One of the greatest days of my life was the day I got to play with Larry Adler, the greatest harmonica player there ever was.
Larry was playing a benefit show for the Hackney Empire in 1993 and the Empire hosted a photocall to promote the show. I loved the Empire.
Designed by Frank Matcham and completed in 1901, the Hackney Empire was the sole big venue in Hackney at the time.
Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, WC Fields, Louis Armstrong and hundreds of others had all trodden its boards. It reeked, literally, of the past. It was the only theatre in the UK to continue to use hemp ropes, the toilets were Victorian, chillly and rusty, there were holes in the roof. It was wonderful.
Thank God it survived the Blitz. A bomb did land on the pub next door and flattened it but The Empire, like St Paul’s Cathedral, had a charmed life.
After its variety heyday it became a TV venue for ATV and many late 50s/early 60s TV music shows such as Take Your Pick and Oh Boy! were recorded there. After that work dried up, ATV sold the Empire and it became a bingo hall.
In the 1980s the Empire was rescued from obscurity by Roland Muldoon who set about bringing the theatre back to life.
By the time I joined the Hackney Gazette in 1992, it had become famous as a venue for alternative comedy and as a black theatre venue. It hosted early shows by Ben Elton, French and Saunders etc and to this day, big Caribbean stars like Oliver Samuels, regularly stage shows there, reflecting the large black community in Hackney.
Elsewhere I talk about how I got to play with Chas and Dave at the Empire. It was also responsible for one of my big career moves.
Ralph Fiennes, fresh from Schindler’s List, agreed to play Hamlet there. He agreed to be interviewed by me and we struck up quite a rapport.
Our interview was arranged during his rehearsals in Tufnell Park. When I got there on time, Ralph was nowhere to be seen having gone to lunch. His PR had messed up. She put a call into him and he turned up a few minutes later wiping crumbs from his mouth, upset that I had been left waiting.
He was very shy and incredibly attractive. It was the first time I really felt the allure that actors have and all my female friends were very envious I had met him.
He called me a few times during the run to tip me off about things. He was a very hot property at the time and I remember a journalist from the Mail on Sunday trying to seduce me into giving her a story. Much as I’d have loved to give in, I had signed a release saying I couldn’t give my interview copy to anyone else.
I went to the opening night. It was a huge gala performance with dozens of stars in attendance. I saw Angelina Jolie’s dad, Jon Voight walking down Mare Street after the show.
Just as the show was about to begin, Tony from the Empire said: “Guess what? Demi Moore’s here.”
What? In Hackney? Where?
I scoured the place looking for her but had no luck. During the interval I ran the length of the building twice over trying to find her. Just as I was about to give up, I saw her and a young friend, buying a plastic glass of plastic white Empire wine.
“Demi,” I introduced myself, “can I grab a few words for the local paper?”
“Not now honey, I’ve got to get back to my seat. Are you going to the aftershow? I promise to be interviewed then.”
At the aftershow, I introduced Ralph to my girlfriend and a couple of other friends. They were googly with lust.
Demi was sitting in a corner, her seat roped off and protected by guards.
I motioned to her. “Can I grab that word please?” The guards looked ready to tear my head off.
“Of course. Let him in.”
So I sat down with her – Bruce Willis’ wife no less – and fired away.
“What did you think of the Empire?” I asked making myself comfortable.
And then Demi did something so tiny, so insignificant, which changed my life forever.
She pulled out a Hackney Empire mug. “It’s gorgeous. Look, I bought this for Bruce.”
We chatted away.
Next day I called The Times diary page and offered them this amusing titbit. I got £50 for it.
The very next day I got a call from The Times’ newsdesk. “Listen we don’t have freelancers in but we need some help on the newsdesk tonight. I hear you sell us stuff occasionally? Want to come in?”
And that was that. I went in, it became a very regular gig and I notched up 3 years at The Times in the end. It’s a credit I’m still ferociously proud of.
Again, all of this lies in the future. Back then I was just delighted that the Empire was there and the source of so many great stories. Long may it continue to do so.
At the time of writing, December 2009, I was recently devastated to learn that the current management committee had screwed up its finances so royally that the Empire will be dark for the bulk of 2010. In a few weeks time I will be part of an 18 strong group of parents and children seeing Clive Rowe in this year’s panto, Aladdin. I hope it’s not a goodbye visit.
