The Free-Reed Journal
Articles and Essays Featuring Classical Free-Reed Instruments and Performers

A Career With The Mouth-Organ On The Concert Stage

Larry Logan

After 48 years on the stage here and abroad, if anyone would ask me today, "Would you do it again?" I would probably say, "I don't think so."

First, let's go back to the origin of this idea of making a living playing the harmonica, or mouth organ as I call it. Interest in this novelty began in my generation with Larry Adler. With due respect to all his great talent, his rise to fame consisted of all the right ingredients: the times (the golden era of show-biz), and a monumental fluke that catapulted him to prominence by the name of Charles Cochran. He was England's version of America's Florenz Ziegfeld.

The irony of this tremendous break for Adler, is that when Cochran watched Adler performing his act at the Palace Theatre in New York in 1934, he was impressed not so much with Adler's playing of the mouth-organ, but with the idea that Adler was playing the mouth-organ dressed in a dinner jacket. As a result, Cochran invited him to England, produced a review around him, and introduced his unique attraction to British royalty. The rest is history

It is also important to note that upon his return to America, Adler was managed by the most powerful agency in the business, the William Morris agency. William Morris wouldn't represent a harmonica player today if his name was GOD. You can take that to the bank.

The other artist of the same vintage, who gained an excellent reputation exclusively in the classical domain, was my late friend John Sebastian Sr. His career did not have the flash and pizzazz of Adler's. Sebastian was known and respected worldwide by critics, composers, conductors, and in general by music lovers of classical music.

I point out all of the above, because these two men were the "fountain-head" that fostered my dreams, as a young man, to become another one of them with the harmonica. So, in 1949, from Lafayette, Louisiana, I began my climb up Mt. Everest with a nap-sack of dreams; I had a lot of raw talent and a mouth-organ for a walking stick.

Now, let's begin with the challenges, of which there are as many "as fleas on a junkyard dog." Assuming you are honest with yourself, about your ability to interpret classical repertoire on the mouth-organ, your first all important hurdle, and it is a major one, is acquiring an agent to represent you in the concert field.

To begin with, this agent is basically familiar with the conventional menu of violinist, pianist, flutist, singers, and so on. Mention of the harmonica is usually repugnant to him or her, but to most, it is an unknown dot on the horizon. Thus, you have to make a strong sales pitch and educate them about the instrument. So, if they do take you on, they will be equipped to sell you to their clients. In all fairness to the agent, he is dealing with buyers who are equally ignorant about the harmonica in a serious concert.

As for Symphony engagements, the conductors of the past, and some of the new ones, know very little of the harmonica's history with a harmonica artist's solo guest appearances with orchestras. Yes, some of them remember Adler, and a few remember John Sebastian, and hopefully me. When they engage a harmonica soloist in a concert, they are not engaging the soloist because they respect his virtuosity on the instrument, or because he has a long history on the legitimate stage. They are engaging the harmonica soloist because he has an original composition for Harmonica and Orchestra, written by some famous contemporary composer. You see, they are engaging the harmonica artist only because they are intrigued by the composer writing for this little rube instrument. There may be exceptions to this I admit, but there are very few.

To solidify my point, just make a point to see, after the harmonica artist's first engagement by a number of orchestras playing a Danius Milhaud, or Villa-Lobos concerto, regardless of the success of it, how long will it be before he is re-engaged, if ever. Such will not be the case for the violinist, pianist or singer. It's a long way to Tipperary my friend

Now, lets talk about a vehicle that is a natural format for the harmonica with symphony orchestra--the Symphony Pops Concerts. To begin with, I have long held the view that symphony orchestras in this country, other than the dozen major orchestras, in order to survive, will have to increase their pops series. I have had a number of people, involved with symphony orchestras, confirm to me that symphony orchestras will have to increase their pops series to survive. This idea is well grounded by the double and triple increase in attendance to these pops series, which far exceeds the attendance of the classical series (Just think, if ten percent of the money spent on athletics in this country were diverted to the arts, we would be a much more refined society).

The reason, for this increase, is that Symphony Pops Concerts are selling the combination of personalities and music. The uniqueness of someone playing Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue, and a medley from My Fair Lady on the harmonica, is a blue ribbon winner and a natural for the Pops audience. For the rest of my career with the mouth-organ, this is the wagon I'm hitching my star to.

So, my advice, to any young harmonica-Stokowski who has the dream that I had, is this: before you follow that dream, make a thorough assessment of the possibilities and probabilities before you take the plunge. In spite of all the obstacles, I have had a successful and exciting career, achieving far more than the young boy from Louisiana could have ever dreamed. Follow your dream, but do your dreaming with your eyes open.

About the Author

Larry Logan is properly listed among the elite few, who have elevated the harmonica to the concert stage. From a hobby which began during his childhood. Logan developed his talent to the point that his performances on the little known instrument (at least in serious music) led to a career of recitals, and as soloist with major symphony orchestras throughout the world. He has also worked with a stunning array of legendary names in show business. They include Bob Hope, Rudy Vallee, Eddie Cantor, Jimmy Durante, Gizele MacKenzie, Lisa Kirk, Cab Calloway, Mickey Rooney and a host of others.

His greatest accomplishment, however, has been in overcoming the doubts about the harmonica as a solo instrument in classical concerts. To that end, he has appeared in thousands of concerts performing to millions worldwide. Chronologically, Logan became the third person in the world to appear as soloist with major symphony orchestras playing the harmonica. They include the orchestras of St. Louis, Washington, D C., Birmingham, Manila, Singapore, Shreveport, San Juan, Nashville, Kingsport and New Orleans.

Another notable credit was his selection by the Department of State to represent the United States on the President's International Cultural Exchange Program. As America's Musical Envoy, Logan toured the far East and was heard by a greater audience than had ever before attended recitals and concerts of one playing the harmonica.

Recently added to the many achievements of his distinguished career Logan has been included in the 1989 edition of WHO'S WHO IN MUSIC by the International Biographical Institute of Cambridge, England.

Note: This article was reprinted with permission from The Harmonica Educator
Editor and Publisher: Richard Martin

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