THE life of Cliff Edwards is as remarkable as it is tragic.
Born in 1895 in Hannibal, Missouri, the same town that informed Mark Twain’s youth and work, Edwards left school at 14 and moved to St Louis, where he got his start singing in saloons. As many of the venues didn’t have pianos, he bought a soprano uke to accompany his voice and was given the moniker ‘Ike’ by a waiter who couldn’t remember his name.
“Ukulele Ike” went to Chicago in 1917 and got his first big break performing a novelty song called Ja Da with its composer, Bob Carleton, at the Arsonia Café in 1918. On the back of the tune’s success, vaudeville headliner Joe Frisco hired Edwards and he was soon performing on Broadway in New York, first at the famed Palace Theatre and later with the Ziegfeld Follies.
The pioneer of a distinctive form of scat singing he called “effin”, Edwards made his recording debut in 1922 and quickly became popular. His version of Singin’ In The Rain was number one for three weeks in 1929, and he was the first person to perform the standard on screen in The Hollywood Revue Of 1929.
As Ike got more famous, so did the ukulele. Millions of instruments were sold in the 1920s and Tin Pan Alley publishers responded to the craze by printing ukulele chord diagrams on the sheet music of the day. Edwards always favoured Martin ukes and developed a unique roll stroke.
“Most people play the four-finger roll starting with the pinky finger and ending with the index finger or thumb,” says Ike expert Terry Chapman. “But Cliff Edwards played it differently; he started with the index and followed it with the other fingers, with the pinky last.”
In his only instructional booklet, 1927’s Ukulele Ike’s Complete Ukulele Method, Edwards describes his technique: “If you were to make a series of six consecutive strokes, in strict cadence, all down, in this order: index finger, second finger, third finger, fourth finger followed by the thumb then return up by the thumb, you will have laid the foundation for the very flashy roll stroke which very few amateurs know how to use.”
Throughout the 1930s, Ike appeared in Hollywood musicals and on radio, but his star began to fade as the public became enamoured with crooners such as Bing Crosby. Edwards’ last great role was as the voice of the infectiously happy Jiminy Cricket in the 1940 Disney feature Pinocchio, and his tender treatment of the song When You Wish Upon A Star made it an instant classic.
Sadly, massive alimony payments to three ex-wives and alcohol and drug problems plagued Ike’s latter years and he died penniless in a Hollywood nursing home in 1971. The Walt Disney Company paid for his grave marker.
Blessed with a three-octave vocal range and the ability to sell both comedy ditties and heartfelt ballads, Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards sold an estimated 74 million records and appeared in more than 100 films. Aptly described by American movie expert Leonard Maltin as “probably the best known/least known performer in show business history”, he was a true original who deserves to be remembered.
This article originally appeared in Issue 2 of KAMUKE Ukulele Magazine, which is available in the Store