But back in 1992, before the Empire was tarted up courtesy of the National Lottery and the work of campaigners led by Griff Rhys Jones, the theatre was wonderfully ramshackle and on the rise. There was a real sense that the best was yet to come. The acts they had there were fantastic. From Slava Polunin’s first non-Russian performances of Snowshow to Paul Merton, Lenny Henry, Lily Savage and Mark Lamarr, every performance at the Hackney Empire was a treasure and so frequently did I visit, that I now consider the Empire as much a part of my DNA as The Beatles or tea.
I used to sit as a judge on the Hackney Empire New Act of the Year award that showcased the best of new comedy talent. One year I was on the panel that voted Ardal O’Hanlon the winner. He later went on to star in Father Ted and, tsk tsk, My Hero. Amusingly, I found myself in a tiny comedy club in New York’s Devil’s Kitchen in 2000 with my father. We saw Ardal and Tommy Tiernan trying to break into America.
I honestly do not remember if it was the same fundraiser that Larry Adler performed at, but at one show, we saw the legendary Ron Moody reprise his role as Fagin and sing Pick a Pocket or Two and Reviewing the Situation. I took mum, nan, Phil and Rob. All I remember is that after the show, Uncle Rob, finding himself next to Ron Moody, put on a terrible Jewish accent and said loudly, “Oy Vey my son.” I think we were all mortified.
But Larry Adler was something altogether different. Larry was born in 1914 and wound up as a young man in New York. He claimed to have known the terrifying mobster Al Capone and had been good friends with George Gershwin.
Having grown up on pop, it was an exciting time to meet Larry, as I had not long discovered the great American songbook of the 20th Century. I loved Gershwin’s work and was fascinated to talk to Larry about him. 20 years on and I love Gershwin, Kern, Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cahn and co as much as I ever loved the Beatles or Kinks.
In those days, the Gazette employed a handful of freelance photographers. On this particular day, I was assigned a young female photographer whose name escapes me. I remember her flat in Dalston and I’m pretty certain my colleague Ed Harris had a bit of a fling with her. Her name may have been Annette.
In those pre-digital days, all the photographers still shot on film and supplied prints to us or used our smelly darkroom to develop them in-house. Digital is more convenient for sure but I’m glad I got to see the tail end of the old way of doing it.
So it was we turned up at the Empire and I was delighted to find that Larry was already on stage, bossing everyone about.
He was a small man, with greased back hair and thick black glasses. Despite living in the UK for decades, he had one of those tough Jewish/ New York accents. I remember his voice as slightly gruff and of middle to high pitch.
We climbed the steps onto the stage and I introduced ourselves. Onstage, the Tiller Girls were winding up a rehearsal of their part of the fundraiser. Hackney’s mayor, Saleem Siddiqui, who probably had no idea who Larry was, ambled about waiting to have his picture taken. Someone had wheeled a grand piano centre stage. Sitting on top of it was Larry’s harmonica.
I asked Larry a few questions and then asked him if wouldn’t mind playing something for Annette to photograph.
To the end of his days, Larry would always perform a version of Gershwin’s Summertime that he played with one hand on the harmonica, one hand on the piano. He performed this for us now.
It’s moments like this that flash through my mind whenever I tell anyone that I have the best job ever.
Photoshoot over, we continued the interview.
Larry told me that Gershwin had been so impressed with his harmonica/piano interpretation of Summertime that he wrote him a unique arrangement of Rhapsody in Blue (the amazing music that so thrillingly accompanies the opening shots of Woody Allen’s Manhattan) in the same format.
He sat back down at the piano and played the first few bars. I was two feet away from Larry and 2 feet away from Gershwin. Larry was in his late 70s at that stage and I could tell he was moved to play and remember his old friend. I was learning my job then and my interview would have been pretty weak. I would kill to re-interview him, or just hang out over coffee. I’m a better interviewer and I’m bordering on expert on the subject.
There’s a great film and theatre bookshop on Hollywood Boulevard just opposite Musso and Frank’s amazing grill – the oldest in Hollywood. Each time I go to LA I have dinner there and run over to see what books I can find. I always come back with a suitcase full – half of them usually on the classic American Songbook writers. I started out curious about Cole Porter and Gershwin but ended up reading dozens of biographies and autobiographies about the era. I have Ira Gershwin and Oscar Hammerstein’s annotated lyric books. Fantastic.
As always, expanding your knowledge has unexpected consequences.
Sammy Cahn is a good case in point. Not only did I read his autobiography but also I picked up his rhyming dictionary. It’s brilliant and when I’m writing it sits next to my notebook. It helped a lot during the writing of both my albums. If you can’t, won’t or don’t take advice from the man who wrote “bees do it, even educated fleas do it, let’s do it, let’s fall in love,” then you’re an idiot.
