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King for a day: Cooley’s portrait still hangs in the Cain’s Ballroom. Photo by Matt Phipps

Magazine

Mood Swing

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Posted 05.30.12

On a furlough from a California state prison, convicted wife killer spade Cooley walked off the stage of Oakland’s Paramount Theatre, basking in the thunderous applause of 2,800 Western swing aficionados who’d come to see the former fiddle star turned inmate. Anchoring the first half of the show with his three-song set, a beaming spade raised his violin above his head, saluting the cheering crowd. Their jubilation continued as he disappeared behind the curtain, made a comment to waiting friends and suddenly slumped to the dressing room floor. Then he died, to a standing ovation.

Part Cherokee, Donnell Cooley was born into a family of fiddlers on December 17, 1910, in a tornado cellar on a dusty ranch near Grand in western Oklahoma. Today, Grand twists in the wind, a ghost town with only the footings of the courthouse and its vault showing above the red dirt. Even then, it didn’t offer enough to hold Cooley.

At age 21, Cooley lit for California, arriving in Modesto with “a nickel in my pocket and a fiddle under my arm.” Cooley became a farm laborer, nighttime fiddler, and card gambler. He claimed he couldn’t see himself “farting down a row of beans,” preferring instead a future in Hollywood Westerns, studio recordings, and radio shows. Playing cards one night he drew three straight flushes, all of ‘em spades, and was ever after known as “Spade” Cooley. Feeling lucky, he left for Los Angeles.

Thanks to the scores of 1930s Dust Bowl immigrants heading down Route 66 to the Golden State, honky- tonks and cowboy dance halls became the rage on the west coast with the likes of Cooley and the Sons of the Pioneers supplying the tunes. Their brand of music was Western swing, characterized by a southwestern-bred hybrid of folk, bluegrass, hillbilly, swing, and jazz.

Spade ruled the west coast, Western swing era. He was challenged by Bob Wills, who brought his Texas Playboys to L.A. to make a play for Spade’s steady gig at Bert Phillips’ Venice Pier Ballroom. A battle of the bands took place on the pier with thousands crowding onto the huge dock. Ever the bulldog, Spade crowed that he’d “show who was the king in this here sunny state.” Spade won and thereafter proclaimed himself the “King of Western Swing.”

With his bandleader style, Cooley was a Benny Goodman in cowboy duds. Likewise, he suited his dozen band members in $500, custom-made western wear and gave them spiced-up nicknames like Deuce, Cactus and Smokey. Wills stuck to the old-fashioned band configuration that often included horns, and the more traditional get-up of cowboy suits and neckerchief ties. But more than clothes separated their styles.

Shelby Eicher is bandleader of the Tulsa Playboys, a Western swing band playing monthly at Cain’s Ballroom in downtown Tulsa, where an over-size photo of Spade looks down on the crowd. Eicher, ever a student of swing music, says, “There are fundamental differences between Spade’s and Bob’s music. Bob had a foot squarely in the blues world and allowed the fiddles to draw more on their ethnic fiddle tune style. Spade arranged his fiddle section to have a more violin quality.

“The other great difference to my ear is that Bob had access to great songs, many written by Cindy Walker. Spade’s material was a little tongue in cheek, and this may have been due to his work in Hollywood. Both men had great bands and were somewhat bigger-than-life characters. Bob Wills had a charisma in my opinion comparable to Elvis Presley, which is a valuable quality that set him apart and added to his legendary status.”

Both held dear to the whiskey bottle and paid for it. Wills was known as a binge drinker who’d miss entire performances due to his drinking. He suffered several heart attacks before dying of a stroke in 1975. With his huge success going to his head, Spade was always difficult to handle, but his near-constant drinking made him a devil and a half. And his bent toward physical brutality made him a feared man. Shortly after Cooley’s “Shame on You” hit No. 1 on the country charts, a Missouri clarinetist, Ella Mae Evans, sat in with the band. Despite the pleading of manager Bobbie Bennett who protested, “She had no voice,” Cooley made the blonde-haired, brown-eyed Evans his lead singer. He liked to introduce her on stage as “the purtiest little filly in California.” They soon married and, not long after, her short vocal career ended with the birth of Melody in 1946 and Donnell Jr. in 1948. Cooley retired her and the kids to his Mojave ranch house.

