Captain Moonlight: All mouth and friendships

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The Independent Online
SO THERE'S this small old man in the hotel foyer and he's wearing Issey Miyake, ruffled scarlet and black with dickie to match. Dear Larry: Larry Adler, the man, the mouth and organ; the jokes, the stories, the names. Larry says he knows around a thousand jokes. He must know more names: Larry doesn't just drop them, he deals them like a blackjack croupier, swiftly, evenly, automatically, endlessly. William Styron and Sinead O'Connor, Placido Domingo and Al Capone, on and on they come.

Let me give you a flavour. Ask Larry about his children, and he'll tell you he's got four, one son, three daughters, and that one of the daughters is very friendly with Styron and that when Styron introduced her to Arthur Miller he said: 'Guess whose daughter this is?', which reminds him that Miller told him once that when he was 18 he had played Begin the Beguine to the accompaniment of Larry's recording.

So I ask Larry why he drops names like this, and he says: 'I can't help it. These are the people I've lived my life with.' And if he's been with Placido Domingo, why shouldn't he say so? And Domingo, by the way, owed his first job to Larry - a part in a film playing a mouth organist. He practised to one of Larry's records to get it. 'Placido, I said to him, are you telling me you gave all that up to be a singer?'

Larry is 80 next week. He's having five birthday parties and is making a new album, recording with lots of . . . well, names: Elton John, Sting, Carly Simon, Sinead O'Connor. Produced by George Martin. Another bit of autobiography is due out, and Melvyn and the South Bank people are doing him at the beginning of March. It's Adlerfest time. And you try carrying off Issey Miyake at 80: he does.

Larry has been at it since he was 14. He ran away from Baltimore to New York and auditioned for Borrah Minevitch and His Harmonica Rascals. Minevitch told him: 'Kid, you stink.' But Larry had so much chutzpah he's still got a lot left. He doorstepped Rudy Vallee's dressing room and was on his way to a niche of his own in music, 'his footnote in musical history' which he is 'rather proud of', the mouth organ as solo instrument, popular and classical, friendship with Ravel and George Gershwin, collaboration with Vaughan Williams and Milhaud, the gift to play from the heart, the performances, the plaudits, the parties, and, of course, my dear, the people.

Not that the people seem altogether pleasant. Gary Cooper is a racist, Humphrey Bogart a drunk racist, Fred Astaire has an unexpectedly obscene vocabulary, Ginger Rogers takes exception to Clifford Odets's 'share and share alike, that's democracy', Edward G Robinson weeps and cringes, Jack Benny refuses to testify on his great chum Larry's behalf when Adler tries to clear himself of Communist smears, George Burns teases him cruelly, publicly and resentfully. The only really nice guy in Larry's first autobiography, It Ain't Necessarily So, is Al Capone, who tells the young Larry that he really should go to synagogue, stressing that he himself goes to Mass every Sunday and then sends his mother flowers.

Larry doesn't see it like this. Sure, he was blacklisted in the McCarthy times, and a lot of people behaved badly, particularly Bogart, but a lot of friends had stayed loyal, and Jack Benny had a lot of people relying on him for employment. 'I'm not disillusioned about people,' he says. 'Kitty Kelley interviewed me and said that of all the blacklisted people she had talked to, I was the only one who didn't seem bitter. I'm not.'

He puts it down to his need to be liked. About George Burns, he says: 'A sweet, loveable man. I'm a perfectly natural target.' Why? 'Because I talk so goddamn much.' After the blacklisting, Larry came to Britain, where he has been, mostly, ever since, and where he likes the fair play but doesn't like the upper class anti-Jewish attitudes. He still plays tennis every day - 'Cinderella tennis, I never get to the ball.' He has had two wives, several fiancees, and is still 'chasing'. Does he catch? 'I catch.' He deplores British prudishness and the Gillian Taylforth furore: 'I've had sex in a car with everything except a giraffe.'

Does he have a birthday message? You bet he has. He borrows it from Hemingway: 'Right is what you feel good after, wrong is what you feel bad after.' His planned epitaph used to be what Billie Holiday said to him: 'Man, you don't play that f . . . ing thing, you sing it.' Now, he prefers 'He never sold out'.

Larry carries on with the jokes and the names. Paul Daniels comes up to our table. Larry says Issey warned him not to iron anything. Daniels tries to cap Larry. Cap Larry] The hotel pianist is playing something from the film Moulin Rouge. Larry remembers Zsa Zsa Gabor in it, leaving Lautrec's studio with one of the great lines: 'So long, Toulouse.' So long, Larry.

(Photograph omitted)

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