[DISCLAIMER: This episode o tells an extremely disturbing story. This is not suitable content for children or anyone who shouldn’t read a graphic and detailed account of murder.]
Spade Cooley came to California in the early 1930s, as poor as everyone else who did the exact same thing at the exact same time. Only, Spade became a millionaire. And all he needed to accomplish that was a fiddle, a smile and a strong work ethic. If it sounds like the American Dream, stick around to hear how it became an American nightmare of substance abuse, mental illness and, eventually murder.
The first 45 years or so of Spade Cooley’s life went more than alright.
Born 1910 in Grand, Oklahoma, with the name of Donnell Clyde Cooley, the official story is that Spade was one-quarter Cherokee. That’s backed up by his attendance at Chemawa Indian School in Oregon, where his family moved when Spade was 4 years old.
Spade’s father played fiddle at local dances and he hoped his son would one day find success as a classical cellist or violinist, a dream that Spade shared as a child and he took his lessons accordingly. Though his classical training did not lead to a classical career, it did eventually lead to paying jobs playing fiddle at local dances, just like his dad.
Performing music and doing a bit of amateur boxing seems to have occupied Spade’s time until he was around 18 years old, which is when he eloped with Anne, a full-blooded Inuk from school and soon-to-be mother of their son, John. A year deep into what is now known as The Great Depression, this young family would arrive in California with nothing but, and I’m quoting Spade here, “a fiddle under one arm and a nickel in [his] pocket.” The year was 1930 and, as it turns out, he didn’t have much to worry over…
Spade Cooley was always the kinda guy to make you feel like his best friend. He called every man he met “son.” He’d put his hand on your shoulder and a smile in your face. When he showed up for a job, he was there to work hard and make sure it got done right. Knowing his way around the fiddle like he did and the ability to sight read sheet music was enough to place Cooley at the top of several call lists for short-notice, pickup gigs. That “down home” good ol’ boy routine helped him move up the ranks of the Los Angeles music scene fast, which is how he came to play with the Jimmy Wakely Trio, Riders of the Purple Sage and Sons of the Pioneers.
Unless you go add it after listening to this, you won’t find Spade Cooley’s name on the Sons of the Pioneer’s Wikipedia page. To be fair, that legendary group is a bigger part of Spade’s story than he is a part of theirs. By the time Cooley came around, they’d already had their signature hit with “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” and the group’s breakout star, Roy Rogers, had mostly moved on to work in major motion pictures. But Roy would still come around every now and then. Someone pointed out that Spade Cooley bore a passing resemblance to Roy Rogers. Before you know it, Spade was bringing down some extra cash by serving as a stand-in for Roy on movie sets during the day, while still playing pickup gigs with multiple bands on the L.A. dancehall circuit at night. With one foot firmly planted in each of Southern California’s most desirable professions, Spade was about to find himself a very rich and very famous man.
WHO IS SPADE COOLEY?
Every country music fan with more than a passing interest in Western Swing knows the name Spade Cooley.
It’s like a little bit of trivia for the genre.
There are two facts we associate with that name. One – Spade Cooley was “The King of Western Swing” long before that title was transferred to Bob Wills. Two – Spade Cooley murdered his wife.
But there’s a lot of story hiding in those two facts.
“The King of Western Swing” was more than just a cool nickname. For most of the 1940’s and 1950’s, Spade kicked as much ass as it was possible for a musician in Los Angeles to kick. It would be difficult to exaggerate his professional success. Not only does Spade Cooley have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame but at the height of his television show’s popularity it’s estimated that 75% of L.A. viewers were tuning in on any given night. Put it this way. In 1951, Frank Sinatra already had over 20 Top Ten singles to his name but his career wasn’t doing so hot anymore. He needed a comeback and part of his plan for that was a singing appearance on Spade Cooley’s hit TV show.
Looking back on it now, we can see things ended up working out pretty well for Frank Sinatra.
Spade Cooley, not so much. Because of that second little piece of trivia.
Now, I don’t know how so many people are comfortable using a simple word like “murder” to sum up Spade Cooley’s actions on the day of his wife’s killing. This was not a domestic argument that got out of hand. Not an accident with a dangerous weapon. Not a so-called crime of passion. This wasn’t even an isolated incident. It was a savage and deliberate execution which many people had to have seen coming.