Born Donnell Clyde Cooley on December 17, 1910, in Pack Saddle Creek, OK; died on November 23, 1969, in Oakland, CA; son of John and Emma Cooley; married first wife, Ann, 1930s; married second wife, Ella Mae Evans, 1945 (murdered, 1961); children: John, Melody, Donnell.
Before attaining notoriety for the murder of his second wife in 1961, Spade Cooley had earned a reputation as a consummate purveyor of western swing music through live performances, audio and film recordings, and radio and television appearances. Sometimes labeled "cowboy jazz," western swing is a hybrid of jazz and country music, combining swing orchestra instruments with such traditional country instruments as fiddles and steel guitars. Labeling himself the "King of Western Swing," Cooley led a large ensemble of musicians that rivaled Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys in popularity in the 1940s' heyday of western swing. As public musical tastes shifted in the late 1940s and 1950s, Cooley pioneered television variety programming that paved the way for such successful music programs as Lawrence Welk's music variety show. Interest in Cooley was revived in the late 1990s with the release of the anthology Spadella! The Essential Spade Cooley, which revealed the timelessness of Cooley's best work. In 2004 actor Dennis Quaid announced plans to produce and star in a film biography of Cooley.
Cooley was born in Pack Saddle Creek, Oklahoma. His birth name was Donnell, but he nicknamed himself Spade after a series of successful poker hands. His parents were poor, and moved to Oregon in 1914, where his father's friend offered to provide the younger Cooley with classical violin lessons. Cooley subsequently played violin and cello in school orchestras, and also began playing fiddle at country barn dances. In 1931 the Cooley family moved to a farm in Modesto, California. Seeking an escape from farm work, Cooley traveled to Los Angeles to try his hand as a Hollywood singing cowboy in the mold of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Unsuccessful, he returned to Modesto and accepted a gig at a local club for $15 a night. On a second trip to Los Angeles, Cooley was hired as a stand-in for singer and film cowboy Roy Rogers, with whom he had more than a passing resemblance. In addition to his film work, Cooley was becoming a hot fiddle player on the Los Angeles club circuit, including regular performances with Rogers's touring band, Foy Willing's Riders of the Purple Sage, and with Cal Shrum, with whom Cooley made his first recording in 1941. Most important to Cooley's future, however, was Jimmy Wakely.
By 1940 Hollywood had become a hotbed of country and western music, rivaled only by Nashville. Thousands of Okies had migrated to California during the Great Depression, and their love of country music spilled over to an industry more than willing to capitalize on it. Popular film and radio singing cowboy star Gene Autry hosted the radio program Melody Ranch, which featured bandleader Jimmy Wakely. Wakely had beens hired to lead the house band at the recently opened Venice Pier Ballroom, and Cooley was brought on board to fiddle. Shortly thereafter, Cooley took over Wakely's responsibilities and put together a band that included three fiddlers and three singers. Unfortunately, no recordings of this period were made, because of the rationing of materials necessary for record production during World War II, and due to a Musicians' Union-led strike.
Cooley emerged from these setbacks to become one of the hottest acts in California. He appeared in the Gene Autry film Home in Wyomin' in 1942. By 1943, however, Cooley encountered serious competition from Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. The group had relocated from Texas to the greener pastures of California, and were selling out ballrooms throughout California. The music of the two groups was markedly different, however. According to Kurt Wolff in Country Music: The Rough Guide: "The Hollywood socialite and his orchestra were nowhere near as rowdy and loose around the edges as the great Texas swing bands of the 1930s; Cooley perfected a smoother, cooler, and in many ways slicker sound that was far more orchestrated than the music of [Bob] Wills or [Milton] Brown. The electric guitar, for instance, had a rounder sound, the strings were denser and arranged in a 'section' compared to the bright twin-fiddle sound of [Wills's] Texas Playboys." When the Venice Pier Ballroom management hired Bob Wills to replace Cooley, the Oklahoman insisted on a two-night "Battle of the Bands," which pitted the Cooley orchestra against the Texas Playboys. Cooley's band was declared victorious, and he labeled himself the "King of Western Swing," significant more for labeling Wills's and Cooley's genre of music than for the historical accuracy of the claim.
