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Music truly is a democratic ideal: the ultimate melting pot. The turbulent flow of immigrants into and around the country seeking opportunity and betterment brought together groups, tribes and families to circumstances that had never been imagined. The mix of cultural influences could not be avoided. It happened too fast. Wave upon wave of humanity blending together in cities, towns and rural settings. Though they may have tried to band together into neighborhoods of similar backgrounds and familiar surroundings, they could not avoid mixing in schools, markets and workplaces. With the advent of radio, the mix was expanded across the nation.

Vaudeville capitalized on the cultural differences. While some performers would exploit stereotypes and prejudices, they would, at the same time, bring cultural exposure to new audiences. Musical parodies could spawn new styles. Mass entertainment was the common thread drawing together a wildly diverse and unique American social fabric. The fresh and growing middle class had some extra time and money and could not seem to get enough entertainment. It was all so new.

Music is fundamental. It is understood by all. For example: The roots of Traditional Jazz spread up the Mississippi fusing seamlessly with rural blues and Northern influences to be immediately accepted in Chicago, Kansas City and on to New York. Music based in the Black experience of the Deep South was readily accepted by white urban Northern audiences. It was amazing. Americans were ready for it. It was appropriate to the experience of the day. The turbulence, excitement and social upheaval had become the norm. The new music felt like the right expression of the times. It bridged cultural differences in favor of common experience. It was entertainment: open, optimistic, upbeat, danceable and fundamental to the American experience.

1920s

IIn the Southwest, in the 1920s, Western string bands were popular. They had been absorbing influences from all available sources: Jazz, Polka, Tango, Vaudeville, rural, blues, cowboy, folk, and Spanish influences from across the southern border. They could be found in dance halls, saloons and brothels of small towns throughout the Lower Great Plains. It was the early years of Jazz shifting into a swing beat: upbeat and danceable. The bands were made up of guitars, bass, drums, saxophones, accordions, pianos, violin and steel guitar with its distinctly emotive Western whine.

Western Swing evolved from old house parties and ranch dances where fiddlers and guitarists entertained dancers. According to guitarist Merle Travis: “Western Swing is nothing more than a group of talented country boys, unschooled in music, but playing the music they feel, beating a solid two-four rhythm to the harmonies that buzz around their brains. When it escapes in all its musical glory, my friend, you have Western Swing.” Bands popped up from San Antonio to Shreveport to Oklahoma City playing different repertories with the same basic sound. It is probably fair to say that Western Swing formed as a ‘genre’ by a handful of bands playing predominantly in Southern Oklahoma and Northeastern Texas.

In the beginning, Western swing had no name. It was simply known as dance music. The term “Swing”, referring to big band dance music, wasn’t used until after the 1932 Duke Ellington hit: “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”. The style names used by recording companies before World War II included: “Hillbilly”, “Old Time Music”, “Novelty Hot Dance”, “Hot String Band”, and “Texas Swing” (for music coming out of Texas and Louisiana). Most Western dance bandleaders simply called themselves: “Western bands” and their music as “Western dance music”. In general, they wanted nothing to do with the “hillbilly” label.

The Name: “Western Swing”

Around 1942, ‘Spade’ Cooley’s promoter, Foreman Phillips, began using “Western Swing” to advertise his client. The first use in print was a 1944 Billboard item mentioning a forthcoming songbook by Spade Cooley titled “Western Swing”. The name stuck.

1930s

Western Swing’s popularity begun to grow in the Southwest as the devastating effects of the Depression set in. During the 1930s, hundreds of thousands of impoverished Americans fled the Dust Bowl states of Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Missouri to make their way West on Route 66 to California and the promise of a new start. The exodus was too large. The Golden State didn’t have the work and just plain didn’t want them.

Western Swing was a refuge: it was new and yet familiar. It was light, fun and built on the influences that the farmers had left behind. It was sophisticated but not high-brow. It was rich but still accessible. It was the right music for the time.

