Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards
By: David Smay | Categories: HiLo Heroes

cliff ukulele

I walked into an antique shop off Magazine Street, in New Orleans, and was greeted by a dapper guy in vintage duds behind the register. As I pawed through boxes of cut glass Mardi Gras beads and old burlesque handbills he put on a 78. It sounded great, the voice oddly familiar but I couldn’t place it. “Who is this?”

“That’s CLIFF EDWARDS [1895–1971], also known as Ukelele Ike. In the ’20s and ’30s he was one of the most popular singers in the country.”

“Why does he sound so familiar?”

“He’s the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio,” he said.

“When You Wish Upon A Star” may be all people know of Cliff Edwards’ work, but he’s far more important than that sole recording suggests. Coming out of St. Louis he worked saloons as a teenager, picking up a ukelele to accompany himself. He absorbed the hot rhythms of the emerging “jass” sounds, and developed an early variant of scat singing that he called “Effin” — that instantly identifiable ’20s jazz sound of a singer emulating a horn with their voice.

Edwards became a star on Broadway when he debuted Gershwin’s “Fascinating Rhythm,” and his recording of “Singin’ In the Rain” went to #1 in 1929. With Crosby, Edwards is responsible for bringing jazz elements into popular singing, swinging rhythmically with a light conversational style that exploited the new recording techniques. Though as influential and popular in his own right as Bing, Sinatra, Billie, Louis or Ella, he died a poor alcoholic, his name forgotten. He wished upon a star and his dreams came true; it didn’t guarantee a happy ending.

Singin’ in the Rain

It’s Magic

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Burl Ives, Margaret Bourke-White, Jerzy Kosinski.

READ MORE about members of the Hardboiled Generation (1894-1903).

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David Smay is the co-editor of two books about pop music, Bubblegum Music is the Naked Truth, and Lost in the Grooves. He's also the author of Swordfishtrombones, the 33 1/3 series entry on Tom Waits. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and two children.