* * *

His career, meanwhile, was about to go meteoric. The “Spade Cooley Time” on KFVD radio in LA became a staple of southern California airwaves. Not long after, Cooley began starring in his own syndicated TV show. He was hired by Republic Studios, appearing in nearly 50 B-westerns, usually playing bit parts that often showcased his band. He became a local celebrity in a city full of them and enjoyed the trappings of stardom. He’d loan his 56-foot yacht to Roy and Dale Rogers, who’d take family fishing trips to Catalina Island. His closets were lined with 100 custom cowboy suits, 50 hats and three-dozen pairs of boots. All told, Cooley was bringing in $10,000 a week (about $95,000 today).

But Cooley’s drinking was getting the better of him. He drank and fired band members in moments of drunken anger. He got fired from his television show after a ten-year run, at least in part due to his drinking. Things hit rock bottom in 1956, when the radio station cut him loose.

Cooley combined the booze with a pathological jealousy. He convinced himself that Ella Mae was sleeping around. He confessed his love for her, hoping for reassurance. She sat quietly, offering no rebuttal or consolation. With no concrete proof of her straying, Spade became delusional about her supposed betrayals.

His stock continued to plummet when rock ’n’ roll came in and danced on the grave of Western swing. The recording contracts, studio calls and concert bookings dwindled to nothing by 1960. With a reported $15 million in the bank, the little man with the big talent redirected his entrepreneurial ambition to real-estate development.

Licking his wounds, Cooley left his Encino townhouse on fabled Ventura Boulevard and moved in with Ella Mae and the kids, whom he’d kept cooped up all those years at the ranch. Living there put him closer to his new venture, Water Wonderland, a project aiming to cash in on the success of the 1955 opening of Disneyland. Cooley envisioned an eighty-acre park with a lake for boat races, fishing, shops, a big swimming pool, and a set for television production. Being closer to his wife made it easier for Spade to keep track of her movements. Through his alcohol haze, every man was her potential lover. Interrogating her every moment, demanding she confess her extra-marital affairs, he abused her, first with words and later with fists.

By this time in 1961, Cooley began chasing his whiskey shots with uppers in the morning and downers after nighttime boozing. He became disoriented and wildly abusive, forcing Ella Mae to send the kids away to live with a nearby friend.

Ella Mae was in a local hospital recovering from a hysterectomy when Spade caught her on the phone with another man. “So what?” she said. “Now you know.” Cooley asked a Wonderland associate if he know anything about Ella Mae misbehaving. He told him of a man called Bud Davenport and took him to his trailer home in Granada Park.

Cooley confronted Davenport, who gave nothing but guff, so Spade smacked him in the kisser. When he got home and phoned Ella Mae’s room, she wouldn’t take his call. He called a friend and nurse, Dorothy Davis, and begged her to tell his wife that, “I love her with all my heart.”

Ella Mae came home and, for a time, things were calm. It wasn’t long, though, before the physical and emotional outrage reached new levels, for both of them. Plied with pills and booze, their thoughts became muddled, adding to the tension. They went back and forth about divorcing, with Ella alternately digging in her heels then yielding. For her trouble, Spade gave her a beating. Then, he’d sober up and say how much he loved her. Finally, Ella Mae cracked.

They went for a drive, and a long talk. Angling for a divorce, Ella Mae confessed to giving a man named Bud Campbell $600 because, “I thought I was in love with him.” Spade drove on, numb from the drugs, the drink and the pain. Ella Mae demanded he drive her to her parents in North Hollywood and Spade acquiesced.

He pulled up to the house and she got out of the car, alone. A confused Cooley rolled down the window to say goodbye but, instead, begged her for a second chance. Tormented by the powers of love and drugs, Ella Mae climbed back in the car.

He headed for home. Disconsolate over what might be in store, Ella Mae pushed open her door and leaped from the moving car. “I just want to die,” she told Spade, who held her in his arms. “I just want to die.”

He wanted to drive her to a hospital but she refused. They went back to the house no longer a home, its rooms strewn with half-eaten hamburgers, rotting apple cores, and multiple pill bottles on the bed stand—pills for tension, pills for nerves, sleeping pills and phenobarbital.

The next morning, Cooley tried in vain to get back to work. He paced anxiously between drinks. Martin, his only remaining associate, took note of Cooley’s bruised hands, which looked more like those of a street fighter than a fiddler. Ella Mae walked into the room wearing a dirty robe, her face discolored and in obvious pain, and slumped into a chair.

Martin knew he had been beating her. Disgusted, he left the house. “I can tell you things now,” she said, raising her eyes toward Cooley.

She began with Davenport, of how she’d become a recruit for his free-love cult near Los Angeles. Cooley responded by yelling, his anger ricocheting off the walls. Drunk out of his mind, Cooley went off on Ella Mae.