In the early 1930s, Bob Wills and Milton Brown co-founded the Light Crust Doughboys in Forth Worth TX, playing dancehalls and filling the radio airways with their particular brand of swing. Wills went on to assemble the Texas Playboys in Tulsa OK. The rest was history.

In 1935 Milton Brown and the Musical Brownies recorded W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” (Decca 5070) using a shortened arrangement of what they played for dances at the Crystal Palace outside of Fort Worth Texas. In the dance hall arrangement, the band would play a slow-drag tempo for 10 to 15 minutes (with accompanying vocals). The tempo would then increase to presto for the final choruses. The crowds of dancers appeared to love the arrangement and eagerly anticipated the tempo change. Waltzes and ballads were then interspersed for variety and to give the dancers a break if they were worn out by the faster numbers. Dancers would dance two-step or round dances, popular at the time.

Bob Wills recalled the early days of Western Swing music in a 1949 interview: “Here’s the way I figure it: We sure not tryin’ to take credit for swingin’ it.” Speaking of songs he’d learned from his father and others, working with Milt Brown – popular songs by Jimmie Davis, the Skillet Lickers, Jimmie Rodgers, and others. He said: “We’d … pull these tunes down an set ’em in a dance category. … They wouldn’t be a runaway … and just lay a real beat behind it an’ the people would began to really like it. … It was nobody intended to start anything in the world. We was just tryin’ to find enough tunes to keep ’em dancin’ to not have to repeat so much”.

Western Swing differed from the nationally popular horn driven Big Swing Bands of the same era. In Western bands – instruments and vocals followed the fiddle’s lead. Additionally, most Western bands improvised freely, either by soloists or collectively. Popular horn bands were generally carefully arranged and scored. Western bands were quick to accept and exploit the new technology of amplifiers and instruments with pickups. The electric guitar and steel guitar were natural choices. They could rise to the power and projection of the horn section with ease. This made it possible for Western bands to serve very large dance halls. The electric string rhythm section and the use of the steel guitar gave the music a distinct, emotive and memorable sound.

As early as 1934 or 1935 Bob Dunn electrified a Martin O series acoustic guitar while playing with Milton Brown’s Brownies. According to Jimmy Thomason: “It happened when Dunn was working at Coney Island in New York, he ran into this black guy who was playing a steel guitar with a homemade pickup attached to it – hooked up to this old radio or something and was playing blues licks – and he got this guy to show him how he was doing it. I never knew this black musician’s name but both Bob and Avis talked to me about him often.”

1940s: “Take Me Back to Oklahoma” – The Craze Begins

Some historians feel that the beginning of the Western Swing craze was the day that Bob Wills and his band arrived in Los Angeles in 1940 to appear in the film “Take Me Back to Oklahoma,” starring Tex Ritter and Arkansas Slim. The film was a hit. Within a very short time cowboy hats, boots, string ties and rawhide vests were seen all over Southern California.

Some historians feel that the beginning of the Western Swing craze was the day that Bob Wills and his band arrived in Los Angeles in 1940 to appear in the film “Take Me Back to Oklahoma,” starring Tex Ritter and Arkansas Slim. The film was a hit. Within a very short time cowboy hats, boots, string ties and rawhide vests were seen all over Southern California.

Western Swing reached its “golden age” in the years approaching and during World War II. It was extremely popular throughout the West. During the 1940s, the Light Crust Doughboys broadcasts could be heard on more than 170 radio stations concentrated in the South and Southwest. Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys played Western Swing nightly at the Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa from 1934 until 1943. Crowds at Cain’s were said to reach 6,000. Daily shows were broadcast on KVOO radio, a 50,000 watt signal spreading over many states. Regular shows continued until 1958 with Johnnie Lee Wills as the bandleader.

