100 Great Records Of The 1920s, #3.

Cliff Edwards
3. Cliff Edwards, “Fascinating Rhythm”
(George Gershwin/Ira Gershwin)
Pathé 25126, 1924 · mp3
We’ve mentioned the 1924 George Gershwin show Lady, Be Good! in this space before (#63, for those who’d rather not use search engines). The book of that musical was written by Guy Bolton of the Bolton, Wodehouse and Kern trio of musical fame (#90; try to keep up). It was the show that launched Fred and Adele Astaire to international fame; it was the show that launched George Gershwin as a Broadway composer, as opposed to a guy who wrote good songs that sometimes got into musicals and sometimes sold a lot of sheet music. But then as now, the people who were providing the money never wanted to trust the whole production to untried and untested talent — no matter how well Fred and Adele had done in revues, no matter how much critical praise Gershwin had got for his Rhapsody back in February, Broadway producers, like movie producers today, wanted a couple of safe bets in the show. P. G. Wodehouse’s writing partner and professional punch-up theatre writer Guy Bolton was one of these; the other was a high-voiced, prematurely balding vaudevillian who went by the stage name of “Ukelele Ike.” Ike, or Cliff Edwards, was a big seller on records and a headlining draw at the vaudeville two-a-days, and he used that leverage to get a contract that specified that he wouldn’t have to appear on stage until after 11pm in Lady, Be Good!, as well as limiting the number of songs he had to sing — and he even got to interpolate his own tunes into Gershwin’s score. Bolton and the Gershwins had to write around his prima donna ultimatums — but they did get him to sing this song, a showcase duet with Adele Astaire. Of course, once people left the theater no one was talking about Ukelele Ike, but about those dancing Astaires and that sweetly hummable, faintly jazzy score — but that’s no reason for us to ignore Cliff. He’d been scatting on record for half a decade before Louis Armstrong, and his New York Times obituary would later say he had a “trick voice,” which is as good as any other description for the vocal gymnastics he performs here, sounding like a combination between a muted trumpet, a kazoo, and a qawwali singer. His popularity faded along with that of the ukulele and the introduction of less flamboyant crooners (though he did introduce “Singin’ In The Rain” onscreen), but he had a second career as a voiceover artist, playing Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio and the crow in Dumbo who’d never seen an elephant fly. This song would never go on become a standard, but perhaps that’s because nobody ever sang it, or sang around it, so well.

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