Cliff Edwards - The Hottest Man In Town


Of all the singing stars of the 1920s, the one who has been most neglected in the current upsurge of interest in the period must be Cliff Edwards, or as he was universally known, ‘Ukulele Ike‘. Yet there was a time – and quite a long time – when he was a recording artist who had million-sellers, a film actor of accomplishment and a top-line draw in vaudeville. Almost single-handed, his records and broadcasts made the ukulele the most popular musical instrument in America, and his virtuoso playing sold thousands of ukes to aspiring young players. His relaxed, laid-back singing style, with its attractive catch on vowels influenced a whole generation of later vocalists. There were certain ironies in his professional life though; having introduced Singin’ In The Rain in 1929 and made it a worldwide hit, Gene Kelly’s version superseded it and the original version was forgotten; his biggest selling song (over ten million records) ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ was released under neither of his own names but as ‘Jiminy Cricket’ whose voice Edwards supplied in Walt Disney’s 1939 ‘Pinocchio’ and, finally, George Formby replaced him in the public consciousness as the ukulele-playing singing comedian.

But not all of his problems came from the outside; in a sense, Edwards was a jazz-age Peter Pan who never grew up. More than most of the popular entertainers of the Twenties, Cliff Edwards was a living example of the wilder excesses depicted in Warner Fabian’s notorious book ‘Flaming Youth’. He made a considerable fortune and lost all of it, he went through a succession of wives, experimented with heroin and cocaine and liberally drank bathtub gin. Eventually, with hefty gambling debts, the taxman, alimony payments, booze and drug-taking, Cliff Edwards ended up as an obscure alcoholic living in an actors’ charity home in Hollywood. But before any of this, he was one of the busiest and best-loved performers around.

Cliff Edwards was born on 14 June 1895 in Hannibal, Missouri, and by the time he was sixteen already had a reputation as a singer, performing in bars and saloons around St. Louis. It was while playing in these seedy surroundings that he adopted the ukulele as a simple accompaniment to his songs and acquired the nickname ‘Ukulele Ike’, given to him by a waiter who could not remember his name. After a variety of strange jobs, including a stint selling joke noses at fairs and carnivals, and a period as a counterhand at the restaurant in New York’s Central Railway Station, he teamed up with the dancer Pierce Keegan and toured the mid-west on the Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit. His part of their act not only featured his ukulele, but also his own lunatic kazoo playing and scat singing, like a one-man Mills Brothers. His phrasing and zany humour had much more in common with his black contemporaries or older black entertainers that he had seen in vaudeville as a child, such as Billy Golden and Bert Williams, than with the more restrained art of his fellow white performers. He and jazz grew up with each other, and his first published records, made for Gennett in 1922, were as a kazoo player on sides cut by Bailey’s Lucky Seven and Ladd’s Black Aces. 

The recordings featured on this album give a generous cross-section of Edwards’s styles. The earliest were made for the old Pathé Company at their studios at 20 Grand Avenue, Brooklyn, and released on their ‘Perfect’ label. Despite the name, the recording quality was anything but perfect; Pathé still persisted in making their master recordings on giant cylinders which were then transferred to disc via a complicated pantograph arrangement which not only carried any music that could force its way through, but also brought a peculiar bass rumble and a good deal of distortion. In spite of these technical drawbacks, the five examples of Ukulele Ike’s work taken from Pathé stand among his best, and we have tried to improve the sound quality to an acceptable standard. The remaining recordings are a joyful contrast. With one exception they were made by Columbia between 1928 and 1930, using the new Western Electric system and are taken from ‘new process’ pressings virtually devoid of surface noise. The remaining track was recorded privately by Edwards in the spring of 1942. It is dubbed from a glass-based acetate and has never previously been released.