Any listing of Western Swing should include such bands as:

  • The Light Crust Doughboys
  • The Southern Melody Boys
  • Milton Brown and his Brownies
  • The High Flyers
  • The Tune Wranglers
  • Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys
  • Adolph Hofner and his San Antonians
  • Bill Boyd and the Cowboy Ramblers
  • Spade Cooley and His Orchestra
  • Tex Williams and the Western Caravan
  • “Texas” Jim Lewis and His Lone Star Cowboys
  • Hank Thompson and His Brazos Valley Boys

Bill Haley and his Comets Burt (aka Bert) “Foreman” Phillips developed a circuit of dance halls and bands for each of them. Included in the venues beginning in 1942 were: the Los Angeles County Barn Dance at Venice Pier Ballroom, the Town Hall Ballroom in Compton, the Plantation in Culver City, the Baldwin Park Ballroom, and the Riverside Rancho. These “Western” dances were very successful. According to Hank Penny, Phillips had said: “I don’t want any of that Western Swing!” But that’s what he got, and it got him huge eclectic crowds. Writer Gerald Vaughn wrote: “a Dance band hopes to make people move, not stand and listen, so the emphasis has to be on beat, rhythm, syncopation.”

When Bob Wills played the Los Angeles Country Barn Dance at the Venice Pier for three nights shortly before he broke up his band to join the army during World War II, the attendance was said to exceed 15,000. Nothing is more dangerous to the structure of a building than a large crowd bouncing in time. Fearing that the dance floor would collapse, police stopped ticket sales at eleven o’clock. The line outside at that time was ten deep and stretched into the town of Venice. Another source (possibly more reliable and realistic) states that Wills attracted 8,600 fans that night.

Riverside Rancho, operated by Marty Landau, had a 10,000 square foot dance floor, three bars, and a restaurant. According to Merle Travis: “At that time “Western Swing” was a household word. Al Dexter had had a million seller on his “Pistol Packin’ Mama” record. Bob Wills was heard on every jukebox with this “San Antonio Rose.” T. Texas Tyler was doing well with his “Remember Me (When the Candlelights Are Gleaming).” It was practically impossible to wedge your way into the Palace Barn where Red Murrell and his band were playing. A mile down the hill was the Riverside Rancho. You were lucky to find a ticket on a Wednesday Night. Tex Williams and his Western Caravan were playing there”.

Other Los Angeles CA “Country Nightclubs”, (as opposed to ‘dives’ – There were plenty of those) included The Painted Post (“Where the sidewalk ends and the West begins”), Willow Lake, Cowtown, Valley Ballroom, Cowshed Club, Dick Ross’s Ballroom, and Dave Ming’s 97th Street Corral. In 1950 Hank Penny and Armand Gautier opened the Palomino in North Hollywood, “one of country music’s most fabled venues, the commercial and social focal point of Hollywood’s country set.” “Western Jazz” brought in the customers.

Fred “Poppa” Calhoun, piano player for Milton Brown, remembered how people in Texas and Oklahoma danced when Bob Wills played: “They were pretty simple couples dances, two steps and the Lindy Hop with a few western twirls added for good measure. By 1937 the Jitterbug hit big in the West and allowed much greater freedom of movement. But the Jitterbug was different in the West. It wasn’t all out boogie woogie; it was ‘swingier’ – more smooth and subdued”.

Another orchestra from this era was The Deuce Spriggens Orchestra. They played nightly at the Western Palisades Ballroom, on Santa Monica Pier, then known as the largest ballroom on the West Coast. The music was broadcast as a radio show, The Cavalcade of Western Music, on station KFI. They also appeared on the Melody Roundup radio program.

In 1944 a 30 percent federal excise tax was levied against “dancing” night clubs. It was during the final year of the war. Just about everyone had lost a family member or friend in the war effort. There was a general sense of loss and sadness. Many did not view the dance halls as a much-needed escape from the harsh realities of Americas continued involvement in the war. Although the tax was later reduced to 20 percent, “No Dancing Allowed” signs went up all over the country. Jazz drummer Max Roach argued that, “This tax is the real story why dancing – public dancing per se – were just out. Club owners, promoters, couldn’t afford to pay the city, state, government taxes.

The returning soldiers brought with them new influences from far-away lands. They were ready for a new life. The Western Swing of the past was swept aside in favor of the new sounds of a new time.

Moon Mullican, who had performed with Western Swing bands, later found more success as a solo artist and his 1940s and 1950s hits often were done with a more western swing than pure country feel.

