Clifton A. Edwards was born in Hannibal, Missouri. He left school at age 14 and soon moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he entertained as a singer in saloons. As many places had pianos in bad shape or none at all, Edwards taught himself to play ukulele (then often spelled "ukelele") to serve as his own accompanist (selecting that instrument as it was the cheapest in the music store). He got the nickname "Ukelele Ike" from a club owner who couldn't remember his name.
He got his first break in 1918 at the Arsonia Cafe in Chicago, Illinois, where he performed a tune called "Ja Da," written by the club's pianist, Bob Carleton. Edwards and Carleton made the tune a hit on the Vaudeville circuit. Vaudeville headliner Joe Frisco hired Edwards as part of his act, which was featured at The Palace in New York City, the most prestigious theater in Vaudeville, and then in the Ziegfeld Follies.
Edwards made his first phonograph records in 1919. He recorded early examples of jazz scat singing in 1922. The following year he signed a contract with Pathé Records. He became one of the most popular singers of the decade, and appeared in several Broadway shows. He recorded, in his distinctive style, many of the pop and novelty hits of the day, such as "California Here I Come," "Hard Hearted Hannah," "Yes, Sir, That's My Baby," and "I'll See You in My Dreams." He also recorded a few "off-color" novelty numbers for under-the-counter sales, including "I'm a Bear in a Lady's Boudoir."
More than any other performer, Edwards was responsible for the soaring popularity of the ukulele in the 1920s. Millions of ukes were sold during the decade, and Tin Pan Alley publishers added ukulele chords to standard sheet music. Edwards always played American Martin ukuleles favoring the small soprano model in his early career. In his later years Edwards moved to the sweeter, large tenor ukulele more suited to crooning which was becoming popular in the 1930s.
In 1929 Cliff Edwards was playing at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles, California, where he caught the attention of movie producer-director Irving Thalberg, who had Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer hire Edwards to appear in early sound movies. After performing in some short films, Edwards was one of the stars in the feature Hollywood Revue of 1929, doing some comic bits and singing some numbers, including the film debut of his hit "Singin' in the Rain". He appeared in a total of 33 films for MGM through 1933.
Edwards was very friendly with MGM's comedy star Buster Keaton, who featured Edwards in three of his films. Keaton. himself a former vaudevillian, enjoyed singing and would harmonize with Edwards between takes. One of these casual jam sessions was captured on film, in Doughboys (1930), in which Buster and Cliff scat-sing their way through "You Never Did That Before." Buster was battling a drinking problem at the time, and Cliff was nursing a drug habit, both of which are unfortunately evident in the finished film. In scenes when Keaton is sharp and alert, Edwards appears befuddled; when Edwards regains his sobriety, Keaton is now stumbling and fumbling. (Edwards was ultimately replaced in the Keaton films by Jimmy Durante.)
Edwards was careless with the money he got in the boom years of the 1920s, sustaining his expensive habits and lifestyle. While he continued working in the Great Depression, he would never again enjoy his former prosperity. Most of his income went to alimony for multiple former wives and for paying other debts. He declared bankruptcy four times during the 1930s and early 1940s.
In 1932, Edwards got his first national radio show on CBS. He would continue hosting network radio shows on and off through 1946. However, from the early 1930s, Edwards' popularity faded as public taste shifted to sweeter style crooners like Russ Columbo, Rudy Vallee, and Bing Crosby.
Edwards appeared in the darkly sardonic western comedy The Bad Man of Brimstone in 1937, and in 1939 he played the character "Endicott" in the screwball comedy film His Girl Friday. Also in 1939, he voiced the dying Confederate soldier in Gone with the Wind. In 1940 came his most famous voice role, as Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney's Pinocchio. Edwards's touching rendition of "When You Wish Upon a Star" from that film is probably his most familiar recorded legacy. In 1941, he voiced the head crow in Disney's Dumbo and sang "When I See An Elephant Fly".
Edwards was an occasional supporting player in feature films and short subjects at Warner Brothers and RKO Radio Pictures. He played a wisecracking sidekick to western star George O'Brien, and filled in for Allen Jenkins as "Goldie" opposite George Sanders in The Falcon Strikes Back. In a 1940 short, he led a cowboy chorus in Cliff Edwards and His Buckaroos.
Like many vaudeville stars, Edwards was an early arrival on television. For the 1949 season, Edwards starred in The Cliff Edwards Show, a three-days-a-week (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings) television variety show on CBS. In the 1950s and early 1960s, he made a number of appearances on the "Mickey Mouse Club" television show, in addition to reprising his Jiminy Cricket voice for various Disney shorts and the unusual -- for its time -- Disney Christmas spectacular, From All of Us to All of You.
Edwards continued to suffer from alcoholism and drug addiction in his later years, living in a home for indigent actors, and often spending his days hanging around the Walt Disney Studios to be available any time he could get voice work, and being taken to lunch by animators to whom he told stories of his days in vaudeville.
He had disappeared from the public eye at the time of his 1971 death as a charity patient at the Virgil Convalescent Hospital in Hollywood, California. His body was initially unclaimed and donated to the University of California, Los Angeles medical school. When Walt Disney Productions, which had been quietly paying many of his medical expenses, found out about this, they offered to purchase the corpse and pay for the burial; but this was actually done by the Actors' Fund of America (which had also aided Edwards) and the Motion Picture and Television Relief Fund. Disney also paid for Edwards' grave marker.
Edwards' continued to record until shortly before his death. His last record album, "Ukulele Ike," was released posthumously on the independent Glendale label. He reprised many of his 1920s hits, but his failing health was evident in the recordings.