Spade Cooley

Donnell Clyde Cooley (December 17, 1910 November 23, 1969), better known as Spade Cooley, was an American Western swing musician, big band leader, actor, television personality, and convicted murderer. Cooley's career ended in 1961 when he was arrested and convicted for the brutal murder of his second wife, Ella Mae Evans.[1]

Spade Cooley
Background information
Birth nameDonnell Clyde Cooley
Also known asKing of Western Swing
Born(1910-12-17)December 17, 1910
Grand, Oklahoma, U.S.
DiedNovember 23, 1969(1969-11-23) (aged 58)
Oakland, California, U.S.
GenresWestern swing
Occupation(s)Big band leader, actor, television personality

Early life

"Spade" Cooley was born Donnell Clyde Cooley on December 17, 1910 in Grand, Oklahoma. Being part Cherokee, Cooley was sent to the Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon to be educated. In 1930, his family moved to California during the Dust Bowl.[2]

Music career

Cooley joined a big band led by Jimmy Wakely which played at the Venice Pier Ballroom in Venice, California, playing fiddle. Several thousand dancers would turn out on Saturday nights to swing and hop: "The hoards (sic) of people and jitterbuggers loved him." When Wakely got a movie contract at Universal Pictures, Cooley replaced him as bandleader.[3]

To capitalize on the pioneering success of the Bob WillsTommy Duncan pairing, Cooley hired vocalist Tex Williams, who was capable of the mellow deep baritone sound made popular by Duncan. Cooley's eighteen-month engagement at the Venice Pier Ballroom was record-breaking for the early half of the 1940s. His "Shame on You", released by Columbia's Okeh record label, was recorded in December 1944, and was No. 1 on the country charts for two months.[1] A Red FoleyLawrence Welk collaboration issued by Decca (18698) was No. 4 to Cooley's No. 5 on Billboard's "Most Played Juke Box Folk Records" listing in September 1945.[4] Soundies Distributing Corp. of America issued one of their "music video like" film shorts of Cooley's band performing "Shame on You" in the fall of 1945.[5][6] "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 Western films, both in bit parts and as a stand-in for cowboy actor Roy Rogers. Billed as Spade Cooley and His Western Dance Gang, he was featured in the soundie Take Me Back To Tulsa released July 31, 1944, along with Williams and Carolina Cotton.[7] Corrine, Corrina was released August 28, 1944 minus Cotton.[8] The film short Spade Cooley: King of Western Swing was filmed in May 1945 and released September 1, 1945.[9] It was followed by Melody Stampede released on November 8, 1945.[10] Spade Cooley & His Orchestra came out in 1949.[11] In 1950, Cooley had significant roles in several films.

In the summer of 1946, the Cooley band fragmented after the bandleader fired Williams, who had offers to record on his own. A number of key sidemen, including guitarist Johnny Weis, left with Williams, who formed the Western Caravan, which incorporated a sound similar to Cooley's. Williams had his hit recording of "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)" in 1948. Cooley reconstituted his band with former Bob Wills sidemen, including steel guitarist Noel Boggs and the guitar ensemble of Jimmy Wyble and Cameron Hill. He also added full brass and reed sections to the band.

Beginning in June 1948, Cooley began hosting The Spade Cooley Show, a variety show on KTLA-TV in Los Angeles, broadcast from the Venice Pier Ballroom. The show became a mainstay of television in the area, and won local Emmy awards in 1952 and 1953. Guests included Frankie Laine, Frank Sinatra and Dinah Shore.[12][13] The program was so popular that an estimated 75 percent of all television sets in the L.A. area were tuned into the show each Saturday night. Making use of video transcriptions, The Spade Cooley Show was viewed coast-to-coast via the Paramount Television Network.[14] KTLA eventually cancelled Cooley's program and replaced it with a competing show brought over from KCOP, Cliffie Stone's Hometown Jamboree. Although by 1956 Lawrence Welk was achieving increasing success at the nearby Aragon Ballroom, Cooley's ratings continued to drop, largely due to declining interest in western swing music.[15]