Western Swing was one of the many genres to influence rockabilly, and rock ‘n’ roll. Bill Haley’s music from the late 1940s and early 1950s is often referred to as Western Swing. Haley’s band from 1948 and 1949 was named Bill Haley and The 4 Aces of Western Swing.

1950’s and Beyond

Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Asleep at the Wheel helped make Austin, Texas a major center of Western Swing beginning in the 1970s. The annual South by Southwest music festival and the Austin City Limits PBS TV show have contributed to this success.

Donnell Clyde ‘Spade’ Cooley (February 22nd, 1910 – November 23rd, 1969)

The story of ‘Spade’ Cooley helps define the flavor of the times:

Donnell Clyde ‘Spade’ Cooley was born in a tornado cellar of a dusty ranch near the Canadian River in Western Oklahoma, a few years after the Indian Territory was granted statehood. His parents were part Native American, and Cooley attended the local Indian school. His father, John, was an amateur fiddler who played at local ranch dances and hoedowns.

Donnell took to the fiddle. His father recognized his talent and interest and saw that he was properly trained. Donnell took classical lessons on violin and cello from a teacher at his school. He learned to read music and the basics of musical arrangement.

The Great Depression arrived and the family ranch failed. The Cooley family moved West to Oregon’s Cascade Range, near Packsaddle Creek. The opportunities for a young man were limited so at the age of 21, Donnell moved to Modesto California in 1931. He worked as a laborer by day and kept his music alive by playing the fiddle by night. During these years he developed a taste for cards and gambling. There is something about the makeup of a musician’s brain that enjoys the patterns and relationships of musical notes in the same way they develop a sense for the patterns and numbers of playing cards.

In a poker game in Modesto, Cooley is said to have drawn a straight flush three times – each time in spades. According to country music historian Richard Kienzle, that’s where he got the nickname ‘Spade’.

Hollywood

By age 25, Donnell had a wife and one son. His ambition was pulling him toward greater opportunity. The young family left Modesto and headed for Hollywood. His timing was perfect: Cowboy movies were big. He was a fine fiddle player that could read and arrange. He could sit in just about any type of band and adapt. Before long he was asked to sit in with the Sons of the Pioneers, the Country and Western group known for its smooth vocal harmonies. Its most famous member, Roy Rogers, had already graduated to movies by the time Cooley arrived in Hollywood. Cooley fit in well and was introduced to some of the finest players around.

There was a clear physical resemblance between Cooley and Rogers. Both had dark hair, thin eyebrows and narrow eyes. A meeting was arranged at Republic Pictures, where Rogers was under contract. Cooley & Rogers hit it off and ‘Spade’ was hired by Republic at $17 a day to work as Rogers’ stand-in and occasional stunt double. It was the beginning of a long friendship.

At night, Cooley continued gigging with such western swing bands as Walt Shrum and the Colorado Hillbillies and the Rhythm Rangers. He began to develop personal relationships and the musical respect of all the best players as well as a broad network of promoters and potential venues.

In 1943 Cooley accepted a three-week engagement as a sideman for a cowboy-music trio appearing at Santa Monica’s Venice Pier Ballroom. The audience at the time would have included Okies, men and woman from the military, blue-collar workers and dust bowl immigrant residents of Farm Security Administration camps. ‘Spade’ was a consummate professional and good soloist, but he stood out as the best showman on stage. He was a backslapper with a ready smile and a habit of calling everyone he met “son,” like rooster Foghorn Leghorn from the Looney Tunes cartoon. The ballroom manager recognized Cooley’s talents as a front man. He was hired to assemble a house band to meet the new demand for western swing. The engagement lasted 18 months—a Venice Pier record.

Front Man

Encouraged by his success at the Venice Pier, Cooley decided he was the man to assemble America’s best Western Swing band. He used his connections and personal relationships to steal some of the top players from the Los Angeles recording scene. These included Johnny Weis on guitar, Paul (Spike) Featherstone, Muddy Berry, and Gene Krupa, to name only a few.

