Spade Cooley Biography

Donnell Clyde Cooley, 22 February 1910, Grande, Oklahoma, USA, d. 23 November 1969, Vacaville, California, USA. His grandfather and father were talented fiddlers and he was playing at dances at the age of eight. Around 1930, the family moved to Modesto, California, where Cooley played local venues. In 1934, his resemblance to Roy Rogers found him employment as a stand-in and his work with other bands soon led to him fronting his own at the Pier Ballroom, Venice. Between 1943 and 1946, he was resident at the prestigious Riverside Rancho Ballroom in Santa Monica, where he acquired the nickname of ‘King Of Western Swing’ (Bill C. Malone records this as the first time the music pioneered by Bob Wills and Milton Brown had been so described). In 1947, Cooley adapted to television and his programme on KTLA became one of the top west coast shows until 1958. Cooley, with his orchestra playing a mixture of country, jazz and dance music, became a national star.

He appeared in many films and recorded for several labels. Among his best-remembered songs are ‘Shame On You’ (a self-penned US country number 1), ‘Detour’ and ‘Cause Cause I Love You’ (with vocal by Tex Williams who worked with Cooley for some years). In the early 50s, he suffered a heart attack and although he recovered, by the end of the decade things began to go tragically wrong. A drink problem worsened and his wife left him. He hoped in vain for a reconciliation. In July 1961, in a drunken rage and in front of their young daughter, he beat his wife to death. He suffered another heart attack during his trial, which saw him receive a life sentence. A sad but model prisoner, he spent hours playing his fiddle and teaching other prisoners. With parole through good behaviour due early in 1970, he was given special release to attend a benefit concert in his honour in Oakland, where on 23 November 1969, his performance was well received by a crowd of over 3, 000. After he had finished playing, he stayed backstage and was talking to friends when he suddenly slumped to the floor dead - the victim of another heart attack.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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