Born: June 14, 1895 | Died: 1971 Primary Instrument: Ukulele
Cliff Edwards got his start in show business as a teenager in St. Louis where he sang in movie theatres and saloons. While singing in the saloons he began to accompany himself on the ukulele and developed a style of improvised singing, which he called effin. Effin sounds a lot like the human voice imitating a hot trumpet or kazoo solo. Edwards had a wonderful voice with at least a three octave range and he would inject his effin solos into his songs in the same way that a Jazz musician would take a solo.
A good argument can be made that Edwards 1922 recordings with Ladds Black Aces and Bailey's Lucky Seven are the first recorded examples of scat singing, but some Jazz critics would disagee and point back to Gene Greene's 1911 Victor recording King of the Bungaloos. Between 1913 and 1918 Edwards struggled to make a living traveling with carnivals and doing menial labor to get by.
In 1917 he moved to Chicago where he took a job as a singer in the Arsonia Café going to tables and singing and playing the ukulele for tips. It was here that he started using the stage name of Ukulele Ike. The pianist at the club was Bob Carlton who had written a novelty song that he called Ja Da. Cliff became a sensation singing the song and he and Joe Frisco, a stuttering comedian and dancer, formed a vaudeville act that was successful enough to end up playing at the Palace in New York City.
Cliff Ukulele Ike Edwards, 1895-1971, was a major vaudeville and Broadway star in the 1920s, a small, beaming fellow who played the ukulele and indulged in a unique type of high-pitched scat- singing which he called effin. Fortunately he chose not to be billed as Cliff Effin Edwards. He was the original Singer in the Rain, and MGM attempted to build him up to movie stardom in the early 30s, during which time he made his four appearances with Keaton - thus beating the accepted record set by You-Know-Who. [There will now be the briefest of pauses while Durante says Ah'm mortified! What a catastrascope!]
Three years younger than Eddie Cantor, Cliff had a similar high, clear voice, but that three years makes all the difference. Whereas Cantor brought a whiff of 1910s vaudeville to everything he did, Edwards was firmly rooted in the 1920s, the Jazz Age. Although generally considered more of a popular entertainer than a jazz musician, ukulele virtuoso Cliff made many recordings with his Hot Combination, which was, in effect, Red Nichols and his Five Pennies; and his records often featured a chorus of his screechy scatting. His friendly if effete persona would seem perfectly suited to the early talkies, but he was mostly in the supporting cast (let's face it, he was no Clark Gable) with an occasional showcase in ensemble pieces such as George White's 1935 Scandals. Doughboys is the most watchable of his four Keaton movies [four?] and the one in which he has the nearest thing to a leading role. He has a good solo musical number, Sing (a Funny Little Thing) which leads into Buster's apache dance; and earlier in the movie he joins forces with Keaton and the film's director Edward Sedgwick (unbilled, chubby and Ronnie Barker-like, playing the role of the camp cook - although he's not as camp as Cliff) for the only appearance of what we shall be pleased to call the Buster Keaton Trio.
This is as cherishable as Keaton's double-act with Chaplin in Limelight; an unrepeatable one-off. Initially Sedgwick is disgusted with Cliff's romantic, slow-tempo crooning; then it all speeds up and turns hot, and he joins in for a fantastic three-minute scatathon. Cliff plays the ukulele with a pair of drumsticks while Buster holds it and does the chord changes, and they all scat away like a demented jug band until Cliff's howling - the only discernible lyrics being I want my mama! - becomes too much for Sergeant Brophy who storms in and breaks the whole thing up. It's all performed in a single continuous take and may be the most joyous moment in all Buster's talkies; just three talented friends having fun.
Let's return briefly to an earlier question: Cliff Edwards was in four Keaton talkies? Yes, if you include the finale of Hollywood Revue of 1929, in which Cliff warbles Singing in the Rain, and Keaton, sad and silent, is amongst the gallery of uncomfortable-looking MGM stars on display. (His face says it all: What am I doing here?) Of course, Gene Kelly's Singin' In the Rain went beyond brilliance, but here we have this great song in its original late-20s setting; and Cliff Edwards sang it first.
Doughboys would seem to indicate that MGM intended to team Cliff with Keaton. They certainly worked well together, so who knows what happened? Cliff has hardly more than a running-gag bit part in Parlor, Bedroom and Bath; and then they quietly brought in Jimmy Durante, if such a thing is possible. Yes sir! Yackety yackety yak! I got a million of 'em! Ha-cha-cha-cha-cha ! etc. etc. etc. Poor Buster.
By the mid-1930s, Bing Crosby dominated all, and Cliff's ukulele-accompanied singing style seemed like a bit of a relic, although he continued to star in Broadway shows and on radio, with good supporting roles in movies. He's outstanding as a cynical-but-friendly reporter in His Girl Friday; and he's somewhere in Gone With the Wind, I suspect as just a voice-over; I don't relish having to sit through all four hours of it to find him. Sorry, Cliff, another time maybe.
Cliff was rescued by,of all people, Walt Disney. Yes, readers, if you didn't know this already, and there's no reason why you should, CLIFF EDWARDS IS THE VOICE OF JIMINY CRICKET. I consider his rendition of When you Wish Upon a Star to be a thing of beauty; and of course he also sang Give a Little Whistle. Cliff's association with Disney continued; he's Jim Crow in Dumbo and gets to sing When I See an Elephant Fly, which allows him to do his scat stuff in a swingier setting than usual. But what good did it do him? Neither movie gives an on-screen credit to the voice artists; so very few people know that in Dumbo, Cliff is reunited with his old adversary Sergeant Brophy. Ed is the voice of Dumbo's pal Timothy the wise-guy little mouse. The deplorable truth is that Cliff received hardly any credit for his exceptional Disney work during his lifetime. According to the Disney organization's commercial soundtrack albums, Jiminy Cricket sang his own songs. Disney kept Cliff on the payroll but otherwise didn't do a lot to prevent his decline.
Why did Cliff have such a slide into oblivion? What was he really like? The dialogue he has with Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, and the dazzling smile he gives her, provide a clue to the real Cliff. He was married three times, and bankrupted three times - not apparently cause-and-effect. He was fond of chorus girls and, let's admit it, quite keen on alcohol, drugs and gambling. His starring career should have continued into the 50s, but it didn't. It's easy to blame Disney - actually, that seems like a good idea - but the truth is that over a long period, Cliff sank his own boat. His death certificate, reproduced on the Garrick website, tells the tale. Cliff died alone and unrecognised, his body unclaimed for days because nobody knew who he was. Where was his family? Few people can be more forgotten than this; and yet this was the man who was Jiminy Cricket.