Tuesday, May 23, 2006
"Spade" Cooley (1910-1969)
"Spade" Cooley went from idolized star to convicted murderer. He was born Donnell Clyde Cooley on December 17th, 1910 from sharecropper parents, one of may cowboy stars from the state of Oklahoma. The family moved to Oregon when he was four. They were very musical and taught the boy to play the fiddle. At the age of eight, he was performing professionally at square dances with his father. He was tagged with the nickname of "Spade" because of his proficiency at playing poker.
The late 30's found him in Los Angeles. He was working as an actor, with bit parts at Republic Studios. Prior to forming his western swing orchestra circa 1942, Cooley was a sideman (on fiddle) with Walt Shrum and the Colorado Hillbillies and Cal Shrum's Rhythm Rangers. Spade also did some fiddling and bit parts in various B westerns. If you watch closely, you can spot him in: MARSHAL OF MESA CITY (RKO, 1939) with George O'Brien; THUNDERING HOOFS (RKO, 1941) and RIDING THE WIND (RKO, 1942) with Tim Holt; DAWN ON THE GREAT DIVIDE (Monogram, 1942) with Buck Jones; IN OLD CHEYENNE (Republic, 1941) and SOUTH OF SANTA FE (Republic, 1942) with Roy Rogers; and LOST CANYON (United Artists, 1943) with William 'Hopalong Cassidy' Boyd. The Cooley band helped out Bing's brother Bob Crosby in SINGING SHERIFF (Universal, 1944). And the group were in ROCKIN' IN THE ROCKIES (Columbia, 1945) which featured mayhem from the Three Stooges and Hoosier Hotshots. Les Adams has Cooley identified in 50+ films, and of that number, 36 are westerns.
'Spade' Cooley came into the limelight during the World War II years with a western swing band with Tex Williams doing vocals. Billing himself as the "King of Western Swing", Cooley had hits such as "Steel Guitar Rag", and "Oklahoma Stomp" (Joaquin Murphey on steel guitar). Spade's signature tune was "Shame On You", which was originally released in 1945 on Columbia's Okeh label with Tex Williams doing the vocal. Spade's hard-drivin' musical style and popularity rivaled that of Bob Wills.
Sidemen during these early years included Joaquin Murphey, Smokey Rogers, Cactus Soldi, Pedro DePaul and Deuce Spriggens. Yodeling wizard Carolina Cotton was also a member of the band. In the Spring of 1945, Spriggens exited to form his own musical group which appeared in several of the Columbia westerns with Ken Curtis and the Hoosier Hotshots (SONG OF THE PRAIRIE (1945), COWBOY BLUES (1946), SINGING ON THE TRAIL (1946)). In 1946, Tex Williams left (some report this was on his own accord while others note that he was fired by Spade). Tex took Smokey Rogers and several other musicians with him and formed the "Western Caravan". In the Summer of 1946, Spriggens dissolved his organization and joined up with Williams.
Cooley formed another group, signed with RCA records and around 1948, hit the TV airwaves on station KTLA in Los Angeles with his own show named "The Hoffman Hayride" which became a ratings hit and lasted for nearly ten years. Cooley sidemen during this later period included Noel Boggs (steel guitar) and Jimmy Wyble (guitar). He had a band which performed Saturday nights at the Venice Pier Ballroom in Santa Monica which packed them in by the thousands. In the late 50's his fortunes waned as tastes in music changed.
A heavy drinker, Cooley descended into alcoholism and suffered a series of minor heat attacks. In 1961, financial ruin befell him from an investment at Willow Springs, California located in eastern Kern County which was to have been a water theme park. Obsessions with what he believed was the infidelity of his wife Ella May resulted in stomping her to death (in the presence of their 14 year old daughter) wearing heavy cowboy boots after days of drinking at their Willow Springs home. He claimed that he couldn't remember the deed. The resulting trial was a media circus. The jury found him guilty of first-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
Throughout his term away from alcohol and drugs, he was a model prisoner. Eight years later, just months before he was to be paroled, Spade Cooley was given a 72 hour furlough to perform at an Oakland police benefit. He finished his last song to a rousing ovation from some 3,000 people in the audience and returned to his dressing room. He suffered yet another heart attack, one of many he endured during his lifetime. This one, Nov. 23, 1969 took his life.
Back row (porch) from L-to-R: Frank Buckley (accordion), Spade Cooley (fiddle), Johnny Weis (guitar), Muddy Berry (drums) and Deuce Spriggens (bass). Front row from L-to-R: Tex Williams (guitar), Gibby Gibson (fiddle), Spike Featherstone (zither?), Smokey Rogers (guitar).