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Early life and musical career
Edwards was born Clifton A. Edwards 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 could not 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".
In 1925, his recording of "Paddlin’ Madeleine Home" would reach number three on the pop charts. In 1928, his recording of "I Can't Give You Anything but Love" was number one for one week on the U.S. pop singles chart. In 1929, his recording of "Singin' in the Rain" was number one for three weeks. Edwards's own compositions included "(I'm Cryin' 'Cause I Know I'm) Losing You", "You're So Cute (Mama O' Mine)", "Stack O' Lee", "Little Somebody of Mine", and "I Want to Call You 'Sweet Mama'". 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 ukuleles 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.
Edwards' continued to record until shortly before his 1971 death. His last record album, Ukulele Ike, was released posthumously on the independent Glendale label. He reprised many of his 1920s hits, but his then failing health was evident in the recordings.