By Casey MacGill | Illustration by Robert Armstrong | From the Winter 2019 Issue of Ukulele
Mark Twain wasn’t the only cultural icon born in Hannibal, Missouri. There was another fellow, a funny looking, wide-eyed guy who played and popularized the ukulele in the 1920s while selling millions of records, introduced the Gershwin classic “Fascinating Rhythm” from the Broadway stage, popularized the tune “Singin’ in the Rain” 20 years before Gene Kelly skipped through puddles, and was the winning voice of Jiminy Cricket, crooning the Disney anthem “When You Wish Upon a Star.”
His name? Cliff Edwards, aka Ukulele Ike, and if you asked a citizen of Hannibal or any other place in the country who he was you’d get a blank stare. However, as a reader of this magazine and enthusiast of the ukulele, you owe him a debt of gratitude. The popularity of his records made the ukulele a fixture in the ’20s, turning up in college dorms, John Held Jr. illustrations, the family flivver, around campfires, and parlors of American homes.
But there’s more to it than just his coaxing strums; he was arguably the first real popular crooner to break with the European operatic singing style and bring a more natural, home-grown, jazz- and blues-influenced manner to his vocals. He also infused an uncanny storytelling talent to his crooning—inhabiting the lyrics and imbuing his performances with a full range of emotions.
Cliff’s life was a roller coaster ride of dramatic counterpoint between fabulous artistic triumphs and personal setbacks resulting from his fondness for adult beverages, uncontrolled substances, and games of chance.
Clifton Avon Edwards was born June 14, 1895, in Hannibal, Missouri. He was one of four children of Nellie and Edward Edwards. His dad was a conductor on freight trains with the Missouri Pacific Railroad and when his father became ill, Cliff left school to work in a local shoe factory. He may have been 14 or younger at that time.
The young Edwards eventually traveled downriver to St. Louis, performing “illustrated songs” in a silent movie theater. This consisted of singing, playing drums, and making sound effects during the films. He continued working many other odd jobs including washing dishes, painting railroad freight-cars, selling newspapers, and singing in saloons.
Cliff’s meeting up with the ukulele is uncertain, but it likely it occurred around 1916–1917. Before this time there were very few ukuleles on the Mainland of the United States. The 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco brought Hawaiian musicians and dancers to entertain the attendees. Their popularity resulted in a wave of recording activity and vaudeville theater touring across the country featuring groups of Hawaiian musicians. In response, the guitar maker C.F. Martin & Co. began manufacturing ukuleles in 1916 and many other manufacturers began soon after. It’s likely that Cliff discovered the ukulele during this time.
Becoming ‘Ukulele Ike’
Edwards also spent time on the road traveling in tent shows, going wherever it took him. According to Larry Kiner’s valuable book, The Cliff Edwards Discography, Edwards was working at the lunch counter in New York’s Grand Central Station when he heard of an opportunity to perform at the Arsonia Cafe in Chicago. Equipped with his ukulele, Cliff moved west and began his music career in earnest. This was 1917.
The Arsonia was a valuable steppingstone for Cliff, as it contained a floor show with established stars like Bee Palmer, Bennie Fields, and Gilda Gray. Circulating among the sawdust and smoke, playing the ukulele and singing for tips, Edwards entertained the patrons up-close, building his popularity one table at a time.
Edwards also got his stage name at the Arsonia. In an interview recorded with Cliff in 1969, the then-74-year-old Edwards recalled, “I was working for Mike Fritzel in Chicago in a cafe on the West Side, and there was a waiter there named Spot, and he never could think of my name, and he’d say, ‘Hey, Ike, come here!’ So, I just took the name Ike and added Ukulele to it and made a trade name out of it.”
The piano player at the club, Bob Carleton, penned the tune “Ja-Da.” Cliff sang it, the tune clicked, and he began to tour in the vaudeville circuit. He met up with dancer and comedian Joe Frisco and played the Palace in New York. Cliff sang and played drums in this act. It is speculated he was with Frisco for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1918.
During his Chicago sojourn, Cliff married his first wife, Gertrude Benson. Their son, Clifford Jr. was born February 13th, 1919. However, the marriage was unable to withstand Edwards’ accelerating schedule and they divorced two years later.
Cliff made his first recordings in 1919 for Columbia Records but they were never issued. He was busy touring on the Keith-Albee circuit of vaudeville and movie theaters. In 1922, Cliff recorded the song “Homesick” with Bailey’s Lucky Seven. He performed one of the earliest examples of scat singing on disc, or as Edwards called it, “Effus.” He imitated the wa-wa trumpet vocally with lots of personality. No one has ever sounded quite like it.
It was the beginning of a prolific career, waxing hit after hit throughout the ’20s and into the ’30s. His records make a great collection of romantic and novelty favorites, and 1924 turned into a stellar year for Edwards with his hit recordings of “Hard-Hearted Hannah,” “It Had to Be You,” “Somebody Loves Me,” and “California, Here I Come.”
Edwards recording and vaudeville touring snowballed his popularity and in 1924 George Gershwin picked him to join the cast of his show Lady, Be Good. Sharing the bill were a young Fred and Adele Astaire. The show was a big hit and Cliff introduced two future Gershwin classics, “Fascinating Rhythm” and “Little Jazz Bird,” in addition to having another hit with the show’s famous title song. Fred Astaire recalled that Edwards regularly stopped the show with “Fascinating Rhythm.”
The success of Lady, Be Good led to other Broadway appearances, including Sunny and the Ziegfeld Follies of 1927. His records from the late-’20s included “Button Up Your Overcoat,” “Remember,” “Dinah,” “Paddlin’ Madelin’ Home,” “Anything You Say,” “Sunday,” “Just a Night for Meditation,” and his number one hit, “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love.”
