Cliff Edwards - "Ukulele Ike"

by Ian Whitcomb


Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.

You can find Ian's main website at


In 1924, when the British ruled over a quarter of the world, 27 million people flocked to Wembley, a London suburb, to see The British Empire Exhibition. Among the marvels was a statue of the Prince of Wales made of Canadian butter. But the most popular attractions were the amusement park, dance hall, and giant grillroom. An army of youngsters, the Bright young things of Mayfair, disrupted the Nigerian handicraft exhibit with their ukulele strumming and songstering. The little four stringed instrument, from Portugal by way of Hawaii, had conquered the world; everywhere and all over the Empire there was the shimmer of pleasing plaintiveness coming from the uke. No armies were needed to spread the goodness of this instrument. In America, where the craze began, no college student was complete without one. It was delightfully portable and you could win your girl with only a handful of chords.

       The paragon of the uke was a bug-eyed pixilated entertainer in a squashed hat who perfected what the uke was all about—accompanying the voice. Ukulele Ike (real name Cliff Edwards), a pixie known to the world through records and stage and movie appearances, is really the first true jazz singer, transitioning between the minstrel blatancy of Al Jolson and the mellow moan of Bing Crosby.

His scat singing, which he called “eeffing”, was  the equal of jazz horn solos and he’s heard at his best when it’s just Ike and his uke, a veritable one-man band. He improvises as well as any jazzer and his dynamic rhythm strumming is self-sufficient-- he needs no drums. He can shift from hot number to sweet ballad with ease—witness his ethereal vocal as Jiminy Cricket on “When You Wish Upon a Star”. His playing displayed a nimble strum in which exactly the right string was singled out from the strummed chord to complement the vocal and prevent monotony. He never claimed to be a super technician, never went high hat, was always Mr. Modest. In 1927, at the height of his fame, he was asked to define his work tool, his “lamb chop” as he liked to call it: “It’s a modern instrument for those who don’t care

to spend many hours in study”. But he had perfected a unique and wondrous style, peculiar to himself and owing nothing to anybody else, a true autodidact. Nobody could teach him anything: “ I used to pass by the high school but never got in”. He never learned to read music either but what did that matter to a free-swinging ukester, a generous evangel? Here are some facts of his colorful and stress-strewn life….

       He was born on a houseboat in Hannibal, Missouri in 1895, into an over-worked family. His father fell too ill to work and so the ten year old became the breadwinner. At fourteen he took to the road and sang in the saloons and cabarets of St Louis, a hotbed of ragtime and dubious nightlife. He dutifully sent money home to his ailing parents.

       In a vaudeville theatre he played drums and did sound effects of cows mooing and horses snorting. These funny noises he later incorporated into his songs. In between he drove a grocery wagon and peddled newspapers. Eventually he reached Chicago in 1917 where jazz was becoming the sound of the day and the uke was popular. He bought himself a Martin.

 At the Ansonia Café he sang and played, displaying his new guttural moans, to accompaniment by Bob Carleton, the house pianist. Bob had written a novelty song called “Ja Da” and with Cliff’s frenzied strumming and scatting it became a hit. And Cliff got himself a nickname: the owner could never remember his employee’s name so he took to shouting “Hey,Ey you you — ukulele Ike — come and pick up the Pabsts”! Carleton and Ike played the vaudeville circuit and then Ike was hired by the great eccentric dancer and stuttering comedian Joe Frisco. They played the prestigious Palace in New York and from there it was nothing but up for Ike.

He teamed with another dancer in an act called “Jazz Az Iz” and finally became a self-sustaining ‘single’. In 1921 here’s what “The Dramatic Mirror” had to say about this rising star: “The boy with the restless ukulele has all the glorious jazz possible and went over with a bang. His voice imitation of a clarinet is clever. Maybe it’s his personality, but anyway we didn’t have half enough of him and when he jazzes we just can’t make our feet behave.”