The number of players would vary, but the band typically included 12 or more musicians and a girl singer. He arranged for L.A.’s top movie wardrobe designers to design western wear, costing as much as $500 per outfit. For publicity, Cooley gave his players southwestern nicknames: Deuce Spriggens, Joaquin Murphey, Smokey Rogers, Pedro DePaul, Cactus Soldi, for example. He renamed Helen Hagström, his Arkansas-born blonde bombshell yodeler and singer as: Carolina Cotton.

In the world of the Big Bands, Benny Goodman was the “King of Swing”. Cooley reckoned that he should be known as the “King of Western Swing”. He used the time that he was booked as the house band for the Riverside Rancho Ballroom to refine his musical style. He emulated the sophisticated jazz swing styles of the successful Benny Goodman Orchestra and tightened up his arrangements to stand out from the more raw approach of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.

On Dec. 4th, 1944, Cooley took his orchestra into a recording studio for the first time. The result was the hit single “Shame on You.” Released on Columbia’s OKeh label, it hit No. 1 on the folk music charts for two months. It was the first of six hit recordings for Cooley over the next two years.

Temper

Cooley went through sidemen and girl singers like a hot knife through butter. He had a temper, and he liked to drink. The drinking did not improve his temper. When drunk, just about anything could set him off. He might try to fire half the band and then beg them to return the next day. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t.

Bassist Deuce Spriggens and singer Carolina Cotton were married in 1945. They set off to start their own orchestra, taking some of Cooley’s players with them. Clearly, that is what Cooley had done to other bandleaders just a few years earlier, but now he didn’t see it that way.

Another singer, Ginny Jackson, gave notice during a rehearsal that she planned to quit the band. Cooley tried to throw her off the Santa Monica pier.

Capitol Records offered Cooley’s singer Tex Williams his own contract. Williams tried to finesse a financial arrangement that would have benefited both Cooley and himself: He proposed to continue singing with Cooley’s band and hire the same orchestra to back him on his concerts and recordings. ‘Spade’ wanted no part of that arrangement. On stage before a full house at a San Diego ballroom, Cooley handed Williams notice that he was being fired. 11 of the 13 Cooley band members quit to support Williams. They went on to perform as Tex Williams and the Western Caravan, whose hits included “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette).”

Ella Mae Evans

21 year old Ella Mae Evans auditioned to play clarinet for a gig at about the same time of the release of “Shame on You”. She was a blonde, brown eyed, 5′-4”, 100 pound musician. She caught Cooley’s wandering eye.

Ella Mae came from a Missouri farm where she and her parents, Elmer and Ethel, had traveled the Depression trail West to the Promised Land. After Carolina Cotton left, Cooley chose to use Ella Mae as the featured girl singer. The only problem, according to Bobby Bennett, Cooley’s longtime band manager, she had no voice. She was, however, very pretty.

Within a short time, Cooley divorced his wife Anna (their son, John, was 11 years old) and married Ella Mae. On stage, Cooley introduced his new wife as “the purtiest little filly in California.” Ella Mae quickly became pregnant and Cooley insisted that she stay home to care for their 2 children: Melody, born in 1946, and Donnell Jr., born in 1948. This ended her brief vocal career.

Early in their marriage, they lived in his mansion on Ventura Boulevard. But ‘Spade’ said he wanted the children to grow up in the country. He bought a tract of land and built a house at the edge of the Mojave Desert in Willow Springs, an hour’s drive north of Los Angeles.

This was a much more convenient arrangement for ‘Spade’. He could spend much of his time on the road or in Los Angeles and stay in the Ventura house. Ella Mae and the children were to stay in Willow Springs, a safe distance away. Cooley is said to have sampled and enjoyed scores of the romantic opportunities in the form of fans, girl singers, female musicians and wannabe starlets looking for a leg up in Hollywood.

Television and Radio

In 1946 the radio show: “Spade Cooley Time,” debuted on Los Angeles’ KFVD. It featured the new, larger orchestra that added six horns and allowed for more sophisticated arrangements.