In 1943 Cooley signed a recording contract with Okeh Records. In 1944 he released "Shame on You," which was a major hit through 1945. He also recorded "Detour," "Crazy 'Cause I Love You," and "Forgive Me One More Time." The recordings were crisp and uncluttered examples of Cooley's best work. The songs were also notable for introducing radio audiences to the vocals of Tex Williams, who would go on to solo success with his version of Merle Travis's "Smoke, Smoke, Smoke (That Cigarette)." He appeared in such movies as the Bob Crosby film The Singing Sheriff, and in other films, including Chatterbox, The Singing Bandit, Outlaws of the Rockies, Rockin' in the Rockies (with the Three Stooges), Texas Panhandle, Square Dance Jubilee, and Everybody's Dancin!.
In 1947 Cooley signed with RCA Victor. His recording career was stifled by another Musicians' Union ban on recording that lasted until 1949. The ban meant that Cooley's work with famed steel guitarist Speedy West has been lost to the ages. In 1947 Cooley turned his talents to television as host of the Hoffman Hayride television variety series on KTLA. The show was enormously popular, garnering ratings of 75 percent and consistently beating the nationally broadcast Milton Berle Show in the local California ratings market. Waning interest in western swing and several heart attacks, however, brought Cooley's television career to an end in the early 1950s. When his show ceased production, Cooley engaged in a wild real estate scheme that left him nearly bankrupt. A heavy drinker and reputed drug abuser, his behavior became increasingly erratic.
Cooley had had previous brushes with the law---in 1945, he was arrested and acquitted on rape charges---but none as shocking as his arrest for the brutal murder of his wife, Ella Mae, in 1961. According to music historian Nick Toshes, Ella Mae had boasted for many years that she once had a sexual relationship with Roy Rogers. Although she and Cooley were separated, Cooley repeatedly had tried for reconciliation. On April 3, 1961, he forced the couple's 14-year-old daughter, Melody, to observe his him as he brutalized and murdered his wife. "You're going to watch me kill her," he is reputed to have said. The scandal of the trial and Melody's testimony against her father led Cooley to suffer another heart attack. He was sentenced to life in prison at Vacaville. He was a model prisoner, and was two months from parole in November of 1969 when he died backstage while on a 72-hour furlough, in which he performed for the last time at an Oakland concert to benefit the Alameda Deputy Sheriff's Association. His final performance garnered a standing ovation.
by Bruce Walker
Spade Cooley's Career
Moved with family to Modesto, CA, 1931; hired as stand-in for Roy Rogers and joined bands led by Stuart Hamblen, Cal Shrum, and Jimmy Wakely, late 1930s; became bandleader at Venice Pier Ballroom, 1942; recorded hit singles "Shame on You" and "A Pair of Broken Hearts," 1944; recorded hit singles "Detour" and "Crazy 'Cause I Love You," 1946-47; signed to RCA, 1947; hosted Hoffman Hayride television series, 1947; signed with Decca, 1951; murdered wife Ella Mae Cooley, 1961; performed last concert on prison work furlough, 1969.
- Selected discography
- "Shame on You," 1944.
- "A Pair of Broken Hearts," 1944.
- "Forgive Me One More Time," 1944.
- "You Can't Break My Heart," 1945.
- "Detour," 1946.
- "Crazy 'Cause I Love You," 1946.
- Spadella! The Essential Spade Cooley Sony Music Legacy Series, 1994.
- Shame on You Bloodshot Revival/Soundies, 1999.
- Stambler, Irwin and Grelun Landon, Country Music: The Encyclopedia, St. Martin's Griffin, 1997.
- Tosches, Nick, Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock'n'Roll, Da Capo Press, 1996.
- Wolff, Kurt, Country Music: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides Ltd., 2000.
- Additional information was taken from the liner notes by Al Quaglieri for Spadella! The Essential Spade Cooley.