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Historical Western Swing - Spade Cooley

By Leocthasme

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Historical Western Swing

In the upcoming issues of Pencilstubs, I will try to continue my several articles on the history of Western Swing. Many, many, comments have been received directly by me and many more have appeared below the previous articles I have written since the October Issue of 2000. There are still comments being made on the original article because it is referenced any time someone just looks for Western Swing by typing just those two words into a search engine.

Well, let’s face it, I love the referrals, and now just thinking of that, I feel I should continue to add all the information I can find on an interesting subject, from all sources beside all the information I have accumulated over the years from clippings and the backs of old record covers.

So each month or so I will find and report on some interesting fact, history, an individual or group who helped make this genre very special in the history of American Music.

Here is another article, this one on a very interesting group who did so much for

Western Swing

Keep Posted to This Site!


Donnell Clyde ‘Spade’ Cooley: Born 17 December 1910, Grand, Oklahoma, USA

Died 23 November 1969, a Life Term Prisoner.

For anyone looking down at his STAR on Hollywood ’s Walk of Fame, the name Spade Cooley probably doesn’t mean very much. At one time he was a real life star, known as the ‘King Of Western Swing” back in the 40s and 50s when he had a 30 piece band and hosted his own TV variety show. Now his greatest claim to fame is that he is the only convicted killer with a star on Hollywood ’s Walk of Fame. On February 8, 1960 the foundation for that star was laid, but just one year later Cooley was in a prison cell serving a life sentence for the murder of his wife, Ella Mae Evans. Today, Cooley has yet to emerge fully from the shadows of musical obscurity.

Spade Cooley.bmp

Cooley waving to a crowd after a show for a Sheriffs benefit while on temporary parole.

He had a heart attack and died later in his dressing room.

A few recordings are being brought back, and Actor Dennis Quaid has purchased the rights to Cooley’s children’s stories. Filmmaker, Dave Payne, has been writing his own script for a screen version of Cooley’s life. A reverence for Cooley’s musical talent, along with a fascination about his grim downward spiral, seems to be at the root of renewed interest in his life story.

Cooley was a musician, an accomplished fiddler, a big band leader, actor, and television personality. He also was the self proclaimed ‘King of Western Swing’, an innovator, who at his peak led the largest band ever assembled in the annals of country music. The product of a multi-generational family of fiddle players, Donnell Clyde Cooley was born in Oklahoma in 1910, and at the age of four, his family moved to Oregon . Despite his impoverished background, Cooley was a classically trained fiddler and by the time he was eight years old, he was performing professionally at square dances with his father, John. In 1930, Cooley (who received his nickname ‘Spade’ thanks to his poker playing skills) moved to Los Angeles , playing with a number of western-oriented acts. By the mid-'30s, he was working as an actor, with bit parts in several Westerns for Republic Studios, he served as Roy Rogers' stand-in and also toured with Rogers as a fiddle player, and handled vocal duties with the Riders of the Purple Sage.

Cooley did not begin a recording career until 1941, when he entered the studio while a member of Cal Shrum's band. A year later, he took control of bandleader Jimmy Wakely's group, the house band at Santa Monica ’s Venice Pier Ballroom, and their Western Swing style music began attracting thousands of fans each Saturday night. The densely populated band, home to as many as three vocalists and fiddlers at a time, featured singer, Tex Williams, and guitarists Joaquin Murphy and John O. Weis.

In 1945, Spade Cooley & His Orchestra's first single, "Shame on You," lasted nine weeks atop Billboard's country charts. The first in an unbroken string of six Top Ten singles (including "Detour" and "You Can't Break My Heart"), "Shame on You" would remain Cooley's theme song for years to come. Also in 1945, he married his second wife, orchestra backup singer, Ella Mae Evans. Ultimately, the Orchestra's success led to the dissolution of its most popular lineup; by 1946, Tex Williams, the vocalist on all of the group's hits, was demanding more money, and Cooley refused to pay it. As a result Williams quit, taking much of the Orchestra with him to form Tex Williams’ Western Caravan. In 1947, Cooley began a career in television, hosting a program in Los Angeles titled ‘The Hoffman Hayride’. The show's popularity grew quickly, and within months an estimated 75 percent of all televisions in the L.A. area tuned into the show each Saturday night. He also resumed his film career, this time with much higher visibility; in addition to significant roles in a number of Westerns, he also starred in two 1949 short subjects, ‘King of Western Swing’ and ‘Spade Cooley & His Orchestra’.

Cooley’s often sordid private life tended to overshadow his career as an entertainer. Throughout the early '50s Cooley continued to record, but the group's popularity waned as public tastes changed; after a time, he even fired the Orchestra to replace its members with an all-female band. A heavy drinker, Cooley descended into alcoholism as his career declined, and he suffered a series of minor heart attacks. Furthermore, he was facing financial ruin as a result of problems with a planned water theme park to be located in the Mojave Desert . In 1961, his wife Ella Mae left him. After an argument with her, he stomped her to death while the couple's 14-year-old daughter, Melody, looked on in horror. The resulting trial, a media circus, during which Cooley suffered another heart attack, culminated in a sentence of life imprisonment. Throughout his term, he was a model prisoner, and thus was allowed to perform at a sheriff's benefit in Oakland , CA , on November 23, 1969. After playing in front of a crowd of over 3,000, Cooley returned to his dressing room, suffered yet another heart attack, and died.

Spade Cooley would often bill himself as the 'King of Western Swing', the title which Bob Wills is now honored with. However, Cooley's sound was closer to and isolated in the style of conventional big band dance-oriented pop orchestras. Whereas 'Bob Wills And His Texas Playboys' used far more diverse fusions of multi-genres through which they popularized, defined, and evolved what is now recognized as true Western Swing. This diversity allowed Wills to reach wider audiences. Cooley's specialized 'city sound' of the period’s popular culture accounts for his work having been popular with limited mainstream audiences during his 1940's and heyday, but at the same time not having enjoyed the diverse and continuing popularity of Wills.

Dennis Quaid, a Texan, with an equal passion for Western Swing, points to a dual quality in Cooley’s musical work. “You have this really upbeat, happy music and then there is darkness in the lyrics, they are all about mistrust and betrayal.” Cooley’s best known song, ‘Shame On You’ (also the working title of Quaid’s film), has lyrics like, ‘took my car and my money, I tell you gal that ain’t funny’, and ‘ran around with other guys and tried to lie when I got wise’. Cooley murdered his wife because he mistrusted her and claimed she was cheating on him. To Cooley’s fans and friends such lyrics have a particular haunting quality.

I hope Quaid and Payne can come out with a historical film that could put a good light on Spade Cooley’s ‘big band’ style of Western Swing.

Spade Cooley's Band.jpg

Spade Cooley, Ella Mae and band.

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