Cooley was in a so-called "battle of the bands," the date of which has not been documented, with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys at the Venice Pier Ballroom. Afterward, Cooley claimed he won and began to promote himself as the King of Western Swing.[16] Some music aficionados insist Wills deserved the title "King of Western Swing", and Fort Worth's Milton Brown should be called "Father of Western Swing". But apparently the first documented use of Western swing for this style of music was in 1942 by Cooley's promoter at the time, Forman Phillips.[17] Cooley was honored by the installation of star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The foundation was laid on February 8, 1960.[18]

Personal life

Murder of Ella Mae Evans

Cooley suspected his second wife, Ella Mae Cooley (née Evans), 38, who had been a singer in his band before they married fifteen years earlier, of repeatedly being unfaithful. In March 1961, she told a friend she had had an affair with Roy Rogers in 1952 or 1953.[1][19] She soon asked Cooley, who had had many of his own affairs, for a divorce. On March 23, Cooley filed for divorce, citing "incompatibility" and seeking custody of their three children, Melody, Donnell Jr. and John.[20]

On April 26, 1961, Cooley was indicted by a Kern County grand jury for the murder of his wife on April 3 at the couple's Willow Springs ranch home. Cooley's then 14-year-old daughter, Melody, recounted to the jury how she was forced by her father to watch in terror as he beat her mother's head against the floor, stomped on her stomach, then crushed a lit cigarette against her skin to see whether she was dead.[21] Cooley claimed his wife had been injured by falling in the shower.

Cooley was defended by attorney P. Basil Lambros[22] in what was the longest case in county history at the time, and was convicted of first-degree murder by a Kern County jury on August 21, 1961, after unexpectedly withdrawing an insanity plea. He was spared death in the gas chamber and sentenced to life in prison.[23]


On August 5, 1968, the California State Adult Authority voted unanimously to parole him on February 22, 1970. Cooley had served nearly nine years of a life sentence, and was in poor health from heart trouble.[24] On November 23, 1969, he received a 72-hour furlough from the prison hospital unit at Vacaville to play a benefit concert for the Deputy Sheriffs Association of Alameda County at the Oakland Auditorium (now known as the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center) in Oakland. During the intermission, after a standing ovation, Cooley suffered a fatal heart attack backstage. He is interred at Chapel of the Chimes cemetery in Hayward.[25]

John Gilmore has written an in-depth portrait of Cooley's life and death in Shame on You, a segment of Gilmore's non-fiction work, L.A. Despair: A Landscape of Crimes & Bad Times. Cooley is a recurring character in James Ellroy's fiction, including in the story "Dick Contino's Blues", which appeared in issue No. 46 of Granta magazine (Winter 1994) and was anthologized in Hollywood Nocturnes. Ellroy also features a fictionalized version of Cooley in Ellroy's novel L.A. Confidential.

Country historian Rich Kienzle, who specializes in the history of West Coast country music and western swing, profiled Cooley in his 2003 book Southwest Shuffle.

He is referenced in one of the Honeymooners episodes (from Art 'Ed Norton' Carney to Jackie 'Ralph Kramden' Gleason): "They wouldn't-a won [the National Raccoon Mambo Championship] except some guy slipped in a Spade Cooley record".

In the Jack Benny Program episode "Rochester Falls Asleep---Misses Show", Jack talks about how he's not afraid to play his violin in front of an audience, saying to Mary Livingstone, "I'm certainly no Heifetz, or Isaac Stern, or Mischa Elman." Guest star Bob Crosby then jokes, "You can throw Spade Cooley in there too."

The Longmire novel Junkyard Dogs, by Craig Johnson, has Walt Longmire and Deputy Vic entering a truck stop that Vic refers to as "the Disneyland Redneck Ride". Music playing when they enter is "scratching the paint of the inside of the place". Vic: "What the hell is that?" Walt: "That'd be 'Three Way Boogie', Spade Cooley" He then gives the salacious bits of the above history.