The rarest track heard here is Cliff Edwards’s version of the Gershwin brothers’ Fascinatin’ Rhythm from their 1924 production ‘Lady Be Good’. Together with Fred and Adèle Astaire, Edwards was in the original New York cast, and was the first artist to sing this classic. It is interesting to compare this with later recordings made by Fred Astaire; most of the phrasing and timing which we assume to be Astaire’s turn out to be copied from Cliff Edwards. Just filtering through the background we can hear Adrian Rollini’s chunky bass saxophone playing an ornamented bass line. Rhythm and women are linked in quite a number of Ukulele Ike’s songs: That’s My Weakness Now and My Red Hot Gal (a girl so hot that I ain’t jokin’ – she’s smokin’) are similar in approach to the cynical serenades to Flappers and Vamps of the ‘love them and leave them’ variety shown in a song of moonlight seduction, If You Can’t Land Her On The Old Veranda, (one box of candy and she’ll think you’re dandy); seduction afloat in Harry Woods’s Paddlin’ Madelin’ Home, and wholesale seduction in Who Takes Care Of The Caretaker’s Daughter?

A more romantic school of song writing is also well represented, where the young hero offers his sweetheart bliss of a more domestic variety. Cottages, bluebells, gardens, butterflies, kitchen curtains, daisies in the dell and prospective motherhood abound in what are never coy or precious ballads. The melodies are excellent, and Reaching For Someone and Singing A Song To The Stars are well worth reviving. Many have already become standards, It Had To Be You and I’ll See You In My Dreams both by Gus Kahn and Isham Jones, and Walter Donaldson’s Just Like A Melody From Out Of The Sky have been performed by countless artists since their original publication.

As the decade wore on, references to current affairs begin to creep into the lyrics and there are quiet asides about Jack Demspey, Babe Ruth and other Twenties notables. In It Goes Like This, a verse is devoted to the forthcoming 1928 presidential election battle between Al Smith and Herbert Hoover which includes the memorable line, ‘Will this land be wrecked, if the wrong one I elect?’ As the Wall Street crash followed less than eighteen months later, it could be argued that the answer was ‘yes’. Even before the Depression started in earnest, times were hard enough. The verse of I Can’t Give You Anything But Love is as starkly realistic as Brecht. ‘Gee, but it’s tough to be broke, kid, it’s not a joke kid, it’s a curse, seems my luck has gotten from rotten to something worse…’ Few other songs are as down to earth as this, most belong to the ‘cheer up and it will go away’ type exemplified in Sing A Happy Little Thing. Even Cliff Edwards’s most popular song Singin’ In The Rain has its roots in the general slump.

‘The Hollywood Revue of 1929’, where Singin’ In The Rain was introduced, was MGM’s first major talkie, and in addition to Cliff Edwards featured Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer and dozens of other Hollywood stars. Edwards’s film career had started somewhat dismally in 1924 when he starred in ‘Sunflower Sue’, a silent romantic drama. He had little choice to show his talent in silent films, but with the coming of Vitaphone in 1927, he was signed by MGM and from then until 1953 made well over one hundred films. Most were instantly forgettable, the principal exceptions being ‘George White’s Scandals of 1935’, ‘Saratoga’, Jean Harlow’s last picture, made in 1937; and ‘Gone With The Wind’ in 1939. But of course it is as the voice of Jiminy Cricket that he is best remembered by three generations of cinema-goers. Following this success, together with the vaudeville act Buck and Bubbles, he provided the voices for the black crows in ‘Dumbo’. From the early forties he worked on and off for Disney and as late as the mid-fifties was making records for the studio’s Disneyland label, but eventually his drinking made him unreliable. He forgot to turn up for record sessions, and was dropped. 

It would be easy to make Cliff Edwards out to be a figure of tragedy, but he led a pleasant enough life with his cronies almost to the end. Sitting up late in dives, merrily drinking the night away. He became seriously ill in 1969 and was taken into a Hollywood nursing home as a charity patient with his fees paid for by the Actors’ Fund. Following a heart attack, he died there on 18 July 1972. Ukulele Ike gave a great deal of pleasure to millions of people when there was little enough fun to be had, and the lyric of his slow blues He’s The Hottest Man In Town sums up his essential philosophy…’He drinks hot water just to keep cool, he’s incandescent – a scorching, syncopating fool…’ Perhaps Cliff Edwards was a fool, but I think he was a happy one.