Cliff Edwards (June 14, 1895 – July 17, 1971), also known as "Ukelele Ike", was an American singer and voice actor who enjoyed considerable popularity in the 1920s and early 1930s, specializing in jazzy renditions of pop standards and novelty tunes. He had a number one hit with "Singin' in the Rain" in 1929. He also did voices for animated cartoons later in his career, and is best known as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney's Pinocchio (1940).
Early life and musical career
Edwards was born Clifton A. Edwards in Hannibal, Missouri. He left school at age 14 and soon moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he entertained as a singer in saloons. As many places had pianos in bad shape or none at all, Edwards taught himself to play ukulele (then often spelled "ukelele") to serve as his own accompanist (selecting that instrument as it was the cheapest in the music store). He got the nickname "Ukelele Ike" from a club owner who could not remember his name. He got his first break in 1918 at the Arsonia Cafe in Chicago, Illinois, where he performed a tune called "Ja Da," written by the club's pianist, Bob Carleton. Edwards and Carleton made the tune a hit on the Vaudeville circuit. Vaudeville headliner Joe Frisco hired Edwards as part of his act, which was featured at the Palace in New York City, the most prestigious theater in vaudeville, and then in the Ziegfeld Follies.
Edwards made his first phonograph records in 1919. He recorded early examples of jazz scat singing in 1922. The following year he signed a contract with Pathé Records. He became one of the most popular singers of the decade, and appeared in several Broadway shows. He recorded, in his distinctive style, many of the pop and novelty hits of the day, such as "California, Here I Come", "Hard Hearted Hannah", "Yes Sir, That's My Baby", and "I'll See You in My Dreams".
In 1925, his recording of "Paddlin’ Madeleine Home" would reach number three on the pop charts. In 1928, his recording of "I Can't Give You Anything but Love" was number one for one week on the U.S. pop singles chart. In 1929, his recording of "Singin' in the Rain" was number one for three weeks. Edwards's own compositions included "(I'm Cryin' 'Cause I Know I'm) Losing You", "You're So Cute (Mama O' Mine)", "Stack O' Lee", "Little Somebody of Mine", and "I Want to Call You 'Sweet Mama'". He also recorded a few "off-color" novelty numbers for under-the-counter sales, including "I'm a Bear in a Lady's Boudoir."
More than any other performer, Edwards was responsible for the soaring popularity of the ukulele in the 1920s. Millions of ukes were sold during the decade, and Tin Pan Alley publishers added ukulele chords to standard sheet music. Edwards always played American Martin ukuleles favoring the small soprano model in his early career. In his later years Edwards moved to the sweeter, large tenor ukulele more suited to crooning which was becoming popular in the 1930s.
Edwards' continued to record until shortly before his 1971 death. His last record album, "Ukulele Ike," was released posthumously on the independent Glendale label. He reprised many of his 1920s hits, but his then failing health was evident in the recordings.
Film, radio, and television
In 1929 Cliff Edwards was playing at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles, California, where he caught the attention of movie producer-director Irving Thalberg. His film company Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer hired Edwards to appear in early sound movies. After performing in some short films, Edwards was one of the stars in the feature Hollywood Revue of 1929, doing some comic bits and singing some numbers, including the film debut of his hit "Singin' in the Rain". He appeared in a total of 33 films for MGM through 1933.
Edwards was very friendly with MGM's comedy star Buster Keaton, who featured Edwards in three of his films. Keaton, himself a former vaudevillian, enjoyed singing and would harmonize with Edwards between takes. One of these casual jam sessions was captured on film, in Doughboys (1930), in which Buster and Cliff scat-sing their way through "You Never Did That Before." Buster was battling a drinking problem at the time, and Cliff was nursing a drug habit, both of which are unfortunately evident in the finished film. In scenes when Keaton is sharp and alert, Edwards appears befuddled; when Edwards regains his sobriety, Keaton is now stumbling and fumbling. (Edwards was ultimately replaced in the Keaton films by Jimmy Durante.)
Edwards was also an occasional supporting player in feature films and short subjects at Warner Brothers and RKO Radio Pictures. He played a wisecracking sidekick to western star George O'Brien, and filled in for Allen Jenkins as "Goldie" opposite George Sanders in The Falcon Strikes Back. In a 1940 short, he led a cowboy chorus in Cliff Edwards and His Buckaroos.
Edwards appeared in the darkly sardonic western comedy The Bad Man of Brimstone in 1937, and in 1939 he played the character "Endicott" in the screwball comedy film His Girl Friday. Also in 1939, he voiced the off-screen dying Confederate soldier in Gone with the Wind in the makeshift hospital scene with Vivien Leigh and Olivia De Havilland casting large shadows on a church wall. In 1940 came his most famous voice role, as Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney's Pinocchio. Edwards's touching rendition of "When You Wish Upon a Star" from that film is probably his most familiar recorded legacy. In 1941, he voiced the head crow in Disney's Dumbo and sang "When I See An Elephant Fly".
In 1932, Edwards got his first national radio show on CBS. He would continue hosting network radio shows on and off through 1946. However, from the early 1930s, Edwards' popularity faded as public taste shifted to sweeter style crooners like Russ Columbo, Rudy Vallee, and Bing Crosby.
Like many vaudeville stars, Edwards was an early arrival on television. For the 1949 season, Edwards starred in The Cliff Edwards Show, a three-days-a-week (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings) TV variety show on CBS. In the 1950s and early 1960s, he made a number of appearances on The Mickey Mouse Club, in addition to reprising his Jiminy Cricket voice for various Disney shorts and the Disney Christmas spectacular, From All of Us to All of You.
Edwards was careless with the money he got in the boom years of the 1920s, always trying to sustain his expensive habits and lifestyle. While he continued working during the Great Depression, he would never again enjoy his former prosperity. Most of his income went to alimony for multiple former wives and for paying other debts. He declared bankruptcy four times during the 1930s and early 1940s.
Edwards suffered from alcoholism and drug addiction in his later years, living in a home for indigent actors. He often spent his days hanging around the Walt Disney Studios to be available any time he could get voice work, sometimes being taken to lunch by animators to whom he told stories of his days in vaudeville.
He had disappeared from the public eye at the time of his 1971 death as a charity patient at the Virgil Convalescent Hospital in Hollywood, California. His body was initially unclaimed and donated to the University of California, Los Angeles medical school. When Walt Disney Productions, which had been quietly paying many of his medical expenses, found out about this, it offered to purchase the corpse and pay for the burial; but this was actually done by the Actors' Fund of America (which had also aided Edwards) and the Motion Picture and Television Relief Fund. The Disney company paid for his grave marker.
In 2002, Edwards' 1940 recording on Victor, Victor 26477, "When You Wish Upon a Star", was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
- Those Three French Girls (1930)
- The Cliff Edwards Discography by Larry F. Kiner, Greenwood Press, New York, 1987. ISBN 0-313-25719-1 Contains a short biography, an extensive discography, and listing of his film, radio, and television appearances.
- Cliff Edwards at the Internet Movie Database
- Cliff Edwards at the Internet Broadway Database
- Cliff Edwards extensive fan site by David Garrick
- Cliff Edwards "Ukulele Ike" on RedHotJazz.com, with .ram files of his vintage recordings.
- "Cliff Edwards". Find a Grave. Retrieved August 28, 2010.
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