The Spade Cooley Story: How the King of Western Swing Murdered His Queen

No, shame on YOU, Spade Cooley!

“Spade” was western swing fiddle player and band leader Donnell Clyde Cooley (1910-1969). The native Oklahoman was part Cherokee; his folks were sharecroppers. Spade initially learned to play fiddle from his father, then studied further with teachers at school. During the Dust Bowl period of the 1930s, his family joined the Okie Exodus to Southern California, a moved that proved fortuitous for Spade (whose nickname came from a winning poker hand). Playing with popular dance bands at the Venice Pier Ballroom led to his forming his own Spade Cooley Orchestra. Taking a page from the book of Bob Wills he devised a sound that mixed elements of country music and big band, and helped generate a vogue for that type of music in dance halls, on radio, and in films. Fronting his band he had singers like Carolina Cotton and Tex Williams.

Starting in late 1938, Cooley also began working in Republic westerns, as a fiddle player in musical numbers, and as Roy Rogers‘ stand-in. His five dozen or so movie appearances include also Destry Rides Again (1939) with Jimmy Stewart and Melody Ranch (1940) with Gene Autry, though most of pictures were with Rogers. In 1944, his band had it’s biggest hit “Shame, Shame on You” and Cooley starred in several of his own musical film shorts. That same year he hired Ella Mae Evans for his clarinet player and (later) singer, and she soon became his second wife. Starting in 1948, he began hosting his own local TV variety show (which had guests like Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope, this being L.A.). In 1950, he starred in several of his own B movie western features: The Kid from Gower Gulch, The Silver Bullet, Everybody’s Dancin’ and Border Outlaws. Cooley was a millionaire by the point, known to everyone in show business, and a point of cultural reference. Comedians made Spade Cooley jokes; columnists dropped his name. He was on top of the world.

Cooley’s TV show was on the air until about 1957. By this time, rock and roll had shifted the entertainment dynamic considerably, and western swing became obsolete practically overnight. He cut his last record in 1959. Now 49 years old, his demons began to catch up with him. He’d abused alcohol for years. He’d had his first heart attack in the early ’50s. By 1961, he was starting to become unglued. He was in the process of trying to launch his own theme park. Ella Mae filed for divorce, tired of his accusations of infidelity.

In April of that year, Cooley finally went berserk, and beat Ella Mae to death, right in front of their teenaged daughter. It’s hard to overstate how shocking an event like that was to the public. The only relatively modern case I can think of that resembles it is that of O.J. Simpson. Beloved national stars don’t usually kill people, let alone in the grip of animalistic frenzies. After a spectacular trial, Cooley was sentenced to life in prison. His health was terrible, though, and in the end he was repentant. He was scheduled for a 1970 parole, when he was let out on furlough a few months early to play a concert at a convention of law enforcement professionals. After playing three songs, he suffered a massive heart attack, and that one proved fatal. There’s something kind of Tales from the Crypt about Cooley’s final end. One pictures the ghostly fingers of Ella Mae wrapped ’round the singer’s neck, meting out inexorable justice. The King of Swing didn’t swing — from a gallows, that is. But neither did he outrun the High Executioner. In the end, this “Spade” dug his own grave.

To learn about the roots of variety entertainment, including TV variety, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous