Singer-actor Cliff Edwards was born in Hannibal, Missouri, on June 14, 1895, and is best remembered for his voice portrayal of Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney’s 1940 animated film Pinocchio, in which he sang the unforgettable “When You Wish upon a Star.” Before playing this memorable role, Edwards was already known as “Ukulele Ike” and was possibly the best-known player of that stringed instrument.
Edwards started his show business career in St. Louis saloons, using his trick voice and talent on the ukulele to become a vaudeville headliner. In Chicago he teamed with pianist Bobby Carleton, who wrote the tune “Ja Da,” which became one of the biggest hits of the 1920s and made Edwards a top figure on the vaudeville circuits.
Edwards’s success led to work with comedian Joe Frisco and a role in George Gershwin’s Broadway musical Lady Be Good, with Fred Astaire. Edwards began his Hollywood career under contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, popularizing the classic song “Singing in the Rain” in the Hollywood Review of 1929. In the 1920s and 1930s he made several recordings, of which four (“June Night,” “Sleepy Time Gal,” “I Cried for You,” and “Toot, Toot, Tootsie Goodbye”) sold nearly eight million copies. Edwards appeared in more than one hundred films and was credited with selling more than seventy-four million records during his lifetime. Late in his career he recorded an album titled Ukulele Ike Sings Again for Disneyland Records.
Walt Disney cast Edwards for the voice of Jiminy Cricket, Pinocchio’s conscientious companion who was always just a whistle away. Edwards’s experience as a radio singer with a smooth delivery and easygoing manner were perfect for the part. Over the years he continued to voice Jiminy, including in the 1947 Disney feature film Fun and Fancy Free and for segments of The Mickey Mouse Club and other miscellaneous film and television assignments.
Universally acclaimed since its release in 1940, Pinocchio won Academy Awards for best original score and best song, “When You Wish upon a Star.” The song not only set the film’s theme but also provided a recurring melody and unifying element for the rest of the film. The musical number has since become a world-famous Disney theme. Edwards also sang “Give a Little Whistle,” a song tailor-made for the crooning cricket that allowed him to strut while expounding on his duties as Pinocchio’s conscience.
Edwards was twice married and divorced, first to Broadway singer Irene Wiley and later to actress Nancy Dover. Although the Disney studio continued his small salary for years after he left their employ, Edwards was almost destitute at the time of his death, and his burial was paid for by the Actors Fund. Both organizations quietly helped Edwards meet his hospital and other expenses in his later years. Edwards died on July 17, 1971, in a Hollywood convalescent home and left no next of kin. Residents of Hannibal, Missouri, offered to bury him in that community after they learned he died penniless. He was buried, however, in a special actors’ plot in Valhalla Cemetery in North Hollywood. About thirty-five of his friends attended the funeral.
Fagen, Donald. “Ukulele Ike, a.k.a. Cliff Edwards, Sings Again.” JazzTimes, December 7, 2020.
Kiner, Larry F., comp. The Cliff Edwards Discography. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Obituary, July 22, 1971.
Tranquada, Jim, and John King. The ‘Ukulele: A History. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2012.
Variety. Obituary, July 28, 1971.
Published August 4, 2023
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)