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Ukulele Ike, a.k.a. Cliff Edwards, Sings Again

Born 125 years ago, he was a major American pop star and an important early force in jazz. It’s time to give him another hearing.

Cliff Edwards (left) with singers Frank Raye and Betty Brewer on his “Ukulele Lady” yacht, June 1947 (photo: William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress)
Cliff Edwards (left) with singers Frank Raye and Betty Brewer on his “Ukulele Lady” yacht, June 1947 (photo: William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress)

A snap quiz from the Kollege of Musical Knowledge: Who introduced the timeless tune “Singin’ in the Rain” in a Hollywood musical? Gene Kelly in the eponymous 1952 movie, right? Wrong. “Singin’ in the Rain” was first performed on screen in The Hollywood Revue of 1929 by Ukulele Ike. 

Here’s another one: Who sang “When You Wish Upon a Star”? You got this—Jiminy Cricket, in Disney’s 1940 animated feature Pinocchio

One more:

The cow goes moo…
The cat meows…
The duck goes quack…

Easy, that’s from the mind-numbing viral YouTube phenomenon “The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?).” But those lines appeared decades earlier in “You Are a Human Animal,” which aired on TV’s The Mickey Mouse Club back in 1955. The singer was Cliff Edwards. 

The thing is, Ukulele Ike, Jiminy Cricket, and Cliff Edwards were one and the same person. He was a hugely famous entertainer who starred on Broadway, radio, films and TV. He sold over 70 million records, he made millions of dollars and spent every dime on plush hotel rooms, deluxe cars, and the alimony he had to pay to a trio of glitzy ex-wives. He was a ferocious alcoholic, a gambler and self-medicater. Forgotten now, he was a bona fide jazz man and one of the most gifted popular singers of all time.

Cliff Avon Edwards was born in 1895 on a houseboat in Hannibal, Missouri, 60 years after Mark Twain, with whom he shared a characteristic strain of Southern drollery. When his father, a conductor on the Missouri Pacific line, became too sick to work, 14-year-old Cliff left school and worked a series of menial jobs—shoe salesman, freight car painter, singing paperboy—eventually landing a job in St. Louis as a drummer/sound effects man in a silent movie theater. Later, Cliff would describe himself during those years as “a common, everyday variety of street urchin.”

Eventually, he found work as an entertainer in clubs and saloons. In an effort to dodge sketchy, out-of-tune pianos, Cliff learned to accompany himself on the ukulele, gigging for tips. After gaining more experience in New York and Chicago, he secured a spot on the vaudeville circuit in 1918 with the cigar-puffing, eccentric dancer Joe Frisco. The following year, Edwards and vocalist Pierce Keegan, performing as “Jazz Az Iz,” were part of Ziegfeld’s lewd after-hours rooftop show, the Midnight Frolic. Sounds like a fun gig.

In 1924, the Gershwin brothers hired him to play the butler in their show Lady Be Good. By all accounts, Cliff upstaged Fred and Adele Astaire with Gershwin’s tricky new tune, “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” and Astaire agreed: “Ike stole the show.” Cliff also introduced “Little Jazz Bird” and his own tune, “Insufficient Sweetie.” In ’25, he appeared in Jerome Kern’s Sunny and scored a Top 10 hit with a song from the show, “Paddlin’ Madelin’ Home.”

In 1929, after catching the attention of Irving Thalberg at MGM, Cliff, uke in hand, appeared in an early Marion Davies talkie, Marianne. He played the third banana, but he made the most of it, showing off his chops and charisma on a couple of sweet numbers, “When I See My Sugar (I Get a Lump in My Throat) and “Hang on to Me.” (You can see Cliff sing the latter tune to prestidigitator Suzy Wandas in a 1935 color clip on YouTube.)

His third film, The Hollywood Revue of 1929, was one of those plotless early talkies that trotted out all the studio talent. After some cringeworthy blackface stuff by the chorus, Buster Keaton does a dopey dance, Oliver Hardy slips on a banana peel, and Joan Crawford, introduced as the “personification of youth and beauty and joy and happiness,” does a song-and-dance routine. Then Cliff walks out in a rainhat and slicker and steals the picture with his performance of “Singin’ in the Rain,” first alone with his uke, then again in the finale along with a dense crowd of MGM stars and chorus girls. It made him an international sensation.