* * *

Fourteen year-old Melody walked in the house around 6 p.m. A blood-splattered Cooley met her at the door. “You’re going to watch me kill her,” he said, pointing a gun between her eyes. “If you don’t, I’ll kill you, too. I’ll kill us all.”

Ella Mae lay still on the carpet. “We’ll see if she is dead,” he said. Bending down, he touched his burning cigarette to her skin not once but twice. She didn’t move or make a sound.

The phone rang. As Cooley turned to pick up the receiver, Melody ran out the door. He had called several friends to come to the house, telling them Ella Mae was hurt. Eventually, he phoned for an ambulance. Five hours had gone by. As she was loaded onto a stretcher, the driver recalled Cooley saying, “I love you. Please, don’t be dead.”

The coroner reported that Ella Mae had strangulation bruises and deep, dark contusions on many parts of her body. She died from blood gushing out of a ruptured aorta. Cooley was formally charged with first-degree murder. At trial, the prosecutor called it a “murder by torture” involving stomping, beating and strangling.

Following weeks of testimony and a break to treat Spade for a heart attack, a jury convicted him on August 19, 1961. Cooley, against his attorney’s recommendation, withdrew his insanity plea, opening the door to a possible execution. Instead the judge sentenced him to life in prison, which ordinarily meant the forbidding, hard-time San Quentin. But, with his long history of heart problems, Cooley was assigned to the medical ward of the California state prison at Vacaville, just east of Napa Valley.

Cooley became a model prisoner, found religion, built fiddles in the hobby shop and taught inmates to play. By 1965, he began to show contrition for his wife’s murder. In 1966, Ronald Reagan became governor of California. In the 1950s, he’d appeared on Spade’s TV shows numerous times. “It seemed like only yesterday those two were clowning around and laughing it up backstage,” remembered Bobbie Bennett, Cooley’s manager.

A mutual friend in the B-movie business asked Reagan to pardon Cooley. Reagan balked at an official pardon, but the California parole board unanimously recommended Cooley’s parole for February 22, 1970. Reagan signed the special release papers, telling Bennett he was “repaying an old debt.”

Four months before his release, Reagan authorized an interim release allowing Cooley to travel to Oakland to make his first public appearance in nine years. Heading for what he thought was a concert for other inmates, Cooley lit up another cigarette and shuffled out of his elaborately furnished private cell at the Vacaville prison, wearing a borrowed suit several sizes too large. He entered a surprise party thrown for him by high-up prison officials and his former manager Bennett. A bigger surprise was being escorted to a black limousine.

Only told he was playing for an outside benefit, the bewildered Cooley arrived an hour later at the back door of a large auditorium in a jam-packed parking lot. “Must be rasslin’ night,” Spade said. Escorted to a small dressing room with a pencil drawn sign scrawled with a misspelled “Cooley” taped to the door, he changed into one of his old, high-dollar band suits Bennett laid out for him.

“Two minutes to show time, Mr. Cooley,” a stagehand yelled through the door. “Okay, son. It’s a deal,” he replied, sweating and scraping nicotine off his front teeth and upper lip. Spade, Bennett, and his old pal and emcee for the event, Chill Wills, walked to the curtain together.

An off-stage announcer introduced Wills, who strolled out to center stage. “Y’all fasten up yer stirrups and cinch-down yer saddles,” he growled, “ ‘cause y’all ‘bout to take ‘nother wild ride with our good ol’ fiddlin’ friend, the King of Western Swing, Spade Cooley!”

A stunned Spade stepped onto that Oakland stage to play in the “Grand Old Opry Spectacular” benefitting a local sheriff’s association. Prior to his first note, Spade thanked the deputies for “the chance to be free for a while.” The sold-out auditorium cheered the three songs Cooley played with the 24-piece band, including “Fidoolin,” a “San Antonio Rose” tribute to Bob Wills, and his signature closer, “Shame on You.”

Leaving the stage to thunderous applause, he greeted friends and reporters behind the curtain. “I think it is going to work out for me,” he said.

With the standing ovation ringing in his ears, he retired to his dressing room to change out of his sweat-laden suit. When he failed to make a curtain call, Wills and Bennett forced open the door. Cooley was naked, sprawled out on the dirty concrete floor where he’d collapsed, holding the broken fiddle neck in one hand and a picture of Ella Mae and him in the other.

Wills announced to the audience, there would be no second half of the show. As the band struck up the sad cowboy dirge, “Goin’ Home,” Chill Wills told the hushed crowd, “Spade Cooley, is … is, well, podnahs, he’s dead.”

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