California, Here I Come
In 1929, he signed with MGM just in time to introduce a little tune called “Singin’ in the Rain”—you may have heard of it. Cliffie starred in only two films, but he appeared in over 100, as a supporting actor, bit player, and voice-over artist for animation features.
While at MGM, Edwards worked on three movies with the great Buster Keaton. They were well-suited to each other—Keaton also played the ukulele, loved to sing, enjoyed a cocktail, and could commiserate with Cliff about their divorces. There is a delightful scene in the movie Doughboys of a jam session with Buster chording a Martin Style 3 taropatch (8-string ukulele) while Cliff scats and plays the rhythm on it with drumsticks, and another actor hums the bass. It’s pure fun!
At the same time Edwards was making this movie, 1930, he was involved in a sensational divorce from his second wife, Irene Wylie. Cliff had married Irene, a member of the chorus, on the road in Portland, Oregon, in May 1923. Celebrities took the stand to testify on Cliff’s behalf and it was the news of the day. However, when the dust settled in June 1931, Irene was awarded all their property and half of Cliff’s income for the rest of his life!
Not to be deterred, Edwards, an incurable romantic, married again in August 1932. His bride was Nancy Dover, an MGM starlet. Within a month, he was sued for back alimony. In January 1933, while working on stage in Chicago, Cliff was served a restraining order forbidding him from leaving the state of Illinois until he paid child support to his first wife, Gertrude. Their son had lost his legs while playing in a railroad yard. Two months later Cliff declared bankruptcy for the first time.
Despite his personal turmoil, he continued to make great records for Columbia, then Vocalion, ARC, Decca, and several small labels. Many of his recordings, such as “Singing’ in the Rain” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” were songs from the films he was making.
A great example of Cliff’s performing talent can be seen in the movie Take a Chance. He croons the tune “Night Owl,” blinking throughout with convincing owl-like eyes. His recordings also show off his talent for taking a modest tune and making it sound much better than the original piece, a feat well-illustrated with his recordings of “A Great Big Bunch of You” and “My Dog Loves Your Dog.” He also does a swell job with his own song, “I Wanna Call You Sweet Mama,” backed by jazz guitarist Dick McDonough.
In the mid-’30s, he recorded some classic discs with Andy Iona & His Islanders for Decca, uniting his voice and ukulele-playing with a swinging Hawaiian ensemble with lap-steel guitar.
Legendary Roles & Then Obscurity
Things were looking up for Edwards when, in 1939, Walt Disney Studios beckoned with the role of Jiminy Cricket in its animated feature Pinocchio. It was to be his crowning achievement, playing the little insect who was Pinocchio’s indispensable friend and singer of “When You Wish Upon a Star.” It won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1940, in no small part a recognition of Cliff’s magnificent vocal. The following year, Cliff was back on the Disney lot singing “When I See an Elephant Fly” in Dumbo. He also filed his second bankruptcy.
The ’40s continued with work in movies, often in westerns where he played a sidekick who could be counted on for a musical number or two. During this time, Cliff also appeared on many radio programs, had his own shows, and appeared on stage. He made a temporary move to New York City in the mid-’40s, living on a converted navy ship, christened the Ukulele Lady.
In 1949, he declared his third bankruptcy, made an almost two-year tour of the South Pacific and Australia, and was back in Hollywood for The Mickey Mouse Club in 1955. By now, “When You Wish Upon a Star” was the studio’s theme song with Cliff’s vocals. His singing was so popular that 2,000 letters a week were coming in from kids wanting to know who the singer was.
Eventually, work for Edwards slowed to a trickle and he took up residence in the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital, a home for indigent actors. He died a welfare patient in the Virgil Convalescent Hospital, July 17, 1971. He had no living relatives and his body lay unclaimed for three days until Disney and the Actors’ Fund of America found out and made funeral arrangements.
The world of entertainment had passed him by, but later recordings show Cliffie to be better than ever as a singer and storyteller. His style, once considered passé, is now recognized as timeless. We have a wealth of recordings, TV, and film appearances to enjoy Cliff Edwards, the other cultural icon from Hannibal, Missouri.
Lamb Chop’s Little Ditty
Throughout his life, Cliff Edwards affectionately called his ukulele “my little lamb chop.” Much like blues guitarist B.B. King bestowing the name “Lucille” on whatever guitar he was playing, Edwards’ lamb chop constantly changed. He was known to prefer Martins throughout his career, starting with sopranos early on and switching to the then-new, larger tenor size.
Many of the early photos of Cliffie show him mugging with a Martin Style 3 soprano, though he was also seen playing Style 2. After the introduction of the tenor in 1928, he was mostly seen playing his unique strums on a Style 1T, such as in humorous performance of “With a Little Magic” with magician Suzy Wandas in the 1935 film Starlit Days at the Lido.
During the plastic ukulele craze of the 1950s, Cliff Edwards’ name and visage were used on some of the millions of plastic ukes. The Cliff Edwards model was made by a San Diego–based company called Fin-der and was very similar to the Maccaferri ukuleles of the same era, but without the zero nut that defines Maccaferri.
Around 1930, the Dobro company introduced the Cliff Edwards Tenortrope Model 45 Resophonic Guitar, basically a round-bodied tenor guitar that used Dobro’s new spider-type resonator cone. It was a short-lived model and is rare today.
According to archival material presented in The Martin Ukulele by Tom Walsh and John King, the Style 3 taropatch seen being chorded by Buster Keaton as Edward’s beat the strings with drumsticks in the film Doughboys was likely Keaton’s. —Greg Olwell