Spade Cooley

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Spade Cooley
Spade Cooley (1944)
Donnell Clyde Cooley

(1910-12-17)December 17, 1910
DiedNovember 23, 1969(1969-11-23) (aged 58)
Other namesKing of Western Swing
Criminal statusParoled - died before grant of parole enacted
Criminal chargeFirst-degree murder
PenaltyLife in prison
VictimsElla Mae Cooley (née Evans)
DateApril 3, 1961
Musical career
GenresWestern swing
Occupation(s)Big band leader, actor, television personality
Instrument(s)Fiddle, vocals
Years active
  • c. 1940–1961
  • November 23, 1969 (half-show)
LabelsWesternair, Columbia, RCA, Decca, OKeh

Donnell Clyde "Spade" Cooley (December 17, 1910 – November 23, 1969) was an American convicted murderer and Western swing musician, big band leader, actor and television personality. In 1961 he was tried and convicted for the murder of his second wife, Ella Mae Evans.[1]

Early life[edit]

Donnell Clyde Cooley was born in Grand, Oklahoma.[2] Being part Cherokee, he was sent to the Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon, in his youth. In 1930, during the Dust Bowl, Cooley's family moved to California. It was here that he took the nickname "Spade" after he played a poker game and won three straight flush hands, all in spades.[3]

Music career[edit]

Cooley joined a big band led by Jimmy Wakely which played at the Venice Pier Ballroom in Venice, California, playing fiddle.[2] Several thousand dancers would turn out on Saturday nights to swing and hop: "The hoards (sic) of people and jitterbuggers loved [Cooley]." When Wakely got a movie contract at Universal Pictures, Cooley replaced him as bandleader.[4] 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.

Cooley wrote and recorded "Shame on You", released by Okeh Records; recorded in December 1944, it was No. 1 on the country charts for two months,[1] while covers of the song by Red Foley with Lawrence Welk, and by Bill Boyd, opened at No. 3 and No. 4 (respectively) on Billboard's "Most Played Juke Box Folk Records" chart (the chart which evolved into today's Hot Country chart)[5] for 30 August 1945.[6] 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.[7][8] "Shame on You" was the first in an unbroken string of six Top Ten singles including "Detour" and "You Can't Break My Heart".

Spade Cooley hung around Republic Pictures, ultimately sneaking onto a Gene Autry set. He was caught, but Autry noticed his resemblance to Roy Rogers and his talent for playing the fiddle and introduced him to Rogers.[9] Cooley appeared in thirty-eight Western films, both in bit parts and as a stand-in and stuntman for cowboy actor Roy Rogers.[2] In 1936, Rogers made Cooley the featured fiddle player and a vocalist in his group Riders of the Purple Sage. 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.[10] Corrine, Corrina was released August 28, 1944 minus Cotton.[11] The film short Spade Cooley: King of Western Swing was filmed in May 1945 and released September 1, 1945.[12] It was followed by Melody Stampede released on November 8, 1945.[13] Spade Cooley & His Orchestra came out in 1949.[14] 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 Santa Monica Ballroom, on the pier.[2] The show won local Emmy awards in 1952 and 1953. Guests included Frankie Laine, Frank Sinatra and Dinah Shore.[15][16] The Spade Cooley Show was viewed coast-to-coast via the Paramount Television Network.[17] KTLA eventually cancelled Cooley's program by 1956 and replaced it with a competing show brought over from KCOP, Cliffie Stone's Hometown Jamboree.[18]

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.[19] 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".[citation needed] 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.[20] Cooley was honored by the installation of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The foundation was laid on February 8, 1960.[21]

Personal life[edit]

Murder of Ella Mae Evans[edit]

Cooley's second wife, Ella Mae Cooley (née Evans), had been a singer in his band before they married in 1945; he was 34, she was 21. During their marriage, Cooley suspected Ella Mae of repeatedly being unfaithful. In March 1961, she told a friend she had had an affair with Roy Rogers in 1952 or 1953.[1][22] She soon asked Cooley - who had had many of his own affairs - for a divorce. On March 23, he filed for divorce, citing "incompatibility" and seeking custody of their three children, Melody, Donnell Jr. and John.[23]

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 home near Willow Springs.[24] 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.[25] Cooley claimed his wife had been injured by falling in the shower.