By 1947 the Riverside Rancho was no longer large enough to accommodate the crowds to see Cooley and his orchestra. He moved to and signed a 7 year lease on the Santa Monica Ballroom. It could accommodate crowds of 8,000.

In 1948 Cooley hosted a KTLA-TV variety show called “The Hoffman Hayride”. The program, filmed at the ballroom every Saturday night, was a cross between “Hee-Haw” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.” As a KTLA ad put it, “Spade Cooley’s formula for a show with top musical entertainment, a dash of western flavor, and a good sprinkling of comedy has proven to be just what the viewers ordered.” Guests included rising young stars like Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Tennessee Ernie Ford.

Television spread Cooley’s name to a broad new audience. At the show’s peak, 3 out of 4 television sets in greater Los Angeles were tuned to the “Hoffman Hayride” on Saturday nights.

He continued with his Hollywood projects and appeared in about 50 films, most of them westerns. Cooley starred in a few westerns, was featured in some “between-reel shorts” and he and his band performed in dozens of others. His credits include titles such as “The Kid from Gower Gulch,” “The Silver Bandit,” “Border Outlaws,” “Singing Sheriff” and “Texas Panhandle.”

East of the Rockies, Spade Cooley was just another western movie mug in chaps and spurs. But he was famous from Seattle to San Diego as one of the west coast’s biggest stars. His band often toured up and down the coast Sunday through Friday, always returning to Santa Monica for the Saturday night TV show.

When lucrative potential bookings cropped up for dates that were already taken, Cooley would send a look-alike, sound-alike band. At his zenith, Cooley and his manager, Bobbie Bennett, were marshalling three or four western swing bands that performed under the Spade Cooley brand. He sometimes would dash from one gig to the next—lest someone notice that Spade Cooley was absent from a Spade Cooley show.

Between film work, recordings, TV, radio and concerts, Cooley was pulling down $10,000 a week. Even a heart attack in 1950 did not break Cooley’s stride. Life was good.

1950s

Cooley made a series of records for Decca in the early 1950s but none produced a hit. The Western Swing craze was passing with the post war era. Western movies were also sinking in popularity as television began to grow. Serialized TV programs seemed to be the future. Roy Rogers had made a successful switch to the new medium but the public appeared to be tiring of the Western Band format.

Cooley’s record contract expired, movie studios stopped calling, and concert bookings dried up. “The Hoffman Hayride” went off the air as crowds stopped turning out at the Santa Monica Ballroom. KTLA tried replacing that with the scaled-down “Spade Cooley Show,” shot in a television studio.

Cooley’s drinking had gotten worse. In 1956, KTLA fired him. They were no longer willing to put up with the alcoholic rages when he was no longer a star. Ironically, KTLA had a new hit musical program: “The Lawrence Welk Show”. Times had changed.

Cooley made his final recording in 1959. He turned 50 in February 1960 and he announced his retirement. His final public concert was New Year’s Eve 1960. He had $15 million in the bank.

Restless and not content with retirement, Cooley tried some new schemes:

He assembled an all female Western Swing novelty band. It featured Anita Aros, a 28 year old classically trained violinist who was a member of Cooley’s last band – and lover. It didn’t catch on.

After the success of Disneyland, which opened in 1955 in Anaheim, Cooley envisioned a water theme park located on the edge of the desert. He hired planners to develop Water Wonderland on land (near his ranch in Willow Springs) in the Antelope Valley at the edge of the Mojave Desert. He reckoned that a water park would be an oasis in the desert, and a reasonable distance for day trip from the cities sprouting like mushrooms along L.A.’s northern fringe. It might have worked, but other issues got in the way.

It All Came Apart

Cooley had always been a jealous man with a temper. As alcoholism progressed and his fame declined, he became increasingly paranoid about his wife’s sex life. Meanwhile, he continued his dalliances with Anita Aros and other paramours.

He began to see every man as a potential lover. She was rarely allowed to visit Los Angeles. Bobbie Bennett, Cooley’s ex-manager noted that he virtually kept her as a prisoner at the remote Willow Springs ranch.

