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Spade Cooley
Birth name Donnell Clyde Cooley
Also known as King of Western Swing
Born December 17, 1910(1910-12-17)
Origin Pack Saddle Creek, Oklahoma
Died November 23, 1969 (aged 58)
Genres Western Swing
Occupations Big band leader
Television personality

Donnell Clyde 'Spade' Cooley (December 17, 1910 – November 23, 1969) was an American Western Swing musician, big band leader, actor, and television personality. His career ended when he was arrested and convicted for the murder of his second wife, Ella Mae Evans.[1]


Show business career

One of the groups which played at the Venice Pier Ballroom was run by Jimmy Wakely and they had Spade Cooley on fiddle. Several thousand dancers would turn out on Saturday night to swing and hop. "The hoards of people and jitterbuggers loved him." When Jimmy Wakely got a movie contract at Universal, that had Spade replacing Jimmy as head of the band.[2]

To capitalize on the success of the Bob Wills/Tommy Duncan pairing, Cooley hired vocalist Tex Williams who was capable of the mellow deep baritone sounds made popular by Duncan. Cooley's eighteen-month engagement at Santa Monica's Venice Pier Ballroom was record-breaking for the early half of the 1940s. His "Shame On You," released on Columbia's OKeh label, was recorded in December 1944, and was No. 1 on the country charts for two months.[1] "Shame on You" was the first in an unbroken string of six Top Ten singles including "Detour" and "You Can't Break My Heart."

Cooley appeared in thirty-eight westerns, both in bit parts and as a stand in for cowboy actor Roy Rogers. He also hosted a Los Angeles based syndicated television show from 1949 until 1959. The Hoffman Hayride was so popular that an estimated 75 percent of all televisions in the L.A. area were tuned into the show each Saturday night. In 1950 Cooley had significant roles in several films, and starred in two film shorts: "King of Western Swing" and "Spade Cooley & His Orchestra." Billed as "Spade Cooley and His Western Dance Gang" he was featured in the Soundie Take Me Back to Tulsa released 7/31/44 along with Tex Williams and Carolina Cotton.[3] Corrine, Corrina was released 8/28/44 minus Cotton. [4]

After a "Battle of the Bands" with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys at the Venice Pier Ballroom, which Cooley won, he began to promote himself as the "King of Western Swing."[5] Evidently Western swing, not used prior to 1942 for this style of music, was a term thought up by Cooley's then promoter, Forman Phillips.[6] Following Waylon Jennings' 1975 #1 hit, "Bob Wills Is Still The King," Wills's fans transferred the title "King" to Wills.

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 for Wills to reach wider audiences, as was found in Cain's Ballroom culture. Cooley's specialized, 'city sound' of the period popular culture accounts for his work having been popular with limited mainstream audiences during his 1940s and 1950s heyday, but at the same time not having enjoyed the diverse and continuing popularity of Wills.

Murder of Ella Mae Evans

In 1961, his wife expressed her wish to be divorced, and a drunken Cooley responded by beating her and stomping on her body until she died. During the trial Cooley suffered a heart attack while he was delivered his prison sentence. After serving eight years of his sentence, the state of California gave him a temporary furlough in order to play a benefit concert for the Deputy Sheriffs Association of Alameda County at the Paramount Theater in Oakland. After the performance, he suffered a fatal heart attack in the backstage area.

Business Ventures

Prior to his divorce and jail-term, Spade had envisioned a water-park near Rosamond (southern) Calif. This new water park was to be named "Water Wonderland", and would consist of 2 large fresh-water lakes (fed by underground wells) and homes surrounding the lakes. The area would have disneyland-like rides, and the lakes were built to allow boating activites, in addition to the lake-front homes. The property was under-construction, and the homes were being sold when he had the divorce discussion with his wife. He was immediately jailed. The land has since turned back into desert. The property was West of Rosamond, in the Willow Springs area.