Starting back in 1919, Cliff appeared on some of the earliest jazz recordings. He’d developed a falsetto scat style he called “eefus,” an imitation of the New Orleans plunger mute style pioneered by King Oliver, Bubber Miley, and Tricky Sam Nanton. In 1922—a year before King Oliver recorded “Dippermouth Blues” and four years before Louis Armstrong’s famous scat on “Heebie Jeebies”—Cliff, as Ukulele Ike, “eefed” the blues on a Gennett recording of “Virginia Blues” by Ladd’s Black Aces, another name for Phil Napoleon’s Original Memphis Five (all white musicians; Gennett thought they’d sell more records if the audience thought they were black). 

Throughout the ’20s and ’30s, Cliff had a string of hits as Ukulele Ike and His Hot Combination, which at various times included Red Nichols, the Dorsey brothers, Eddie Lang, and Joe Venuti. He scored big with now-classic tunes like “It Had to Be You,” “Somebody Loves Me,” “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” and a bunch more.

Although he didn’t specialize in raunchy blues like, say, Lucille Bogan, Cliff did record a few off-label “party” tunes for the under-the-counter market: How about “I’m Going to Give It to Mary with Love”? Or “I Love Mount’n Women”? And my favorite, “Mr. Insurance Man,” in which the widow Liza sings:

Mr. Insurance Man
Take out that thing for me
Oh Mr. Insurance Man
Do the best you can
I crave some indemnity

A more wholesome novelty number was “Six Women (Me and Henry the Eighth)” from the 1934 film George White’s Scandals.

Cliff had roles in over a hundred films for MGM and RKO: musicals, Westerns (usually as the star’s sidekick), wartime comedies and thrillers, most of them pretty dreary stuff. Often, the brightest segment was a song by Cliff and his uke. He had a standout character role as the reporter Endicott in Howard Hawks’ 1940 classic His Girl Friday with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. 

Cliff appeared in several of Buster Keaton’s films and they became serious boozing buddies. Unfortunately, the talkies signaled Keaton’s descent into alcoholism, and Cliff descended right along with him. The two vaudevillians had a lot in common: a predilection for hasty marriages to fetching starlets on whom they both spent large percentages of their fortunes; a tendency to fritter away big bucks on hotels, automobiles, and such; and other assorted vices associated with young men who’ve been given too much money to play with. The Great Depression compounded their financial problems. 

By the end of the ’30s, romantic, less hip crooners like Bing Crosby, Rudy Vallee, and early Frank Sinatra became the vogue, and Cliff’s popularity began to fade. In truth, he could croon with the best, but the image he presented—pudgy, owl-eyed leprechaun—no longer squared with the public’s conception of a male balladeer.

Cliff’s career got an unexpected boost in 1939 when Walt Disney, then in the process of developing Pinocchio, ran into cricket trouble. Disney was determined to provide the wayward puppet with a likable cricket sidekick who would act as Pinocchio’s conscience. Over 30 voice actors had tried out for the part when one of the animators mentioned Cliff’s name. Walt had him come in for an audition and, in the following months, Jiminy Cricket was created in Cliff’s image. Rising to the occasion, Cliff’s voice acting brought the character alive, and his tender performance of the now-classic opener, “When You Wish Upon a Star,” earned the song an Oscar.

Although the weight of Cliff’s own “bad conscience” is unknowable, one wonders if he ever grokked the irony of casting a skirt-chasing, alcoholic hophead as Pinocchio’s spiritual advisor. Perhaps he saw the role as a chance for a new start. Jiminy, on the other hand, could be deeply cynical about Pinocchio’s chances for rehabilitation. The self-scrutinizing cricket, after witnessing Pinocchio’s “success” on Stromboli’s stage, no longer trusts his own judgment: “Gosh! Maybe I was wrong … I guess [Pinocchio] won’t need me anymore. What does an actor want with a conscience anyway?”

Notwithstanding the fact that Pinocchio’s voice actors weren’t listed in the film’s credits, “When You Wish Upon a Star” became a Top 10 hit, and Cliff, at age 45, was back on a roll. For the 1941 animated film Dumbo, Disney cast him as the lead singer in a choir of “black crows,” a scene which, unfortunately, employed the usual black stereotypes of the age. Although Cliff, growing up in Hannibal, was obviously influenced by black bluesmen and jazzmen, to my ears his style never comes close to being a caricature of the Afro-American idiom. Like Connee Boswell and Mose Allison, he was always uniquely himself.

