edition reported in deadpan fashion —

Adler Now Rates

[see also, “King Records Grants Jukes 5% Kickback”]


July 17, 1948


After years of blowing new life into a succession of harmonicas, Larry Adler was declared a legitimate musician this week by the American Federation of Musicians.

Altho[ugh] Adler has played with numerous symphony orchestras and appears as a concert artist, his status was in doubt.

Now the musicians union has declared that the harmonica is a musical instrument and not a toy.

Adler appeared before an examining board composed of Walter Weber, acting president; J.J. Voss, treasurer; and A. Jack Haywood, secretary. He will join Local 47 of the union in Beverly Hills, where he lives.


Harmonica players – you might recall from the previous post – were initially exempt from the AFM’s musician ban that went into effect in 1948 and lasted nearly the entire year.

In 1976, Larry Adler sat down with legendary radio broadcaster and historian, Studs Terkel, who had this to say about Adler’s place in popular music history:

We never regarded the harmonica as a serious classical instrument. It was something kids played on the street — nickel, dime, quarter harmonicas. Until Larry Adler came along. And Larry Adler seemed to experiment with harmonicas, and they weren’t fancy ones. As a result of which he did something quite outrageous and remarkable, playing Bach, Vivaldi, and Brahms on the mouth harp, as it was called in some quarters. It was a ten-cent instrument. The high moment came when he joined Paul Draper, a remarkable tap dancer. Together, the Adler-Draper act filled auditoriums with both classical and popular music fans. Their popularity was quite remarkable. And so it was that one man’s ingenuity with one deceptively simple instrument was transformed into a serious instrument for classical music. Thus it was recognized, even in a perverse way, by James Caesar Petrillo, the iron-handed boss of the American Federation of Musicians. During a celebrated musicians’ strike, the harmonica was not forbidden, so Larry Adler had considerable work, though he himself was pro-strikers. The harmonica became so accepted in “respectable” music circles that Petriollo was compelled to recognize the harmonica as a legitimate instrument.

A side item: Larry Adler and Paul Draper took part during those Cold War and McCarthy days in political activities. They spoke at many rallies dealing with civil rights and civil liberties, as a result of which they were blacklisted. The notorious case was one involving the wife of a Time magazine editor who accused the duo of being communists. They sued, and it ended in a hung jury. Both sides were devastated.

Terkel then throws out this statement to Larry Adler:

Before you came along, the harmonica was something kids played in the streets, and there was Borrah Minevitch and His Harmonica Rascals in vaudeville.

Adler delivers this response to Terkel:

I auditioned for Borrah. When I came to New York, my idea of heaven was to be accepted as a member of Borrah Minevitch’s Harmonica Rascals. I was only fourteen years old. I came from Baltimore. I auditioned for Borrah, and all the boys in his harmonica band stood in the doorway and listened to me as I played “Poet and Peasant” [an overture by Franz von Suppé]. When I finished playing, Minevitch said, “Kid, you stink.” I cried like a baby.

Remember Johnny Puleo, the dwarf? He came up to me and patted me on the shoulder and said, “Don’t mind Borrah, he’s not feeling well today.” I felt my world had collapsed. Three months before the Minevitch audition, I’d won a mouth organ contest in Baltimore. I played Beethoven’s Minuet in G. I bought a mouth organ to get into the contest. I don’t think I ever played one before. All the other kids were playing things like “St. Louis Blues” and “Black Bottom,” and I elected to learn the Minuet in G mainly because the notes lay next to each other and were quite easy to play. The judge was a classical musician, the conductor of the Baltimore Symphony. When I play Beethoven, I was a cinch. I won.

One-time King recording artist,

Borrah Minevitch & His Harmonica Rascals

Adler recalls for Terkel the moment when the harmonica was granted professional status by the musicians’ union and also links the proliferation of harmonica group recordings directly to the instrument’s exempt status during the musicians’ strike of the early 1940’s:

The harmonica was officially recognized by the musicians’ union right here in Chicago, in 1948. I was playing at the Palmer House. The musicians’ union had gone on strike against the recording companies a few years before that and refused to let their members make records. The mouth organ not being recognized by the union, all the recording companies got mouth organ groups. So Dinah Shore and Frank Sinatra recorded with mouth organs. I refused to record at that time. It just seemed like scabbing. Even though I wasn’t in the union, I didn’t like the idea. In 1948, the musicians’ union decided if there was another strike like that, they better make sure the mouth organ players aren’t around to scab it, so they recognized the mouth organ. James Petrillo [AFM President], in a very touching ceremony, touched the tip of his little finger to the tip of my little finger. Apparently, he had a germ phobia, but he seemed to think there no germs on the tip of my little finger. I was accepted into the union and became respectable.

The Larry Adler papers housed at University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center bear witness to Adler’s plight of economic exile during the “Red Scare” era due to allegations of pro-Communist sympathies. A native of Baltimore, where he won the Maryland Harmonica Championship at the age of 13, Adler emigrated to England when work opportunities steeply dropped off in the US.