Ry Cooder's 2008 album I, Flathead features a reference to 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", the name of the singer's dog.

In 2015, the Ella Mae Evans murder was profiled in an episode of the Investigation Discovery series Tabloid.

Radio personality Phil Hendrie would occasionally refer to Spade Cooley in his comedy sketches.

Tyler Mahan Coe's podcast Cocaine & Rhinestones profiles Spade Cooley in the third episode of season one.[26]

Jake Brennan's podcast "Disgraceland" profile's Spade Cooley in the 12th episode of his second season.[27]


Selected Discography
Date Title Label
1942 "Tell Me Why" Westernair 801
05/03/46 "Oklahoma Stomp" Columbia 37237
05/03/46 "Steel Guitar Rag" Columbia 38054
06/06/46 "Spadella" Columbia 37585
06/06/46 "Swingin' the Devil's Dream" Columbia 20571
01/31/47 "Minuet in Swing" RCA 20-2181
04/25/47 "All Aboard for Oklahoma" RCA 20-2552
05/09/47 "You Can't Take Texas out of Me" RCA 20-3547
11/17/47 "Spanish Fandango" RCA 20-2668
03/30/49 "Arizona Waltz" RCA 20-3496
04/11/50 "Hillbilly Fever" RCA 21-0330
03/09/51 "Chew Tobacco Rag" Decca 46310
05/29/52 "Carmen's Boogie" Decca 28344
Top 40 Hits[28]
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

See also


  1. Archived 2008-05-11 at the Wayback Machine
  2. "Donnell Clyde "Spade" Cooley (1910-1969)". Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History & Culture. Oklahoma Historical Society. Archived from the original on 2 November 2014. Retrieved 11 May 2014.
  3. L.A. Despair: A Landscape of Crimes & Bad Times. John Gilmore. 2005. Amok Books. Page 313. ISBN 978-1-878923-16-5 ISBN 1878923161
  4. Billboard September 15. page 29.
  5. Catalog of Copyright Entries. Part 1. [C] Group 3. Dramatic Composition and ... By Library of Congress. Copyright Office. 1945. page 5334.
  6. Billboard Oct 13, 1945. page 81.
  7. 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
  8. The Soundies Distributing Corporation of America: a history and filmography of their "jukebox" musical films of the 1940s. Terenzio, MacGillivary, Okuda. 1954. p. 131. ISBN 0-89950-578-3
  9. WB Live Action Shorts at 5.3.2011
  10. Universal and Universal-International Short Subjects 1945-1947 at 5.3.2011
  11. 5.3.2011
  12. Southwest Shuffle pages 17, 21
  13. Swingin' the Devil's Dream. Liner Notes. Adam Komorowski. 2003. page 9
  14. Billboard. May 27, 1950. cover page.
  15. Swingin' the Devil's Dream. Liner Notes. Adam Komorowski. 2003. page 910
  16. Komorowski, Spade Cooley, p.4.
  17. Logsdon, "The Cowboy's Bawdy Music," p.137.
  18. retrieved 3.31.2016
  19. Roy Rogers: a biography, radio history, television career chronicle. Robert W. Phillips. page 47.
  20. "Spade Cooley Seeks Divorce" (March 24, 1961), Los Angeles Times, p. 2
  21. "Spade Cooley Indicted in Murder of His Wife" (April 26, 1961), Los Angeles Times, p. 2
  22. Obituary of P. Basil Lambros, Los Angeles Times, October 18, 2010, page AA6.
  23. "Spade Cooley Given Life Term in Slaying of Wife" (August 23, 1961), Los Angeles Times, p. 2
  24. The Bakersfield Californian (UPI) Cooley to Get Parole next Feb. 22. Metropolitan News Section page 11
  25. "Hollywood Star Walk: Spade Cooley". Los Angeles Times. 24 November 1969.
  26. The Murder Ballad of Spade Cooley
  27. "S2E12 Spade Cooley". Disgraceland. Retrieved 2019-02-21.
  28. 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
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