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 Spade Cooley

Spade Cooley

Original Name Donnell C.
Ellis County, Oklahoma, USA
Death 23 Nov 1969 (aged 58)
Oakland, Alameda County, California, USA
Burial Hayward, Alameda County, California, USA
Memorial ID 6948 · View Source
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Musician. He is best remembered as the "King of Western Swing" during the heyday of Western Music in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He is also remembered for murdering his wife in an extended fit of rage that made headlines for months as a celebrity murder. Born Donnell Clyde Cooley of mixed English and Native American sharecropper parents in Oklahoma, Cooley learned to play the fiddle from his father, John, who would play at local dances. As he became interested in music, his father arranged for him to receive lessons on both violin and cello from a teacher at school, and he became adept at not only playing but at writing his own compositions. When the Great Depression arrived, the family ranch failed as Oklahoma turned into a dust bowl, and the Cooley family moved first to Oregon and then to California. In 1931, Donnell arrived in Modesto, California, where he scrapped out a meager living as a laborer by day and a part-time fiddler at night. A good poker player, he would supplement his small income at all night poker games, and one night in Modesto, when he drew a straight flush in spades three times in a row, he was tagged with the nickname "Spade." In the late 1930s, he began working in Los Angeles, where he found work with the Sons of the Pioneers, a western group known for its harmonies. One of the former Sons of the Pioneers, Roy Rogers, had gone on to movies, and Cooley and Rogers soon became good friends. Rogers got Cooley a job as his stand-in and stunt double, developing a friendship that would last for years. After hours, Cooley would work the western swing bands, and soon put together a band of his own, Spade Cooley and his Orchestra, including his best singer, Carolina Cotton, who went on to fame with other bands. With entrepreneurial showmanship, Cooley's band made their first record in 1944, and the single "Shame on You" became a number one hit, which he made his signature song. Despite his success, Cooley also displayed moments of extreme anger, which compounded with his drinking, were harbingers of his temperamental personality. Cooley's anger frequently cost band members, when they often quit after one of his bouts. In 1944, he hired Ella Mae Evans as a clarinet player, and when Carolina Cotton left the band, he picked Ella Mae to become the singer, even though she had a poor voice. He soon divorced his wife, Anna, to marry Ella Mae, and within three years they had two children: Melody and Donnell, Jr. As interest in western music grew in the US, Cooley's fame and fortune increased, and in 1948, Cooley moved to television, hosting a KTLA-TV variety show "The Hoffman Hayride," with guests such as Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Tennessee Ernie Ford. He also began staring in movies, mostly westerns, including "The Kid from Gower Gulch" (1950), "The Silver Bandit" (1950) and "Border Outlaws" (1950). By 1955, the Western fad had ended, Cooley's movie contract was terminated and his band bookings were being cancelled, as Rock n' Roll took over as the music of the younger generation. Sensing the change in the American mood, Cooley noted the success of the newly opened Disneyland, and decided to follow in its footsteps with a Water Wonderland theme park north of Los Angeles. In the meantime, Cooley became extremely jealous of his wife, suspecting her of infidelity, and on April 3, 1961, in a drunken rage, he murdered Ella Mae in front of his 14-year-old daughter, Melody, kicking her and beating her to death while accusing her of infidelity. The resulting trial was a media circus, and eventually, Cooley was sentenced to life in prison. Assigned to the California State Prison at Vacaville, Cooley began to reform his life. He became a model inmate, and eventually confessed his crime. In August 1969, the Parole Board unanimously recommended parole for Cooley, to take place on February 22, 1970. Three months before the parole, Cooley was granted a three-day furlough to perform at a benefit concert for the Alameda County Sheriff's Department. Following a standing ovation after playing three songs, he left the stage and suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack. His last words were reportedly "I have the feeling that today is the first day of the rest of my life." Spade Cooley is remembered with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Bio by: Kit and Morgan Benson

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  • Maintained by: Find A Grave
  • Added: 14 Nov 1999
  • Find A Grave Memorial 6948
  • Find A Grave, database and images ( : accessed ), memorial page for Spade Cooley (17 Dec 1910–23 Nov 1969), Find A Grave Memorial no. 6948, citing Chapel of the Chimes Memorial Park, Hayward, Alameda County, California, USA ; Maintained by Find A Grave .