Cliff Edwards, a.k.a. Ukulele Ike
Cliff Edwards, a.k.a. Ukulele Ike

Taking advantage of his new status, Cliff landed his own radio show. He even had a program on early television, The Cliff Edwards Show, one of the first variety shows on the tube. Still, he was always struggling financially. Whereas Buster Keaton had turned his life around by the ’40s, Cliff, sadly, couldn’t manage to pull out of his dive. In later years, his excesses included addictions to cocaine and heroin, not to mention three catastrophic divorces, four bankruptcies, and the cost and maintenance of a custom Stutz Bearcat. His long, slow tailspin continued, as they say, unabated. In the late ’40s he moved back to New York, where he escaped paying rent by living on an old renovated navy boat anchored in a slip on the East River. He called it the “Ukulele Lady.”

Despite his tribulations, Cliff proved himself to be a survivor. In 1951, the owner of the Celebrity Club in Sydney, Australia invited him to spend a month as the headliner. Each night was broadcast live on radio, and he found a new audience. On YouTube, there’s an audio clip from a 1952 Aussie radio show that includes a beautiful rendition of “When You Wish Upon a Star” and a brief interview in which Cliff admits, “Who wants to go back? … I hope to stay about three or four years—I have nothing to go back to …” But after two years gigging around the South Pacific, Cliff was back in Hollywood for good.

Disney, now in the TV business, needed content for his Sunday-night Disneyland shows as well as the new Mickey Mouse Club, and he again called on Cliff to do cricket service, which is what he mostly did until Walt died in 1966. Aside from voicing Jiminy’s “educational” segments like “You Are a Human Animal” and “I’m No Fool,” Cliff appeared as himself a few times to sing to the Mouseketeers, still sounding great. When the work dried up, he’d still show up at the studio, hoping for a voice-over gig.

What’s obvious in accounts of his later years is that the staff at Disney Studios, while witnessing his deteriorating condition, still loved the guy. The animators would treat him to lunch and listen to his stories of the old vaudeville days. In 1956, film scorer George Bruns and his Wonderland Jazz Band backed Cliff up on an album for Disneyland Records, Ukulele Ike Sings Again, which included many of the songs he made famous. It wasn’t exactly a big seller. Jimmy Johnson, who ran the record division, remembered those days: “I made some work for him on records which we really didn’t need. Toward the end, royalties from records were his only source of income. The last time he came into my office, he didn’t seem to know where he was or who I was. He was a sad and sorrowful sight that brought tears to my eyes.” 

In 1969, Cliff was taken to live at the Virgil Convalescent Home in Hollywood, where he died of a heart attack two years later at the age of 76. Because no one on the staff knew he was anyone of consequence, his death wasn’t reported until almost a week later. The Actors Fund of America and the Motion Picture and Television Relief Fund paid for his burial at Valhalla Memorial Park. Years later, the Disney Corporation paid for a proper headstone that reads, “In loving memory of Ukulele Ike.”

Who was this impish trinity, Cliff/Ike/Cricket? Because information about his inner life is scarce, it’s not easy to say. There are some show-business characters who seem to live only on the stage. Speaking to an interviewer in 1936, Cliff said, “The public doesn’t care about my background as long as it can hear me play the ukulele and make funny faces.” 

What we’re left with is four decades of music on record. Though he could hold his own with the Broadway minstrels and warbling dandies of the early jazz era, Cliff’s center of gravity always landed him on the same ground as Louis Armstrong and Ivie Anderson. He was an authentic, ad-libbing, fun-loving, rhythmically driven jazz man, and the proof is pressed on to the wax. While other showmen of the ’20s and ’30s now abrade and offend, Cliff’s voice and bearing seem timeless. 

In the last few years, three specialty labels have collected some of Cliff’s best stuff. In 2011, Retrieval Records released Fascinating Rhythm 1922–1935, with gems like “Night Owl,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” and “Bless You Sister.” Another anthology, Cliff Edwards: The Ultimate Collection (Blues Country Records, 2018), includes “Dancin’ in the Moonlight” and “Stack O’ Lee.” In 1995, Audiophile Records of New Orleans collected some of Cliff’s best radio performances from the ’40s on an album called, naturally, Singing in the Rain. It’s an intimate set, mostly just Cliff and his Martin tenor ukulele singing standards like “Remember,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” and his own “Minnie, My Mountain Moocher.” It’s the real thing.