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JoeMc on 06/04/2009 at 12:46PM

He Did It Then

Spade Cooley

One of the most notorious figures in country music history is western swing pioneer Spade Cooley. Cooley was known as the "King of Western Swing" in his heyday, but due to a gruesome incident in his private life, he is often viewed these days more as the Sid Vicious of Western Swing. His is a model lesson in how a brilliant musical legacy can be overshadowed by unsavory personal problems.

Born in Oklahoma in 1910, Donnell Cooley showed an early aptitude for the violin. Shortly after his family moved West to escape the ravages of the Great Depression, Cooley struck out for Hollywood. At first, he paid the bills as a day laborer and card shark (his nickname "Spade" arose from a poker game in which he got three straight flushes, all spades), but soon his fiddle playing in the evening started to pay off. A sideman gig with country bandleader Jimmy Wakely led to a featured spot at the Venice Pier Ballroom in Santa Monica, one of the premier venues for the mix of country and western, swing, polka, and jazz that came to be known as western swing. Cooley hand-picked some of the best musicians in the area, gave them cowboy names, and his new band went on to set attendance records.

Unlike Bob Wills' Playboys or Milton Brown's Brownies, the other two bands responsible for the popularity of western swing in California, Cooley's band didn't have many rough edges. Cooley and his musicians were well-trained, and they showed it in their accomplished performances. The song featured in today's post, a radio transcription from 1944, shows just how polished they were. Pedro DePaul's accordion, and the trio of fiddles played by Cooley, Rex Call, and Cactus Soldi, interact smoothly and seamlessly, while Cooley's star vocalist Tex Williams conveys the carpe diem ultimatum of the lyric perfectly.

Record companies came calling, as did the movies. Cooley had several hit records, hosted his own radio and TV shows, and appeared in over 50 films. He earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and became a multi-millionaire. Although Bob Wills might've argued the point, Cooley's self-appointment as King of Western Swing was not too wide of the mark.

Despite his onscreen amiability and great showmanship, however, Cooley had a dark side...

He liked to drink, and he was not a nice drunk. He fired members of his band for petty infractions and once attempted to throw one of his vocalists off of the Santa Monica pier. When he fired Tex Williams over perceived loyalty issues, most of his band quit in solidarity with Williams. Popular with the public, Cooley was not too popular with his own musicians.

But Cooley saved his worst behavior for home. He left his first wife and their children for young singer Ella Mae Evans. Not a one-woman man, his philandering, along with his alcoholism and immense sexual jealousy, turned his marriage abusive. Once he even pushed his wife out of a moving car.

By the late 50s, Cooley's star was on the wane. Western swing was long past its time of popularity and work dried up. Not one to rest on his laurels and incredibly rich in his retirement, Cooley envisioned building a water park on the edge of the Mohave Desert. He might've done it, too, had he not allowed his personal demons to grab hold.

On April 3, 1961, fired up on booze and obsessed with his wife's imagined infidelities, Cooley beat, sexually assaulted, and burned Ella Mae nearly to death. Their daughter, arriving home in the early evening, was dragged by her father to see her mother. Cooley pointed a pistol at his daughter's head and told her he was going to make her watch as he killed her mother. This particular horror didn't come to pass; by this time, Ella Mae was already dead.

Cooley was tried and convicted of murder. During the trial, he repeatedly collapsed and burst into tears, professing his love for his wife. Sentenced to 25 years in prison, Cooley's career reached its inglorious end.

Or almost. In 1969, possibly due to the influence of Governor Ronald Reagan (an old cowboy movie compatriot), Spade Cooley was pardoned by the state. Four months before he was scheduled to leave prison, Cooley was released in order to play a benefit. After playing three songs to an appreciative crowd of 3,000 people, he walked offstage, had a heart attack, and died at age 59.

Spade Cooley's personal shortcomings sometimes make it hard to remember his considerable achievements in music. Certainly, his reputation over the years has suffered because of them; Bob Wills has unquestionably ascended to the throne of King of Western Swing in the minds of most listeners. Fortunately, although Spade Cooley seemed to be a confused and often cruel man in his personal life, in his music he was cool, confident, and one of the greatest at what he did. That Spade Cooley can still be heard on "Better Do It Now," back from the days when he was still the king.



marcus on 06/04/09 at 01:56PM
Thanks for the biographical context; it really bent that song into a darker shape!

(Also, hiya Joe!)
procedura on 06/04/09 at 05:48PM
Great article about very demonized man.
DenisMcDonald on 06/05/09 at 12:29AM
This was great to read, Joe. Like Marcus wrote, the context really colours that tune.
MattVerzola on 06/05/09 at 11:41AM
I stopped listening to the song at about the point where he kills his wife. What a story. A heart attack right after his last performance, too! Reality is stranger than fiction...Great, Joe.
JoeMc on 06/10/09 at 11:40PM
Thanks for the comments, everybody. Hey-a to all!
poppynogood on 04/08/13 at 03:02PM
This is a fascinating article, but can we really think of someone who murders and sexually assaults their wife as having mere "personal shortcomings"? That language is a little too forgiving for my taste.
JoeMc on 04/08/13 at 03:14PM
Hey, poppynogood - I think I make plain in the article that Spade Cooley was a cruel man, but my point was that he had two sides and we shouldn't dismiss the creative musician out of hand. Some people are unable to look past an artist's reprehensible behavior and condemn the art as well as the artist. I don't follow this line of thinking. Thanks for your comment!
poppynogood on 04/08/13 at 07:33PM
Hi Joe, I'd probably save the character traits you use for someone with lesser infractions, but to each their own. I think you make a good point about not condemning the art along with the artist and I'm inclined to agree! As a qualifier that idea rounds out the story well.
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