Western Swing is a type of country music that’s been around for years, but is still popular with many (including me). A combination of big band swing and traditional country music, in its heyday it usually featured large groups of musicians with everything from fiddles to harps. It was fast and flashy, brimming with showmanship and stylized costumes, and was impossible to resist.
Although it has influenced many performers, including Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, modern practitioners like Asleep At The Wheel and similar groups probably come closest to recreating the original sound. And most also pay tribute to Bob Wills, now remembered as the King of Western Swing, but there was an earlier king — one who crashed and burned, destroying his musical legacy.
Born in Oklahoma and raised in Oregon, Donnell Clyde Cooley picked up his nickname ‘Spade’ via his card-playing skills, but it was music that drove him from an early age. Growing up in a family that was poor in material goods but rich in musical traditions, he was a skilled violinist who was good enough to perform professionally even as a child.
Reaching adulthood during the Great Depression, Cooley decided to relocate to the Los Angeles area and build a career in music, but with an eye toward Hollywood too. Within a few years, he’d become a familiar part of the area’s Western music scene and had also become friends with a rising young star named Leonard Slye, who would later become Roy Rogers. Cooley occasionally appeared in Rogers’ singing group, the Sons Of The Pioneers, and sometimes even worked as his movie stand-in, taking advantage of his resemblance to Rogers.
Cooley’s own fame began to rise during the war years, as he grew enormously popular leading the band at the Venice Pier Ballroom. His shows were eye-popping events, with large numbers of musicians and singers performing precision acts. At one point he even invited his biggest competitor, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, to come in for a battle of the bands. Cooley was declared the winner and claimed the title of King of Western Swing.
He also sold a lot of records. One of his biggest was “Shame On You,” which became his signature tune — but one that would later have an additional meaning, as would another of his hits, “Detour.” Even the loss of popular lead vocalist Tex Williams over money issues didn’t seem to slow things down, and Cooley was on top of the world, enjoying life with his new wife, singer Ella Mae Evans.
In the post-war years Cooley continued to prosper; selling records, leading his band, and occasionally appearing in cowboy films. He even appeared on early TV as the host of a tremendously popular musical show. He was a huge star, complete with a yacht, a mansion, and a closet with 100 custom-made suits — but within a few years his popularity began to fade.
The Fifties brought changing tastes in music, and even though Cooley tried some drastic changes — for a while he had an all-female band — things went downhill. In addition, bad investments and poor health, combined with a growing drinking problem, made him and everyone around him — especially his wife — miserable. He beat her constantly, accusing her of infidelity and even suspecting his friend Roy Rogers. Most agreed that Ella Mae was an innocent victim and that any confessions she made were forced by her husband. In fact, Cooley himself had regularly cheated on her for years, but she continued to suffer at his hands.
Things came to a head one night in April of 1961. Ella Mae had finally found the courage to press for a divorce and Cooley exploded. In a drunken rage he began to again pound on her, and this time he didn’t stop until he’d beaten and stomped her to death in front of their young daughter.
Spade Cooley was found guilty of murder in a highly-publicized trial, one that included his rambling, tearful, and disjointed testimony, in which he tried to blame his dead wife for everything. Offsetting that was the evidence and a devastating statement from his daughter. To all reports he was a model prisoner, and in 1969 was given a special pass to allow him to appear in a charity show. He made his appearance to a good reception, walked offstage to his dressing room, and died of a heart attack.