Cliff "Ukelele Ike" Edwards - Biography

Cliff "UKelele Ike" Edwards was a popular vaudeville star of the 1920s and '30s. More than any other performer, Edwards was responsible for the soaring popularity of the ukulele in the Jazz Age. He sold a staggering 74 million records and appeared in 100 films as well as on his own radio and TV shows. Though, as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Disney's Pinocchio he continues to be heard, his name has nonetheless slipped into obscurity.

Cliffton A. Edwards was born on June 14, 1895 in Hannibal -- the hometown of fellow Missourian, Mark Twain. After hearing a wax cylinder on a trip to St. Louis, Edwards became interested in music. At fourteen, he dropped out of school and moved to St. Louis where he picked up the ukulele and began performing in movie theaters and saloons. Beginning in 1913, he struggled to make a living, supplementing his performance income with menial labor and carnival work. In 1917, he relocated to Chicago where he found work at Mike Fritzel's Arsonia Cafe. Nicknamed "Ike" by someone who forgot his real name, he started performing as "Ukulele Ike" with the club's pianist, Bob Carlton. Performing Carlton's composition "Ja Da," the two began gaining popularity on the vaudeville circuit. After Edwards split from Carleton, he formed his own act called "Jazz As Is' with singer/dancer Pierce Keegan and they performed in Zeigeld's Midnight Frolic in 1919. They recorded five songs for Columbia which were never released.

In 1920, Edwards joined the act of a then-famous stuttering comedian, Joe Frisco and, as part of his act, played the Palace in New York City but the two parted ways the same year. Edwards subsequently briefly teamed up with Lou Clayton. He made his Broadway solo debut in The Mimic World of 1921. He introduced "Toot, Toot, Tootsie! (Good'bye)" to the public but his version was soon overshadowed by Al Jolson's, who added it to his repertoire soon after. In 1922 he was recored not with his ukulele but rather on kazoo as part of Ladd's Black Acres on "Virginia Blues." In 1923, he signed a recording with Pathé Records. The following year he traveled to Montreal to cut "Old-Fashioned Love" and "Lovey Come Backin." His popularity subsequently exploded and two months later he headlined the Palace.

In August, he had his first Top Ten with "It Had to Be You." In December, he appeared in George Gershwin's Lady, Be Good, where he introduced the song, "Fascinatin' Rhythm." It ran 330 performances. In 1925, he recored "Fascinatin' Rhythm" and had another Top Ten hit. In September of that year, he was cast in Jerome Kern's Sunny, which ran 517 performances. More Top Ten hits followed in 1926, with Irving Berlin's "Remember" and Akst, Lewis and Young's "Dinah." In 1927 he moved to Columbia and released many more popular recordings. In the spring of 1928, he had a number one hit with "I Can't Give You Anything But Love." He also had a hit with one of his own compositions, about another notorious Missourian, convicted murderer "Stack" Lee Shelton who he immortalized in "Stack O'Lee." Whilst headlining a four-week engagement at the Orpheum, MGM's Irving Thalberg got him to sign a four-year contract. His film debut was The Hollywood Revue of 1929 in which he introduced audiences to his version of "Singin' In the Rain." Afterward he focused almost entirely on film. His music career came to a virtual halt and in 1930, his was dropped from Columbia. Meanwhile, in film, over the next four years, he appeared in a total of 33 pictures.

In the 1930s, as crooning became the dominant style in pop music, Edwards switched from the soprano ukulele to the warmer tenor model and he returned to the stage. After again headlining the Palace in August, 1932, NBC gave him his own radio series, Cliff Edwards, Ukelele Ike. Despite his once enormous popularity, he managed to bankrupt himself by 1933, in part on account of his raging alcoholism and addiction to morphine. After musicals came back into vogue following the success of 42 Street, Edwards signed with Paramount and appeard in Take a Chance that fall. His recording of "It's Only a Paper Moon" for Vocalion gave him his first hit in four years. In the spring of 1935, he appeared in Fox's George White's 1935 Scandals which then opened on Broadway and ran 110 performances. After years of film roles at Warner Brother and RKO, in 1940, his biggest film role came with Walt Disney's Pinocchio when he voiced the role of Jiminy Cricket. His recording of "When You Wish Upon a Star" won an Oscar and it, along with "Give a Little Whistle" provided him with his final hit records. Another Disney role came in 1941, when he voiced the head crow in Dumbo and performed "When I See an Elephant Fly." Nonetheless, that March he once again filed for bankruptcy.

For the rest of the decade, most of his film rolls were in B-movie westerns. In the late '40s, he experienced something of a revival when he became a regular on Rudy Vallée's radio show.  In 1949 he began appearing on The Fifty-Fourth Street Revue and also hosted his own program, The Cliff Edwards Show in May, which ran three days a week. Amazingly, given his improving fortunes, the following month he declared bankruptcy for the third time. After that, he appeared occasionally on The Mickey Mouse Club and reprised his role as Jiminy Cricket for the Disneyland TV series in 1954. He spent many of his latter days hanging around the Disney studios, hoping to get more voice work and animators would often treat the faded star to lunch. By the time he died, on July 18, 1971, he was so unknown that his body was unclaimed for a week and was donated to UCLA's medical school. When word got to the Actor's Fund of America, they paid for a proper burial and Disney provided a grave marker. Today, although his voice has been heard by millions, the once famous star remains largely forgotten. In his hometown of Hannibal, one can't turn around without seeing something related to Mark Twain but no one seems to have an memory of the town's second-most-famous son.


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