American Heritage Center @ University of Wyoming

[photo courtesy of Wyoming Public Media]

Following Adler’s emigration to England, his music broadened to incorporate West Indian musical concerns, as revealed in his arrangement of Arthur Benjamin‘s “Jamaican Rhumba,” a composition originally for two pianos:

Jamaican Rhumba

Larry Adler (1958)

Impossible not to notice the melody line’s resemblance to “Second Fiddle,” featured song of Zero to 180 piece, “1973: The Year Pop Reggae Broke.” As Adler states in the liner notes of the 1958 EP issued by Pye, “It has since been played on the viola by Primrose, on the violin by Heifitz, and now on the mouth organ by me.” Adler also praises the song’s composer as one “who is still not afraid to write a melody!” Pye also included this recording on a rare “stereo demonstration” EP issued in either 1959 or 1960.

Around this same time, Down Beat published a photo (below) of Larry Adler and Dizzy Gillespie in their Apr 30, 1959 issue accompanied by the following caption:

Dizzy Gillespie turned up night after night to listen as harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler made his home-coming appearance in a New York club. Adler has been aboard several years. Dizzy and Adler here duet as they prepared to make a TV appearance together.

Six years earlier, Billboard‘s May 9, 1953 issue had noted on its front page of an upcoming live performance at Philadephia’s Latin Casino. The news item pitifully reported Latino Casino co-owner Dave Duschoff’s willingness to “sit down with the American Legion and prove that Adler has been unjustly maligned as a disloyal American.” Fortunately, Adler would be celebrated in his own lifetime forty years later when fellow artists Elton John, Kate Bush, Elvis Costello, Cher, Meat Loaf, Oleta Adams, Sinead O’Connor, Lisa Stansfield, Peter Gabriel, Chris De Burgh, Robert Palmer, and Courtney Pine – along with producer George Martin – collaborated on Adler’s 1994 album, The Glory of Gershwin, which reached #2 in the UK pop chart, as reported in the August 13, 1994 edition of Cash Box.


Studs Terkel concluded his 1976 radio interview by inquiring how long Adler has spent his life in London, thus allowing the artist an opportunity to expound upon the fundamental differences between the US and the UK:

I’ve lived in London since 1949, and I love it. I’ll go back a bit [to the States]. Hugh Gaitskell, at the time the head of the Labor Party, said to me, “Why do you live in London? With that marvelous beauty of Beverly Hills, what made you decide to live here?” I said, “I once got into political trouble in the United States. I was blacklisted. If I ever get into trouble again, I’d rather get into trouble in England than anywhere else, because you simply get a fairer deal, a squarer shake here than anywhere else.” That still holds true. The kind of things that happened to me here could never happen there. On that subject, the blacklist, the horror, aside from ruined lives, mostly the waste of talent. Think of all the artists who were out of the scene for awhile. Some never came back. To me, that is the horror, the loss of beauty. I don’t think the country can afford to waste talent, and America wasted a lot of talent in those days.


Early appearances of the phraseharmonica virtuoso:

Philadelphia‘s quiet contributions to the instrument’s development

Talking Machine World

July 15, 1923

Borrah Minevitch

The Talking Machine World

August 15, 1924

Fred Sonnen

According to Paul E. Bierley, author of The Works of John Philip Sousa

Leading a harmonica band was a novel experience for Sousa when he was invited to conduct Albert N. Hoxie’s fifty-two member Philadelphia Harmonica Band in September 1925. He was so impressed with their playing and the possibilities of the harmonica that he carried an endorsement for Hohner harmonicas in his 1928 programs and subsequently wrote this march for Hoxie’s boys: “The Harmonica Wizard.” When the Sousa band came to Philadelphia on November 21, 1930, the mayor proclaimed the day, “Sousa Day.”

Albert N. Hoxie Taught 100,000 Boys to Play Harmonica

Hoxie’s obituary in The New York Times (Aug. 21, 1942)


Bonus Bit

Larry Adler’s Hitchcock Cameo in Harmonica History


Sep. 25, 1999

Australian harmonica player and pioneer of the local country music scene Horrie Dargie died at 82. His 1952 live album, The Horrie Dargie Concert, recorded at the Sydney Town Hall before a tour of England, sold 50,000 copies and was the first local album to be certified gold in Australia.

Dargie got his break while stationed in New Guinea during World War II and was pushed onto the stage to play with Larry Adler, who hailed him as one of the best harmonica players in the world. Dargie toured Europe constantly, contributed to recent soundtracks Crocodile Dundee 2 and Doing Time for Patsy Cline, and was inducted into the Australian Record Industry Association’s Hall of Fame in 1996.

2 Responses

  1. My wonderful adopted family surprise took me to see Larry Adler at the Tango Room in Chicago for my 21st birthday in August of 1977. Our table was right next to Larry Adler and Dizzy Gillespie was right next to us. My Mom was a Northwestern grad, but NJ commuted as a typist 5 days and did sewing on the weekend. To be with my father. My father was working 6 days a week as a landscaper plus delivering magazines after work to keep us two adopted kids fed and watered. When the Tango Room wine steward poured a little wine in my Dad’s glass he didn’t know what to do with it. It kills me that he never had a chance to live well, and there is no way I can do anything about it.
    Donald George Schaffner and Helen Louise Schaffner were the finest human beings I’ve ever met.

    Baby boy Nye

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