One of the groups which played at the Venice Pier Ballroom in Venice, California, was led by Jimmy Wakely with Spade Cooley on fiddle. Several thousand dancers would turn out on Saturday night to swing and hop. “The hoards (sic) of people and jitterbuggers loved him.” When Wakely got a movie contract at Universal, Cooley replaced him as bandleader.
To capitalize on the pioneering success of the Bob Wills–Tommy Duncan pairing, Cooley hired vocalist Tex Williams who was capable of the mellow deep baritone sound made popular by Duncan. Cooley’s 18-month engagement at Santa Monica’s Venice Pier Ballroom was record-breaking for the early half of the 1940s. His “Shame on You“, released on Columbia’s Okeh label, was recorded in December 1944, and was No. 1 on the country charts for two months. A Red Foley / Lawrence Welk collaboration issued by Decca (18698) was No. 4 to Cooley’s No. 5 on Billboard’s “Most Played Juke Box Folk Records” listing in September 1945. Soundies Distributing Corp. of America issued one of their “music video like” film shorts of Cooley’s band titled “Shame on You” in the fall of 1945. “Shame on You” was the first in an unbroken string of six Top Ten singles including “Detour” and “You Can’t Break My Heart”.
Cooley appeared in 38 Western films, both in bit parts and as a stand-in for cowboy actor Roy Rogers. 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 Tex Williams and Carolina Cotton. Corrine, Corrina was released August 28, 1944 minus Cotton.
The film short Spade Cooley: King of Western Swing was filmed in May 1945 and released September 1, 1945. It was followed by Melody Stampede released on November 8, 1945. Spade Cooley & His Orchestra came out in 1949. In 1950, Cooley had significant roles in several films.
Beginning in June 1948, Cooley began hosting a variety show on KTLA-TV in Los Angeles, California broadcast from the Santa Monica Pier Ballroom. The show became a mainstay of television in the area, and won local Emmy awards in 1952 and 1953. Guests included Frankie Laine, Frank Sinatra and Dinah Shore. The Hoffman Hayride was so popular that an estimated 75 percent of all televisions in the L.A. area were tuned into the show each Saturday night. Making use of video transcriptions, The Spade Cooley Show was viewed coast-to-coast via the Paramount Television Network. KTLA eventually cancelled Cooley’s program and replaced it with a competing show brought over from KCOP, Cliffie Stone’s Hometown Jamboree.
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. 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”. 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.
Cooley’s music was like that of the then-current big band orchestras, and its sound was drawn from those dance-oriented hot bands like Bob Wills and Milton Brown. In contrast to Bob Wills’ work, the performances and arrangements of Cooley’s orchestra were more big-band Swing than improvised Western.
Cooley suspected his second wife, Ella Mae Cooley (née Evans), 38, who was a singer in his band before they married 15 years earlier, of repeatedly being unfaithful. In March 1961, she told a friend she’d had an affair with Roy Rogers in 1952 or 1953. She soon asked Cooley, who had his own affairs, for a divorce. On March 23, Cooley filed for divorce, citing “incompatibility” and seeking custody of their three children, Melody, Donnell Jr. and John.
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 Willow Springs ranch home. Cooley’s 14-year-old daughter, Melody, reportedly told the jury she watched in terror as her father 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. Cooley claimed his wife had been injured by falling in the shower.
He was unsuccessfully defended by prominent attorney P. Basil Lambros 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. He was spared death in the gas chamber and sentenced to life in prison.
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