Spade Cooley - Biography

California-based fiddler-bandleader Spade Cooley was a major force in the thriving Los Angeles country music scene of the 1940’s. Cooley specialized in a lushly orchestrated, melodic brand of pop country swing that made him immensely successful and—despite the fact that Texas swing kingpin Bob Wills was also based in the area—Cooley won the title “King of Western Swing.” In the mid-1940’s Cooley’s appearances routinely drew huge crowds, and allowed him to score a series of chart-topping hit records and serve as host on one of the most popular television music shows in Southern California. While Cooley’s signal achievements were impressive, his career was sidetracked by a series of heart attacks and ended in tragedy, with a murder conviction and a life sentence in state prison.

Born Donnell Clyde Cooley in Pack Saddle Creek, Oklahoma on December 17, 1910, Cooley’s father and grandfathers were both fiddle players, and despite the family’s poor financial state, he was treated to classical training on fiddle and cello. After the family relocated to Oregon, Cooley debuted onstage with his father at eight years. By the time he was twenty, Cooley was living in Modesto, California and dead set on a career as a professional musician. He hopped a freight train to Los Angeles and spent the next several years drifting between the two cities, taking any gig he could find. By 1934, Cooley’s fortunes changed when he began landing bit parts in Western B-movies and, after a stint as stand-in for fast-rising Western star-musician Roy Rogers, the King of Cowboys hired Cooley as his fiddle player. Working the road with Rogers, and also singing with Hollywood-based bandleader Foy Willing’s popular Riders of the Purple Sage, Cooley established himself as a reliable talent.

During World War II Cooley began doing jobs for promoter Foreman Phillips, who maintained a circuit of huge ballrooms catering to the thousands of defense industry workers in Los Angeles. Phillips was notorious for firing rejecting any musician who tended toward bandstand improvisation and Cooley’s style fit Phillips bill perfectly. After Phillips chose the fiddler to replace Singing Cowboy star and bandleader Jimmy Wakely at the Venice Pier Ballroom in 1942, Cooley assembled one of the largest Western swing orchestras ever, featuring critical talents like vocalists Tex Williams, Deuce Spriggins and Smokey Rogers, the innovative steel guitarist Joaquin Murphy and Noel Boggs, a former steel man for Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys. Cooley’s band, with its multiple fiddles, guitars and accordion, created a rich, full sound, and his elaborate arrangements of old time fiddle tunes like “The Devil’s Dream” had an almost symphonic sound that was altogether unique.

In 1945, Cooley signed with Columbia subsidiary Okeh Records and his debut release, “Shame on You” rocketed to #1 on the country charts, staying there for over two months. The song—and its flipside “A Pair of Broken Hearts” (which made the Top Ten)— spent an impressive total of 32 weeks on the chart. That year Cooley also married Ella Mae Evans, one of his many fiddlers, and racked up another Top Ten hit, with (an ironically prophetic title), “I’ve Taken All I’m Gonna Take From You.”

Riding high in 1946, Cooley was upgraded from Okeh to the flagship Columbia label itself, and continued to churn out hits. This time it was another double-sided Top Three disc, “Detour” and “You Can’t Break My Heart,” and 1947’s Top Five “Crazy ‘Cause I Love You.” Each of these featured Tex Williams’ wry, warm vocals, but when Williams asked for a raise, the hotheaded Cooley fired him. Williams left, and so did the core of the band, who followed him to Capitol to record the monster taking blues crossover smash “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette).”

By this point Cooley was hosting the Foreman Phillips produced Hoffman Hayride television program, broadcast live every Saturday night from KTLA’s Sunset Boulevard Studios. The show was a runaway success—contemporary audience estimates had three quarters of TV sets in the area tuning it in—and Cooley’s profile continued to rise through appearances in half a dozen cowboy flicks, as well as his own musical shorts, “King of Western Swing” and “Spade Cooley & his Orchestra.”

But by the mid-’50s, Cooley suffered a series of heart attacks which necessarily curtailed his activities and the fiddler, and he began spending more and more time on his ranch in a remote part of Kern County. Cooley became psychotically insecure and insanely jealous of wife Ella Mae and, on April 3, 1961, a drunken Cooley finally lost control and not only beat his wife to death, he made point a to do so in front of their 14-year-old daughter. Convicted on her testimony, he was incarcerated, but in 1969 was allowed to perform at Sheriff’s benefit concert in Oakland, California. He won a standing ovation from the crowd, walked offstage, suffered a massive heart attack and dropped dead.

Steve Earle and the Dukes
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