Having this knowledge also helped bond me with Nancy Sinatra, because I could talk intelligently about her dad’s work. I told her Sammy’s story about how he hoodwinked Sinatra into recording 3 Coins in the Fountain for example. Becoming friends with her had a big impact on my business etc.
One of the best TV series of the current decade has been Mad Men. We all love it because it evokes an era we never experienced: men in charge, patting women on the bum, drinking and smoking in the office, affairs… it all sounds great in a “glad it’s not really like that now” kinda way.
Wallowing in long lost atmos is also what you get from reading these autobiographies. Jules Styne sitting in a quiet, dusty office, yellowing papers piled high, dust sparkling in the New York sunlight breaking through a filthy window off Broadway. Jules wreathed in smoke after lighting up cigarette after cigarette. These guys slogged to become genius and I love to look into their world.
My point is, if I’d known what I know now, it would have been an awesome interview.
Sadly this was all in the future and I think we really just chit-chatted.
At some point, I found myself at the piano and started vamping a few jazzy chords. While improvising in my amateurish way, I told Larry what I just told you about Porter, Gershwin and Kern and began playing the latter’s exquisite The Way You Look Tonight.
Larry glanced at my fingers, presumably to work out the key, and then immediately began playing the melody. It’s quite something to suddenly find yourself jamming with someone of Larry’s calibre. On the one hand you don’t want it to end, on the other, all my weaknesses as a pianist were exposed. To this day, The Way You Look Tonight is one of those songs I prefer to read from the music rather than try to remember because there are lots of subtleties I don’t want to forget. Naturally the impromptu performance relied on my memory and I well remember how nervous I felt. In those days I hated any kind of performing and although I don’t exactly enjoy it now, I can do it. Just.
But back then, covered in goosebumps and tingle-sweat prickling my forehead, I remember looking up and feeling that sense of awe all performers must surely get when standing on a relatively empty theatre stage. Although it is perfectly possible to see around you, the emptiness of the stage seems to crowd you with darkness. An empty theatre is very noisy. The silence seems to swell on you and you hear very strange delayed echoes generated by whatever it is you are doing. These get soaked up with bodies in their seats, but empty, you are in a giant echo chamber.
My memories of sitting there are perfectly captured in Annette’s picture. Larry, the piano and I were but a few pinpricks of light sitting amongst the darkness.
The harmonica (Larry preferred the term “mouth organ”) is a strange instrument. In the hands of Dylan and his army of folk orientated one-man bands, it’s a hideous instrument – with little subtlety or nuance. Come on. You know it is. I refer you to Neil Innes’ folk singer who intones, after squealing a harmonica riff, “I’ve suffered for my art. Now it’s your turn.”
But that’s not the whole story. The Beach Boys and the Beatles both used the harmonica (from Bass to Soprano) as a colour in their orchestra (listen to God Only Knows or For the Benefit of Mr Kite – both feature bass harmonicas doing interesting work). Give it to a blues musician and it can wail in a pleasant way distorted through a mic, but give it to Stevie Wonder, Toots Thielelman or Larry Adler and it’s sweet and soaring, cutting over any type of backing – with a classical range of emotion possible.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the harmonica since I first heard my Uncle John play. He used to play in a harmonica group. He claimed to have jammed with Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones while sharing a bill with them back in their early days in Dartford.
Hearing Larry play was simply gorgeous, stirring and one of those moments I will never forget.
Annette gave me a copy of the photo as a keepsake a few week’s later. For most of the time since that day this picture has hung in a frame on whatever wall is closest to where I’m writing and recording music. I can be playing a mundane chord sequence, look up, see Larry and feel re-energised and look elsewhere for the musical connection I am seeking. Nearly 20 years after meeting him, he continues to play a role in my life.
Larry’s own life was pretty strange. He became a huge star in his native America as a young man. However, this counted for nothing when he was blacklisted as having Communist sympathies during the McCarthy years. Repercussions? He was nominated for an Oscar for his soundtrack to the film Genevieve but his name was removed from the credits because of the blacklisting. Fed up with this persecution, he fled to the UK where he remained until the end of his days.
His last great achievement was being the oldest man to have a number one album in the UK. In 1994, when he was 80, he teamed up with George Martin to record the Glory of Gershwin with collaborators including Kate Bush and Cerys Mathews.
Ever the showman, Larry put a few shows together to promote the album.
The shows began with his version of Rhapsody in Blue.
He died in 2001 aged 87 but he will live as long as I do. I’m grateful to have been one genuinely short step away from Gershwin and hearing Larry play just for me was one of life’s great privileges.