Cooley was defended by attorney P. Basil Lambros,[26] 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.[27] Facing a maximum sentence of death in the gas chamber, Cooley was sentenced to life in prison, eligible for parole after serving seven years.[27]

Cooley had a parole hearing after serving eight years, in August 1969. His friends in Hollywood had been lobbying Governor Ronald Reagan, who threw his support behind Cooley being released on parole; the state review board voted to grant Cooley a release on parole, effective February 1970.[28] However, Cooley died before his parole took effect.


On August 5, 1968, the California State Adult Authority voted unanimously to parole Cooley on February 22, 1970.[2] He had served less than nine years of a life sentence and was in poor health from heart trouble.[29]

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.[2] He is interred at Chapel of the Chimes cemetery in Hayward.[21]

In popular culture[edit]

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 his 1990 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, "My Aching Back (1956)" (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".[citation needed]

In the 1956 episode "Rochester Falls Asleep, Misses Program" (The Jack Benny Program), Benny talks about how he is 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."[30]

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 off 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 the episode "Fame and Misfortune" of the Investigation Discovery series Tabloid.[31]

In 2017, Tyler Mahan Coe's podcast "Cocaine & Rhinestones" profiles Spade Cooley in the third episode of season one.[32]

In 2018, Jake Brennan's podcast "Disgraceland" profiled Spade Cooley in the 12th episode of the season.[33]

In September 2023, Winnipeg musician Boy Golden released a single titled "The King of Western Swing" covering Spade's story and crime.[34]


  • Sagebrush Swing (Columbia H-9 [4-disc 78rpm album set], HL-9007 [10" LP], 1949)
  • Square Dances (RCA Victor P-249 [3-disc 78rpm album set], 1949)
  • Roy Rogers & Spade Cooley: Skip To My Lou and Other Square Dances (RCA Victor P-259 [3-disc 78rpm album set], 1949)
  • Spade Cooley Plays Billy Hill For Dancing (RCA Victor P-275 [3-disc 78rpm album set], 1950)
  • Spade Cooley & His Square Dance Six: Square Dance Jamboree (Decca 1-245/1-246/1-247/1-248 [4-disc 78rpm album set], 1953)
  • Spade Cooley & His Buckle-Busters: Country and Western Dance-O-Rama, No. 3 (Decca DL-5563 [10" LP], 1955)
  • Fidoodlin' (Ray Note RN-5007, 1959; reissue: Roulette SR-25145, 1961; CD reissue: Collectors' Choice Music CCM-431, 2004)
  • The Best of The Spade Cooley Transcribed Shows (The Club of Spade 00101, 1978)
  • The King of Western Swing (The Club of Spade 00102, 1978)
  • The King of Western Music (The Club of Spade 00103, 1978)
  • Mr. Music Himself, Volume One (The Club of Spade 00104, 1978)
  • Mr. Music Himself, Volume Two (The Club of Spade 00105, 1978)
  • Mr. Music Himself, Volume Three (The Club of Spade 00106, 1978)
  • Spade Cooley & Tex Williams: As They Were (The Club of Spade CS-208, 1981)
  • Spade Cooley & Tex Williams: Oklahoma Stomp (The Club of Spade CS-209, 1981)
  • Swinging the Devil's Dream (Charly CR-30239, 1985)
  • Spadella! The Essential Spade Cooley (Columbia/Legacy CK-57392, 1994)
  • King of Western Swing (Collectors' Choice Music CCM-039, 1997)
  • Swingin' the Devil's Dream (Proper PVCD-127 [2CD], 2003)
  • Shame On You – Singles Collection 1945–1952 (Jasmine JASMCD-3704, 2019)
  • The Spade Cooley Collection 1945–1952 (Acrobat ADDCD-3308 [2CD], 2019)
Selected Singles Discography
Date Title Label
1942 "Tell Me Why" [Cal Shrum] 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[35]
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[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Spade Cooley, King of Western Swing, killed his wife -- the Crime Library - The Crime library". 11 May 2008. Archived from the original on 2008-05-11. Retrieved August 5, 2021.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Colin Larkin, ed. (1993). The Guinness Who's Who of Country Music (First ed.). Guinness Publishing. p. 92. ISBN 0-85112-726-6.
  3. ^ "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.
  4. ^ L.A. Despair: A Landscape of Crimes & Bad Times. John Gilmore. 2005. Amok Books. Page 313. ISBN 978-1-878923-16-5 ISBN 1878923161
  5. ^ Campbell, Michael (2012). "Chapter 30: Honky Tonk". Popular Music in America:The Beat Goes On. Cengage Learning. p. 125. ISBN 978-1133712602. Retrieved 2022-05-13 – via Google Books.
  6. ^ "Most Played Juke Box Folk Records | Week Ending Aug 30, 1945". Billboard. Vol. 57, no. 35. 1945-09-08. p. 27. Retrieved 2022-05-13 – via Google Books.
  7. ^ Catalog of Copyright Entries. Part 1. [C] Group 3. Dramatic Composition and ... By Library of Congress. Copyright Office. 1945. page 5334.
  8. ^ "5 Smash Hit Tunes on One Program". Billboard. Vol. 57, no. 40. 1945-10-13. p. 81. Retrieved 2022-05-13 – via Google Books.
  9. ^ Jacobson, Laurie (2003). Dishing Hollywood: The Real Scoop on Tinseltown's Most Notorious Scandals. Nashville, Tennessee: Cumberland House. pp. 15–16. ISBN 978-1-58182-370-7.
  10. ^ 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
  11. ^ 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
  12. ^ "WB Live Action Shorts".
  13. ^ "Universal and Universal-International Short Subjects 1945-1947".
  14. ^ "Spade Cooley and His Orchestra".
  15. ^ Southwest Shuffle pages 17, 21
  16. ^ Swingin' the Devil's Dream. Liner Notes. Adam Komorowski. 2003. page 9
  17. ^ "Spade Cooley (left, seated) watches "The Spade Cooley Show" on television". Billboard. Vol. 62, no. 21. 1950-05-27. p. Cover Page. Retrieved 2022-05-13 – via Google Books.
  18. ^ Swingin' the Devil's Dream. Liner Notes. Adam Komorowski. 2003. page 910
  19. ^ Komorowski, Spade Cooley, p.4.
  20. ^ Logsdon, "The Cowboy's Bawdy Music," p.137.
  21. ^ a b Ting Tipton, Shana (report on Nov. 24, 1969); Staff writers (update on July 9, 2005). "Hollywood Star Walk | Spade Cooley". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2022-05-12.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  22. ^ Roy Rogers: a biography, radio history, television career chronicle. Robert W. Phillips. p. 47
  23. ^ "Spade Cooley Seeks Divorce" (March 24, 1961), Los Angeles Times, p. 2
  24. ^ LeMucchi, Timothy (2015-06-12). "In his own words: The Spade Cooley interrogation". The Bakersfield Californian. Archived from the original on 2021-05-10. Retrieved August 5, 2021.
  25. ^ "Spade Cooley Indicted in Murder of His Wife" (April 26, 1961), Los Angeles Times, p. 2
  26. ^ McLellan, Dennis (2010-10-18). "P. Basil Lambros dies at 86; prominent L.A. defense lawyer was known as a sharp dresser". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on 2014-07-31. Retrieved 2022-05-12.
  27. ^ a b "Spade Cooley Sentenced to Life in Prison". The Desert Sun. United Press International. 1961-08-23. p. 2. Retrieved 2022-05-12 – via California Digital Newspaper Collection.
  28. ^ Lemucchi, Timothy (2015-06-12). "Bakersfield's trial of the century: The talented and tormented Spade Cooley". The Bakersfield Californian. Archived from the original on 2019-11-08. Retrieved 2022-05-12.
  29. ^ The Bakersfield Californian (UPI), "Cooley to Get Parole next Feb. 22.", Metropolitan News Section page 11
  30. ^ "Rochester Falls Asleep, Misses Program". The Jack Benny Program. Season 6. Episode 12. 1956-02-26. CBS. Retrieved 2022-05-11 – via epguides.
  31. ^ "Fame and Misfortune". Tabloid. Season 2. Episode 8. 2015-06-20. Investigation Discovery. Retrieved 2022-05-11.
  32. ^ Coe, Tyler Mahan (November 7, 2017). "CR003 The Murder Ballad of Spade Cooley". Cocaine & Rhinestones. Retrieved 2018-01-16.
  33. ^ Brennan, Jake (2018-10-30). "S2E12 Spade Cooley". Retrieved 2019-02-21.
  34. ^
  35. ^ 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[edit]