If Cliff Edwards (Hannibal, Missouri, June 14, 1895 – Hollywood, July 17, 1971) is remembered at all today it is for two reasons. First is his nickname during his career of Ukulele Ike and the second is his voice-over of the role of Jiminy Cricket in the Walt Disney cartoon Pinocchio of 1940 in which he introduced When You Wish Upon A Star, which was also used as one of Walt Disney’s major themes for his television productions. But Edwards had a long and significant career besides this.
From his boyhood in Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, he dreamed of being involved in the entertainment business and at age 14 he quit school and began to sing for tips in bars in St. Louis. Still in his teens and despite his lack of much education, he had the gift of gab and he became a specialist in narrating silent movies for audiences there, doing 15 shows per week and earning $3.50. Entering vaudeville, partnered with pianist Bobby Carleton, he learned to play the ukulele, an instrument that had become imported from Hawaii in quantity beginning around 1915 and which was ideal for serenading young ladies when you were in an automobile “petting” on a country lane out of the neighborhood reach of your parents. His partner Carleton had made a hit in World War I with his own song called Ja-Da, a sort of nonsense tune which sold over a million sheet musics.
Edwards also enjoyed singing around the notes of a song, a technique which had been pioneered by white singer Gene Greene and practiced particularly by Connee Boswell of the Boswell Sisters in the 1920s. Later Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn would become famous for this type of musical interpolation but Edwards was among the earliest to do it, often strumming his ukulele chords as his voice improvised notes. During the 1920s Edwards often appeared strumming the ukulele and singing in full blackface.
In 1924, a banner year for Edwards, he appeared in the Broadway show Lady Be Good with Fred Astaire and headlined at the Palace. In 1925 his novelty song about canoeing called Paddlin’ Madeleine Home was a smash and in 1928 he introduced the classic I Can’t Give You Anything But Love. In addition his performing with ukulele did more than anyone to ensure the surge in popularity of that instrument and he even marketed his own ukulele line for kids and books on how to play the ukulele although he played a Martin instrument himself.
His pleasant voice was perfect for the radio because it did not disturb the sensitive vacuum tubes inside nor did it cause the radio to vibrate or hum. His songs often with ukulele accompaniment then were perfect for young men to emulate and it led to a series of hit records and his own radio shows. Such pop hits as June Night (Give Me a June Night, The Moonlight and You) sold 3.2 million records, Sleepy Time Gal another one million and Toot Toot Tootsie another huge sale before it was taken over by Al Jolson as a signature song. His radio appearances and shows spanned the 1930s and 1940s.
With the advent of sound movies after 1927, a rush was on to find talent from Broadway and vaudeville who could sing and act well enough to fill the new all-talking all-singing Vitaphone and Movietone musicals that were all the rage. In 1929 Edwards was signed by MGM to star in the Hollywood Revue of 1929 in which he introduced the classic song Singin’ In The Rain. In numerous movies, Edwards, who was not a handsome leading man type, played best friends or character parts that often involved fast-talking, genial second or third leads, most notably with his good friend Buster Keaton. During this period Edwards began to experiment with drugs which led to unprofessional behavior in his performances and on film sets, causing a downturn of his career, although he continued to get work, hosting a radio program of one kind or another straight on through from 1932 to 1946, and he experienced a significant resurgence after his 1940 appearance as Jiminy.
In the later thirties and 1940s Edwards was widely known as a sidekick in quantities of western movies starring Charles Starrett as the Durnago Kid or Tim Holt westerns or those with George O’Brien. In these films he played the wise-cracking and singing sidekick providing comic relief to the action sequences, much in the manner of character actors such as Smiley Burnette.
By the time of his death Ukulele Ike had sold more than 70 million records! Yet he died penniless and forgotten. His three marriages had all ended in divorce due to his continuing addiction to alcohol and drugs and his inability to hold onto money. His lavish spending and heavy smoking led to further problems. He tried to get help from the Disney Studios and they threw occasional work his way but at the time of his death he was totally broke and living with the assistance of a home for indigent actors. Even after the re-releases of Pinocchio, Edwards rea
ped no benefits or commissions and the Actors Fund of America had to pay for his funeral. The man who had brought light-hearted joy to millions of Americans by records, radio, theater and film had a personal life racked with frequent and final tragedy.
Here’s a wonderful color “music video” featuring Cliff Edwards, a beautiful young lady and some very strange cigarettes, and stick around for some of his trademark musical instrument imitation scat singing at the end:
The University of Arizona School of Anthropology Vaudeville Collection has the following sheet music featuring Cliff Edwards:
HOW I LOVE HER AND SHE LOVES ME IS NOBODY’S BUSINESS 1925 – by Clarence Gaskill, Irving Mills. “Featured with Great Success by (“UKULELE IKE”) CLIFF EDWARDS. Shows Cliff in blackface with his ukulele.
WHO TAKES CARE OF THE CARETAKER’S DAUGHTER (WHILE THE CARETAKER’S BUSY TAKING CARE) 1925 – Chick Endor. “Introduced by CLIFF EDWARDS (UKULELE IKE) in the Successful Musical Comedy LADY BE GOOD at the Liberty Theatre, New York.
KEEP ON CROONIN’ A TUNE 1925 – Sammy Fain, Irving Weil
l, Jimmy McHugh. “Featured with Great Success by UKULELE “IKE” EDWARDS.
PADDLIN’ MADELIN’ HOME 1925 – Harry Woods. “Introduced by CLIFF EDWARDS (UKELELE IKE) in Mr. Charles B. Dillingham’s Musical Comedy Success SUNNY at the New Amsterdam Theatre, New York.”
WHOSE WHO ARE YOU? 1925 – Ray Klages, Abel Green, Jesse Greer. “As Featured with Great Success by UKULELE IKE (CLIFF EDWARDS).
EVERYBODY LOVES MY GIRL 1927 – Sam M. Lewis, Joe Young, Maurice Abrahams. “Introduced by CLIFF EDWARDS (UKULELE IKE) in ZIEGFELD FOLLIES. Cover by LEFF shows lovely flappers.