In the spring of 1961, ‘Spade’ spent more time at the ranch while working on his theme park project. By this time he was a full-fledged alcoholic and popping pills as chasers.

‘Spade’ began to believe that 2 of his business partners (that he believed to be gay) were luring Ella Mae into a free-love sex cult. The marital relationship became so bizarre that Ella Mae sent the children to live with a friend.

There was talk of divorce and reconciliation. The domestic situation wore on Ella Mae. In March of 1961, she was hospitalized for emotional problems. At about the same time, she made a peculiar confession to a nurse friend, Dorothy Davis, that she had had an affair with Roy Rogers in 1952 or 1953. Cooley badgered Ella Mae endlessly, insisting that she admit her infidelities. On March 31, as they argued in a moving car, Ella Mae either jumped or was pushed from the vehicle. She tumbled along the road but apparently did not seek any medical help.

On April 3rd, 1961, following another sexual interrogation by Cooley, Ella Mae told him she was leaving him, once and for all. He completely lost control. Their daughter, Melody, age 14, arrived home at about 6:20pm. She would later describe the scene in court:

“When I entered, he was on the phone. He was talking to his business partner and he said, ‘Don’t call the police.’ He was real sweaty and he had blood spots on his pants. He put down the phone and said, ‘Come in here. I want you to see your mother. She’s going to tell you something.’ He took hold of my arm and took me into the den. The shower was running in the bathroom. Mother was in the shower. He opened the door and said, ‘Get up. Melody’s here. Talk to her.’ He grabbed her by the hair and dragged her into the den with both hands. She was undressed. He banged her head on the floor twice. He called her a slut. She couldn’t move. She seemed unconscious. He turned back to mother and said, ‘We’ll see if you’re dead.’ Then he stomped her in the stomach with his left foot. He took a cigarette which he had been smoking and burned her twice.” Melody said her father picked (up) a pistol and menaced her with it, leveling its sights between her eyes. He told her, “You’re going to watch me kill her, Melody. If you don’t, I’ll kill you, too. I’ll kill us all.”

Ella Mae Cooley, 37 years old, was declared dead on arrival at Tehachapi Hospital almost 6 hours after the beating. In the end, there was no direct evidence that Ella Mae had been unfaithful with anyone. According to Roy Rogers and his wife, Dale Evans: They dismissed the 10 year old original allegation as “ridiculous”.

Trial and Conviction

Cooley was charged with murder and convicted on August 19th, 1961. He was sentenced to life in prison. He was a model inmate at the California State Prison at Vacaville, performing with a jailbird band and building fiddles in the prison hobby shop. He found religion and told fellow prisoners that he wanted to become a Billy Graham-style preacher.

Pardon

Ronald Reagan became governor in 1966. Mutual friends in the B-movie business began lobbying for a pardon or parole for Cooley. Reagan agreed, and in August 1969 the state parole board unanimously recommended parole, effective Feb. 22nd, 1970 on his 60th birthday.

4 months before the release, Cooley was granted a three-day furlough to perform in Oakland at a benefit concert for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department. He walked onstage to applause from an audience of 3,000 on November 23rd, 1969. He played 3 songs, including “San Antonio Rose,” which he dedicated to Bob Wills, who had suffered a debilitating stroke. Cooley then left the stage and walked into the wings where he chatted with musician friends and reporters. He said he was looking forward to returning to work but was concerned about whether his fans would welcome him back. “I think it’s gonna work out for me,” he said. “I have the feeling that today is the first day of the rest of my life.” The smile left his face. He dropped his fiddle, grimaced, clutched his chest and fell dead of a heart attack at 59 years of age. Cooley was buried at Chapel of the Chimes Memorial Park, in Alameda County.

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© 2008, Leonard Wyeth

Adapted, edited and expanded from:

Historical information drawn from Wikipedia

David Krajicek, for his biographical work on ‘Spade’ Cooley that can be found on trutv.com.

Spade Cooley Biography on CMT.com

Spade Cooley – Filmography on: movies.msn.com.

Western Swing, from Roughstock’s History of Country Music – roughstock.com.