Cliff Edwards (14 June 1895 - 17 July 1971), also known as "Ukelele Ike", was a United States singer and musician who enjoyed considerable popularity in the 1920s and early 1930s, and also did voices for animated cartoons later in his career.
Clifton A. Edwards was born in Hannibal, Missouri. He left school at age 14 and soon after moved to St. Louis, Missouri where he entertained as a singer in saloons. As many places had pianos in bad shape or none at all, Edwards taught himself to play ukelele to serve as his own accompanist (selecting that instrument as it was the cheapest in the music store). He got the nickname "Ukelele Ike" from a club owner who couldn't remember his name.
Edwards played on Vaudeville circuits. He made his first big hit in 1918 at the Arsonia Cafe in Chicago, Illinois where he introduced a tune by the club's pianist, Bob Carleton, "Ja Da". The tune, Edwards, and Carleton made a hit. Vaudeville headliner Joe Frisco hired Edwards as part of his act, which played at The Palace in New York City, the most prestigious theater in Vaudeville, and then in the Ziegfeld Follies.
Edwards made his first phonograph records in 1919. He recorded early examples of jazz scat singing in 1922. The following year he was signed to a contract with Pathe Records. He became one of the most popular singers of the decade, during which he also appeared in several Broadway shows.
More than any other performer, Edwards was responsible for the pop culture popularity of the ukulele in the 1920s. Millions of ukes were sold in the decade, and Tin Pan Alley publishers added ukulele chords to standard sheet music.
In 1929 Cliff Edwards was playing at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles, California, where he caught the attention of movie producer/director Irving Thalberg who had Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer hire Edwards to appear in early sound movies. After performing in some short films, Edwards was one of the stars in the feature Hollywood Revue of 1929, doing some comic bits and singing some numbers, including giving the film debut of his hit "Singin' in the Rain". He would make a total of 33 films for MGM through 1933.
Edwards was careless the money he got in the boom years of the 1920s, and while he continued working in the Great Depression he would never again enjoy his former prosperity. Most of his salaries went to alimony for multiple former wives and paying other debts. He declared bankruptcy four times during the 1930s and early 1940s.
In 1932 Cliff Edwards got his first national radio show on CBS. Edwards would continue having network radio shows off and on through 1946. However with the start of the Great Depression Edwards' popularity faded as public taste shifted to sweeter style crooners like Bing Crosby, Russ Columbo, and Rudy Vallee.
In 1939 Edwards played the character "Edicott" in the screwball comedy film His Girl Friday. Edwards voice was also featured in two other films that year; he voiced the dying Confederate soldier in Gone With the Wind, and most famously the character Jiminy Cricket in the Disney Studios cartoon feature Pinocchio. In 1941 he voiced the crow in Disney's Dumbo.
For the 1949 season, Edwards starred in The Cliff Edwards Show, a three day a week (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings) television show on the CBS television network.
In the 1950s and early 1960s he made a number of appearances on the Mickey Mouse Club television show, in addition to reprising his Jiminy Cricket voice for various Disney shorts.
Edwards was broke in his later years, living in a home for indigent actors, often spending his days hanging around the Walt Disney Studios to be available any time he could get voice work and being taken to lunch by animators who he told stories of his days in Vaudeville.
Sadly, he had disappeared from the public eye at the time of his death as a charity patent at the Virgil Convalescent Hospital in Hollywood, California. His body was initially unclaimed and donated to the University of California, Los Angeles medical school, but when Walt Disney found about about this he purchased the corpse and paid for burial.