       He got his big break in 1924 with “Lady, Be Good!”, the first true musical of the jazz age with some hot songs from George and Ira Gershwin. He also performed a fetching ballad called “Little Jazz Bird”, proving a range from hot to cool. His great moment was when he strolled onstage to render “Fascinating Rhythm” with only his “Lamb chop”. He stopped the show. The number is full of tricky syncopation but Ike mastered the jerkiness, casually singing as if the song were all his own work. Fred Astaire danced in the show and became an ardent admirer of the quirky little ukester, even to imitating him in his own later recording. Ike’s 1924’s record became a hit. He went on to do his specialty act in the Jerome Kern musical “Sunny”. He was now moving with the stars. The next stop was the movies, where he was to remain for a decade or so.

In MGM’s all-star extravaganza “The Hollywood Revue of 1929” he introduced “Singin’ In The Rain’’, wearing a slicker and hat and taking the song alone—no grand orchestra. Quite a feat as the verse is difficult and full of key changes. He even added a full chorus of scatting. The press had a story about a Minneapolis housewife so in love with his records that she played them night and day, thus causing her husband to seek a divorce. During the 1930s and into the ‘50s he played supporting roles in dozens of movies, especially westerns and he was the off-screen voice of a soldier in “Gone with the Wind”.

       He needed to work because of his shambolic private life. He was fatally attracted to gambling, drink, and getting (and disposing of) wives. By 1939 he had declared bankruptcy twice. That was the year he beat 36 singers to be the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney’s “Pinocchio”. However there was to be no uke playing or scatting; Ike played quirky sober, putting in a moving, even thrilling vocal, on  “When You Wish Upon a Star”, which floats ethereally over the opening credits — the voice of an ideal childhood, a hymn for all time. The song won an Academy Award in 1940. Ike got a flat fee.

       Next year he was declared bankrupt again, with debts of $26,000 and assets listed as two ukuleles at a value of $10. Walt Disney stayed true. As a regular on the Mickey Mouse Club he was introduced to an audience of children who adored his avuncular impishness. However, his brandy breath was noted and there was more drunkenness off the set at hospital gigs and such. In 1969 he was taken in as a penniless patient to a Hollywood nursing home, Disney paid for his upkeep. He died there alone and unclaimed of heart failure in 1971.

       His legacy is the hundreds of recordings he made. The early acoustics from 1922, with jazzy outfits like Ladd’s Black Aces, are shot through with scatting and capture the essence of the frenetic side of the Jazz Age. He electrifies an otherwise tinny acoustic “Lady, Be Good!”  which he cut with only his uke but it’s busy enough for an orchestra. His forcefully staggered vocal triplets get the lyrics across with emphatic meaning—no wonder he was admired and studied by Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby.

 He made exciting initial versions of numbers that were later to become jazz standards. On “Dinah”, backed by his Hot Combination he has a splendid exchange of licks with Red Nichols. On “Sunday”, as the jazzers toot, he relaxes, stretching out through the bars, making it sound like he’s telling a story from a bar stool.

       Dominating all these discs, like a great conductor, is the constantly driving force of his uke, a harmonic drum. He might strike percussively hard but he could also finger sweetly, as is heard on the beautiful and yearning “I’ll See You in My Dreams”. And he’s heart breaking on “I’m Losing You” where a subtle arrangement has the band laying out a long time while voice and uke, backed by a regretful celesta, describe a disturbing situation: “Although we pet I understand—what love I get is secondhand”. Similarly he’s crooner-quiet and thoughtful on the philosophical “It’s Only a Paper Moon” — life as just “a melody played in a penny arcade” — recorded in October 1933 when he was in bankruptcy.

       Bookings and recordings were thin in the 1940s but he had a last grand stand in 1956 with an LP for Disneyland Records. A jazz band backed him and all songs were performed live in one take. The jazzmen were very impressed by his easygoing style. He was largely redoing the good old songs of the Jazz Age. On  “June Night ” he was accompanied by only a tuba. A stark and original combination-a sprightly uke and a puffing tuba. A true marriage.

       Much later, when I first heard this track, I experienced a nice little epiphany. That art can be so stripped-down simple—no monster orchestra, no forest-thick arrangement, no arm-waving conductor—was a lesson for me for life in general. Ike had revealed the true essence of things. Truth in a Uke!


Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.

You can find Ian's main website at