Selected Discography
Date Title Label
1941 Tell Me Why Westernair 801
05/03/46 Oklahoma Stomp Columbia 20573
05/03/46 Steel Guitar Rag Columbia 39054
06/06/46 Spadella Columbia 37585
06/06/46 Swingin' the Devil's Dream Columbia 28253
04/25/47 All Aboard for Oklahoma RCA 20-2552
01/31/47 Minuet in Swing RCA 20-22181
05/09/47 You Can't Take Texas out of Me RCA 20-3547
05/29/52 One Sweet Letter from You Decca 28344
Top 40 Hits.[7]
Year Position Title Label
1945 1 Shame On You OKeh 6731
8 A Pair of Broken Hearts "
4 I've Taken All I'm Gonna Take from You OKeh 6746
1946 2 Detour Columbia 36935
3 You Can't Break My Heart "
1947 4 Crazy 'Cause I Love You Columbia 37058

In popular culture

John Gilmore has written an in-depth portrait of Spade Cooley's life and tragic end in Shame on You, a segment of Gilmore's non-fiction work, L.A. Despair.

Cooley is a recurring character in James Ellroy's fiction, including in the story Dick Contino's Blues, which appeared in issue number 46 of Granta magazine (Winter 1994) and was anthologized in Hollywood Nocturnes.

It has been reported that Dennis Quaid plans to make a bio-pic about Cooley.

Spade Cooley is the grandfather of Mike Cooley, singer, guitarist, song writer and founding member of the rock band Drive-By Truckers.

Referenced in one of the classic 39 Honeymooners episodes (from Art 'Ed Norton' Carney to Jackie 'Ralph Kramden' Gleason): "They wouldn't-a won that except some guy slipped in a Spade Cooley record."

Ry Cooder's 2008 album 'I, Flathead' features a reference to Spade Cooley on the track 'Steel Guitar Heaven' ("There ain't no bosses up in heaven / I heard Spade Cooley didn't make the grade"), as well as a track named 'Spayed Kooley', in which Spayed Kooley is the name of the singer's dog.


  1. ^ a b
  2. ^ L.A. Despair: A Landscape of Crimes & Bad Times. John Gilmore. 2005. Amok Books. Page 313. ISBN 9781878923165 ISBN 1878923161
  3. ^ The Soundies Distributing Corporation of America: a history and filmography of their "jukebox" musical films of the 1940s. Terenzio, MacGillivary, Okuda. 1954. page 129. ISBN 0-89950-578-3
  4. ^ The Soundies Distributing Corporation of America: a history and filmography of their "jukebox" musical films of the 1940s. Terenzio, MacGillivary, Okuda. 1954. page 131. ISBN 0-89950-578-3
  5. ^ Komorowski, Spade Cooley, p. 4: "It was around this time [1942] that Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys come out West, and when Cooley fell out with Phillips, the promoter sacked him and hired Bob Wills in his place. A cocksure Cooley demanded a 'Battle of The Bands' before he vacated the Venice Pier, and in a contest held over two weekends, emerged the undisputed winner. He promptly proclaimed himself the 'King of Western Swing', the first time the term was used to describe this style of music, and it was one that stuck."
  6. ^ Logsdon, "The Cowboy's Bawdy Music," p.137: "The term 'western swing' was not used until Foreman Phillips, a promoter-disc jockey, used it to describe Spade Cooley in 1942."
  7. ^ Whitburn, The Billboard Book of Top 40 Country Hits, p. 89.


  • Logsdon, Guy. "The Cowboy's Bawdy Music." The Cowboy: Six-Shooters, Songs, and Sex (pp. 139–138) edited by Charles W. Harris and Buck Rainey. University of Oklahoma Press, 2001. ISBN 0-8061-1341-3
  • Komorowski, Adam. Spade Cooley: Swingin' The Devil's Dream. (Proper PVCD 127, 2003) booklet.
  • Whitburn, Joel. The Billboard Book of Top 40 Country Hits. Billboard Books, 2006. ISBN 0-8230-8291-1

External links



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