As many of the venues had either bad pianos or none at all, Edwards taught himself to play the cheapest instrument he could find, a ukulele, and became his own accompanist.
Clifton Avon Edwards was born in Hannibal, Missouri, on June 14, 1895. He left school at age 14, and headed to St. Louis and St. Charles, where he began his career singing in saloons.
As many of the venues had either bad pianos or none at all, Edwards taught himself to play the cheapest instrument he could find, a ukulele, and became his own accompanist. He got his nickname, “Ukulele Ike,” when a club owner could never remember his name. His first break came when he teamed up with Bob Carleton in Chicago in 1918. Together they were a hit on the vaudeville circuit. From there, Edwards was hired as part of Joe Frisco’s act which played the Palace in New York City and later the Ziegfeld Follies.
Edwards made his first record in 1919 and, after signing with Pathe Records, became one of the most popular singers of the 1920s. He appeared on Broadway and recorded top songs like, “California, Here I Come” and “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby.” In 1924, he headlined at the Palace and was featured in Gershwin’s first Broadway musical along with Fred and Adele Astaire.
In 1929, while playing the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles, Edwards was noticed by Irving Thalberg of MGM. Hired to appear in “Hollywood Revue of 1929,” Edwards debuted “Singin’ in the Rain.” Over the next four years, Edwards appeared in 33 MGM films. In 1939, he did the voice of an off-screen, wounded soldier in “Gone with the Wind.” His most familiar voice role, however, was recorded in 1940. Walt Disney released “Pinocchio” and Jiminy Cricket (Edwards) sang “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Edwards was also the voice of the head crow in Disney’s “Dumbo” and sang “When I See an Elephant Fly.” With the coming of television, Edwards starred for one season in his own CBS variety show, “The Cliff Edwards Show,” on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights.
Unfortunately, his personal life was not as successful. Besides trying to live an expensive lifestyle, Edwards married and divorced three times. There were no children, but a great deal of his money was spent on alimony. In later years he became an alcoholic and drug addict. Toward the end, he lived in a home for indigent actors and spent much of his time at the Disney Studios being available for voice work. He recorded his last album, “Ukulele Ike,” just before his death in 1971. It was released after his death that same year.
Elizabeth Davis was born and raised in Cooper County, Missouri, and has written HISTORICALLY YOURS for the Boonville Daily News for over ten years. She has covered the Civil War, US history, and Cooper County history. In celebration of Missouri’s Bicentennial, she has syndicated her column statewide and encourages readers all over the Show Me State to submit topic suggestions for future columns to HistoricallyYours.firstname.lastname@example.org.