As one who thrives on old jazz found in out-of-the-way places, I can attest that there are some under-appreciated performers out there. Like the one we feature today – if you are tiring of a never-ending parade of trumpets and saxophones, this is something for you. A – – – ukulele? And one played by someone you may know for something else.
Cliff Edwards was born in Hannibal, Missouri on June 14, 1895. Hannibal and its environs have produced its fair share of notable Americans, with author and humorist Mark Twain preceding Edwards and Bill Lear (inventor of the Lear Jet) coming after. Most of you probably don’t think you know anything about Edwards, but I suspect you are wrong. We will come back to this.
Edwards’ father fell ill and the lad quit school to help support the family. He seemed to suffer from some mission creep, as he eventually headed towards St. Louis where he taught himself to play piano so that he could play (and do vocal sound effects) for early silent films.
Wikipedia tells us that he grabbed a ukulele in a pawnshop one day because he was tired of having to deal with broken or nonexistent pianos in the low-rent dives where he performed. He claimed that a ukulele was the cheapest thing in the pawnshop, so there it was. Whether this version is true or not, the ukulele had only recently been introduced to the States as part of a Hawaiian entertainment fad that got started about 1915. The C.F. Martin Company (an American producer of string instruments since before the Civil War) started making ukleles in 1916 and there we are.
Edwards was probably the guy who turned the ukulele from a niche instrument for Hawaiians into one of the biggest musical crazes of the 1920’s. And his nickname is said to have been courtesy of a long-ago waiter in a club who coudn’t remember names and called him “Ike”. It kind of worked, and “Ukulele Ike” he would be. Or “Ukelele Ike” until the spelling for the instrument was standardized.
Edwards was notable more for his singing than for his playing, which was mostly just there for backup. If you listen to enough singers of the pre-Bing Crosby era, well, you will get a headache. Most of them either thought of themselves as frustrated opera stars or as Music Hall acts of the sort that predated Vaudeville. Edwards was among the first to bring a natural, personal style of singing into popular entertainment, and certainly one of the earliest to take full advantage of the advent of the microphone in recording around 1925-26.
Edwards was also one of the earliest to do a kind of “scat singing” (something that would not get a name until many years later), and did so on records before Louis Armstrong made it a thing. Edwards’ method that mimicked a muted trumpet was unique and added to the fun of his music. And probably the popularity of it, too. From about 1924 onward, if there was a hot new song to be recorded you could be sure Edwards would have one of the top selling versions.
I actually have two selections from Edwards, both accidental finds for me.
The first was in the earlier part of his career, a song called Paddlin’ Madelin’ Home, a song which he was the first to record and which became a fairly durable hit from the time. This 1925 recording would have been right before the beginning of electrical recording by Pathe’ Records and its sub-labels, but even this late acoustic record shows Edwards to great effect.
The second is from a few years later (1933) and is probably a more familiar tune to most, if only because it shares its title with a movie starring Ryan and Tatum O’Neal from the early 1970s’ – Paper Moon. Where Paddlin’ is a fun, lighthearted song, (It’s Only A) Paper Moon shows Edwards’ ability to sing with a tenderness and sweetness that eluded almost everyone before Crosby and Sinatra ruled the jukeboxes. This one adds the guitar of Dick McDonough and the subtle bass work of Artie Bernstein, who both add a quiet richness to the background of this lovely rendition.
For a time Edwards was one of the hottest names in entertainment. He was big enough to share the bill with Fred Astaire in a George Gershwin show of 1924 (Lady Be Good) and would set to wax one famous (and not so famous) song after another into the next decade. And he would regularly grace the screen after the debut of talking pictures in 1927.
Like in the first half of this clip, where he was featured in MGM’s The Hollywood Review of 1929, one of that studio’s very earliest musical productions from the dawn of talking pictures. Yes, Singin’ In The Rain was in the movies long before the iconic Gene Kelly number of the early 1950’s.
And I know I promised up front to tell you why you have probably heard him and not known it – Edwards was the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney’s 1940 animated classic Pinocchio. Disney’s choice of famous-but-out-of-fashion talent for voice roles is nothing new. We have probably reached a time when his rendition of When You Wish Upon A Star is not so famous as it once was, but it fits the term “classic” by almost any definition. And no, I am not going to embed that one because I have no intention of picking a fight with Disney over copyrights. I’m sure you can find it on YouTube if you have the desire.
But I will at least display one of the many record jackets that his performance generated.
Unfortunately, his story did not end all that happily. After making an absolute fortune in the 20’s, he seemed to have lived a life more suitable for Pleasure Island than the more responsible lifestyle that Jiminy Cricket would have recommended. He did periodic voice work for Disney as the decades passed but eventually died broke in an old actor’s home in Hollywood in 1971 – with Disney (unknown to him or the public) paying most of his medical bills in his last years. Never let it be said that old Walt Disney didn’t take care of those in the extended Disney family.
There are probably sticklers who would argue that jazz has fences and Cliff Edwards was on the outside of them. They would call Ukulele Ike a pop phenom with a short shelf life who lucked into an iconic movie role. I would disagree. He brought us a vocal style that was free and relaxed and intimate, and was also one of the earliest to sing by improvised scatting. And all in a style of phrasing and timing that had a natural lilt or swing to it, giving his singing an easy, free-flowing nature that pre-dated Billie Holiday by a decade or more. So I say We All Like (Ukulele) Ike and welcome him through the gate of the jazz fence so that we can enjoy his truly one-of-a-kind contribution.
Both recordings from the YouTube page of the78Prof
Cover photo – undated publicity picture without copyright markings via Pinterest
C. 1930 publicity photo without copyright markings offered for sale at Heritage Auctions .com
C. 1925 copy of sheet music offered for sale at eBay.
C. 1924 copy of sheet music
45 rpm record jacket from the 1950s from Discogs.com
Cliff Edwards’ grave marker from Wikipedia
Undated publicity photo from the Unofficial Martin Guitar Forum
Other notable sources: