For a decade, starting in 1941, Spade Cooley was the king of all media, fifty years before Howard Stern. A star of stage, screen, radio, and television, Cooley was known as the King of Western Swing, a title he won by beating Bob Willis and His Texas Playboys at a battle of the bands held at the Venice Pier Ballroom in 1942.
Born dirt poor in Oklahoma on December 17, 1910, Spade was christened with the improbable Celtic name Donnell Clyde Cooley. Cooley’s father, who was a hoedown fiddler, recognized young Donnell’s talent on the violin and made sure that he would be a properly trained musician. Old man Cooley’s foresight would serve Donnell well in his career.
By the early 1930s, the Cooley family, as well as thousands of others, fled the dust bowl to the bountiful west coast. Finding himself with a wife and child in Modesto, California, in the early 1930s, Donnell worked menial jobs and played his fiddle at hoedowns and roadhouses up and down Highway 99. He acquired his nickname while playing in Modesto, as a result of his poker skills.
By 1935, Spade realized that he preferred playing music over toiling in the hot and dusty San Joaquin Valley for a few dollars a day. Moving his family to Los Angeles, Spade immediately became an in-demand musician, essentially because he could read music.
Spade struck up a friendship with Roy Rogers while performing with Rogers’ former band, the Sons of the Pioneers, and Rogers got him a job as his stand-in/extra at Republic Pictures. At the same time, Spade was playing nights as a sideman with Los Angeles bands.
With the rise of sophisticated western swing music, a hybrid of hillbilly, bluegrass, and jazz, Cooley put together a crack band of musicians and jumped on the bandwagon. His musicians varied, but generally there were a dozen in the band, plus a female singer. Spade was the quintessential front man, and his musical skills were irrefutable. He and his band dressed to the nines in flashy rhinestone-studded western suits and cowboy hats. The band performed at the Santa Monica and Venice piers for a year-and-a-half to packed crowds.
Spade Cooley had his first hit with his second single, “Shame on You.” It bounced up and down the top ten charts all through 1945, hitting the number one position nine different times between March and July. Spade rang up five more top ten hits in the next three years.
When Spade was not performing or handling the business end of his band, he performed in Hollywood westerns, often with significant roles, as well as a song or three. He eventually appeared in more than fifty films, mostly westerns and one-reelers.
Spade constantly strove to get better and hotter musicians for his band. Always staying a step ahead of the current musical trends, if he could not hire the hottest musician, he hired the next best. He was a kind and generous man when sober, but when in his cups, he was a tyrant. He would fire musicians for an imagined slight, only to beg them to come back after he sobered up. He would turn violent if one of his musicians formed a competing band, especially when they took other members with them. He once fired his singer, Tex Williams, on stage in front of a full house. Williams’ crime was that he had recently signed as a solo artist with Capitol Records. Most of Spade’s band quit in protest and joined Williams as his band. Spade hired new musicians.
Cooley had a mind for business but a weakness for the ladies. In 1945, he hired twenty-one-year-old Ella Mae Evans to be his singer, even though she was not up to Cooley‘s high standards. It was not long before Spade divorced Anna, his long-suffering wife.
Nor was it long before the tiny and blonde Ella Mae became pregnant. Her career was over, at Spade’s insistence. Their daughter, Melody, was born in 1946, with a brother, Donnell, entering the world in 1948. Believing that his children would have a better life away from Los Angeles, Spade bought a remote ranch north of there, in the Kern County town of Willow Springs. Spade spent most of his time at his Ventura Boulevard mansion, where he entertained an assortment of female companions.
The future looked as though it would provide endless opportunities for Cooley. In 1946, he had his own popular radio program, Spade Cooley Time, on KFVD. The next year, he signed a seven year lease on the eight thousand capacity Santa Monica Ballroom. The year 1948 found Spade with a television variety show, The Hoffman Hayride, on KTLA-TV. It was the most popular Saturday night television program in the Los Angeles region.
Cooley toured up and down the west coast performing in shows, with just enough time to make it to his television show and then out to Santa Monica for The Hoffman Hayride. Cooley was so popular that it has been alleged he had four different Spade Cooley bands out on the road, complete with Spade Cooley imitators. By the mid-1950s, the western swing craze had completely disappeared, and so had Cooley cash cows. He was no longer the clean-looking showman. His television and radio programs were cancelled. The years of whoring, boozing, and pill-popping had turned him into a belligerent, washed-up, middle-aged man. Spade may have been a jerk, but he was worth more than twelve million dollars.
Spade sold off his Encino home and moved to his lavish spread in Willow Springs, where he spent much of his time accusing Ella Mae of infidelities. He interrogated her mercilessly and beat her. He was drunk all the time, and his routine of taking uppers to get up and downers to sleep added to his psychosis. He cowed Ella Mae into admitting to whatever twisted sexual fantasy his perverted mind imagined.
Inspired by Disneyland, Spade put together some investors and planned out a Spade Cooley-themed water park, called Water Wonderland. The project was to be built close to Cooley’s home in the Tehachapi Mountain foothills; unbeknownst to his investors, much of the land needed for the huge park was owned by one of Cooley’s partnerships.
Cooley divided his time between the Water Wonderland project, his various other business interests, his stable of Los Angeles girlfriends (who he had living in nearby motels), and beating the crap out of Ella Mae. He hired a private detective to look into Ella Mae’s life while living in the middle of nowhere. Cooley was certain that she had been unfaithful to him while he was in Los Angeles performing on stage and screen.
Ella Mae finally had a nervous breakdown, sent her children to live with relatives, and checked into a sanitarium to rest. Despite his wife’s delicate position, Spade did not let up on his mistrust, even though his private detective could find no evidence that Ella Mae was ever unfaithful to him.
After Ella Mae recovered somewhat she returned to the ranch, where she was virtually held prisoner, suffering more beatings and interrogations from Spade. Daughter Melody overheard Spade telling someone on the telephone, “In six months, we’ll be married.” She tried to get her mother to leave, but Ella Mae was too weak to drive her car. Spade tried to get Ella Mae to go for a ride with him, but she was terrified of the man, and became hysterical. Allegedly, Spade had once tried to push her out of his moving car. Ella Mae was a shell of a human being.
On April 3, 1961, Spade was drunk and irritable at a Water Wonderland meeting with his investors. He left abruptly and angrily. Nobody knows exactly when Spade beat Ella Mae to death, but she was dead in the late afternoon when Melody came home from a friend’s house.
When Melody arrived home, Spade was on the telephone, and Melody saw that her father was sweaty, with spots of blood on his clothing. She heard him tell the person on the other end not to call police; he then hung up quickly and asked her to talk to her mother. He dragged the teenager into a bathroom off the den and showed her Ella Mae, who was bruised and bloody, lying naked in the shower. Spade grabbed Ella Mae by her hair and dragged her limp body into the den, pulling Melody along with him while calling his dead wife a slut and other obscenities.
Spade asked Melody if she thought Ella Mae was dead, and then stomped his wife hard several times with his cowboy boots. He then put out his lit cigarette on her dead body, pulled out a gun, and asked Melody if she wanted to die. Suddenly the telephone rang, distracting the inebriated King of Western Swing long enough for the young woman to run out of the house.
The police were not called until after 10:00 P.M., and arrived around 11:00 P.M. Spade’s manager, a family friend, and Spade’s adult son from his first marriage, along with his son’s wife, all waited with Spade for the police.
Cooley was arrested and taken to the Kern County Jail, sixty-three miles away in Bakersfield.
All of the positive things that Spade had done for California’s large “Okie” population through his music and persona were undone. The negative stereotype of Okies being incorrigible, brutal, drunken hicks was proven once again, and by their most celebrated son. Spade received no love from his old fans.
Cooley also found zero support among Los Angeles musicians and media. He had burnt all of his bridges when he was on top. His reputation of violent behavior and womanizing left no doubt in the minds of most of his former associates that he was very capable of murder.
Bakersfield in the early 1960s was one of the hottest musical locations for country music. Dust Bowl refugees Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, the leaders of the hard-driving, rock ‘n’ roll influenced country sound, stayed away from Cooley as if he were the plague.
Cooley pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, and made sure his trial was as dramatic as his alcohol-soaked mind would allow. Fainting spells, tears, and an alleged heart attack helped make his thirty day trial the longest in Kern County history.
Melody Cooley on the witness stand
The evidence was overwhelming. Kern County District Attorney Kit Nelson accused Cooley of murder by torture, and with the aid of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, had a very strong case. Forensic expert Clifford Cromp pointed out that Ella Mae’s body had old bruises, as well as new ones. She had numerous cigarette burns on her in different stages of healing. Her genitals were badly bruised, and a broomstick found in the home had traces of hair, blood, and vaginal and fecal matter on it.
It was daughter Melody’s testimony that sealed Cooley’s fate. The fourteen-year-old bravely went on the witness stand to tell the jury about life at the Cooley ranch. She told of Spade’s drunken behavior, gun play, threats, and the beatings that he gave Ella Mae. Her story could not be shaken by the attorneys for the defense.
Spade breaks down in court
Cooley didn’t make things any better for himself when he took the witness stand and denied everything. He stuck to his story that Ella Mae had fallen out of his moving car a few days before, and that he had found her unconscious in the shower. He denied stomping his wife in front of his daughter and using her as an ashtray. He could not explain his bruised fingers and hands when he was booked into jail. Fiddlers are generally very careful with their hands.
Cooley rambled off-topic and told the jury that his wife was part of a sex cult, and that, at one time during their marriage, she had had an affair with Cooley’s friend and neighbor, actor Roy Rogers. An angry Rogers categorically denied the affair, and told the press that he had never even been to the Cooley ranch without Cooley being present.
The jury came back with a guilty verdict, and Cooley withdrew his insanity plea. Judge William Bradshaw sentenced the King of Western Swing to life in prison. Due to Spade’s delicate health, he was sent to California State Medical Facility at Vacaville rather than to notorious Folsom or San Quentin prison.
While in prison, Cooley found God, was a model prisoner, and played in a prison band. Governor Ronald Reagan, a former B-actor who had surely rubbed elbows with Spade during their Hollywood days, made the parole board aware that he wanted to see Cooley paroled. The parole board agreed, and Spade was set to be released on his sixtieth birthday, February 22, 1970.
But Cooley did not live to be a free man. On November 23, 1969, Cooley was given a seventy-two hour furlough to perform at the Oakland Auditorium for a benefit for the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association of Alameda County. Moments after he left the stage to a standing ovation, while signing autographs backstage, Spade suffered a massive heart attack. Prophetically, his final song of the night was It’s Time to Live, It’s Time to Die. He wrote the song while in prison.
the last photo of Spade Cooley…