Clifton Avon Edwards, was born in Hannibal Missouri in 1895. But what many people don’t realize today is that Edwards had a long and successful career selling an unbelievable 74 million records before he ever gave voice to one of Walt’s Most iconic characters, Jiminy Cricket.
Edwards began singing as a teenager and taught himself to play the ukulele as his own accompaniment, because as he later recalled, it was the cheapest instrument in the music shop.
He got his start playing gigs in bars and clubs around the midwest. This is also where he earned the nickname he adopted and kept the rest of his life, Ukulele Ike. He was called that by one of the club owners where he played because the owner could never remember his real name.
He gained notoriety and fame throughout the 1920s starting with a piece that was written by Bob Carleton who played in a Chicago club where Edwards worked in 1918 and became one of his signature tunes, “Ja Da.”
Edwards went on to New York City where he continued to grow in fame appearing in several broadway shows and also recording several more signature tunes such as “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby”, “Toot Toot Tootsie”, and “Sleepy Time Gal.”
Edwards later became the very first artist to perform “Singin’ in the Rain” in MGM’s feature musical film, The Hollywood Revue of 1929.
But Edwards’ talents weren’t just limited to being a musical performer. He also wrote his own songs including the pieces “You’re So Cute Mama”, “Little Somebody of Mine”, and “I Want to Call You ‘Sweet Mama.”
Edwards appeared in at least 50 films throughout the 1930s including a small speaking role in the sweeping Civil War epic based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell, 1939’s Gone With the Wind in which he played the role of a dying confederate soldier being cared for by the films leading characters Scarlett and Melanie played by actresses Vivien Leigh and Olivia De Havilland.
Just one year later Edwards was back on the big screen, or at least his voice was, in Disney’s 1941 animated feature film, Dumbo where he voiced the head crow and sang “When I See An Elephant Fly.”
Edwards was now a Disney household name and began appearing on episodes of the Mickey Mouse Club as Himself or Ukulele Ike on their Guest Star Day. Jiminy Cricket was one of the first characters to crossover and appear in other titles outside of their original story. Jiminy also became a regular on the Mickey Mouse Club, appeared in various Disney shorts, and also had a part in Disney’s 9th feature animated film Fun and Fancy Free.
But as his Disney career was growing, Edwards was losing his recognition amongst the fans that had known him so well in the 1920s and 1930s and by the 1960’s Ukulele Ike was almost completely forgotten by audiences.
In the 1950s, after two divorces that left him almost completely broke and surviving almost entirely on residuals from Disneyland Records, Walt Disney and Disney Music director George Bruns attempted to help the aging actor by providing him with a new recording opportunity on Disneyland Records called Ukelele Ike Sings Again. in which he reprised many of his earlier works with the backing of Bruns’ Wonderland Jazz Band.
Sadly that album was not the commercial success that was hoped for and Edwards spent the final two years of his life broke and on welfare at the Virgil Convalescent Hospital partially supported by The Actor’s Fund of America, and partially the quiet assistance of Walt Disney Productions.
On July 17, 1971, Cliff Edwards passed away. His death wasn’t announced for days, as most of the hospital staff had no idea who he was or that he had ever been famous. In 1984 The Disney Company became aware that Edwards didn’t even have a sufficient grave marker and The Walt Disney Company paid to provide one for him.
His recording of “When You Wish Upon A Star” was inducted into the Grammy Awards hall of fame in 2002 and has also earned a spot in the 100 greatest songs in film history according to the American Film Institute. In 2000 Cliff Edwards was inducted as a Disney Legend.