EASY ED’S BROADSIDE: Spade Cooley: Western Swing’s Killer Cowboy
Spade and Ella Mae Cooley (Associated Press photo)
My oldest son and his friend stopped by my apartment the other night for a few minutes and I punched the play button on a playlist I put together of old jazz and western swing tracks. There are a couple thousand songs in there that I enjoy listening to, mixing up Dixieland and be-bop, blues shouters and big bands, both Mexican and cowboy orchestras of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. The music was playing softly in the background when the kid called it within the first 30 seconds: Spade Cooley’s “Shame on You.”
Although I had long ago read about Cooley’s rise and fall, my armchair ethnomusicologist briefly went through his career and then in great grisly detail reminded me of how he had killed his wife, Ella Mae Evans. It is one of the most horrid tales of spousal abuse I’ve ever heard.
Back in the mid-’30s, on the corner of Sunset and Gower in Hollywood, stood the Columbia Drug Company. There was a small grill with a counter and a couple of booths, shelves of professional makeup for actors, a newsstand outside on the sidewalk, and a phone booth. It was a daily point of congregation for men looking for jobs as extras in the popular Western short reels and full-length films, and close to RKO, Paramount, Republic, Christie, and dozens of other studios. The actors were called “drugstore cowboys” and Dana Serra Cary wrote about them in her book titled The Hollywood Posse.
“They dressed off screen pretty much as they did on. Levis or whipcord straight-legged riding pants, checkered shirts, leather or wool vests, and, of course, Stetsons and steep-heel boots, comprised their daily costume. A cowboy’s hat and boots were something far more than either a necessity or a luxury – they were the hallmark of his pride in his profession. … When a cowboy walked onto the average Western set from the street, all the wardrobe department had to provide was a cartridge belt and guns.”
Like today’s day laborers who stand outside Home Depot hoping for a job, these men were prepared to act in saloon scenes, do some cattle rustling, or join a posse for five or ten bucks a day. John Wayne, Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, William Boyd, and Roy Rogers are just a few of the ones who broke out of that crowd to stardom, and there were many more.
Spade Cooley often repeated the line that he “came to California with a fiddle under one arm and a nickel in my pocket.” Born in 1910 in Grand, Oklahoma, he was one-quarter Cherokee and learned how to play the fiddle from his father. He got married at 17, they had a son, and soon after they joined other Dust Bowl migrants traveling to California, which offered jobs in entertainment, agriculture, and the defense industry. The migrants brought their customs, culture, and music with them.
Jimmy Wakely was also from Oklahoma, a singing cowboy with his own band. Encouraged to make the move to California, he began acting in a number of Westerns and his music career took off when his trio joined Autry’s CBS radio show, Melody Ranch. After accepting a movie contract from Universal Pictures, his fiddle player, Spade Cooley, took over the band, added the baritone voice of Tex Williams, and expanded the number of players to include steel guitar, accordion, and harp. And I don’t mean harmonica.
Cooley and His Western Dance Gang soon began an 18-month engagement at Santa Monica’s Venice Pier Ballroom, got signed to Okeh Records, and became a rival of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, who also played regularly in California, often at the Mission Beach Ballroom in San Diego. Cooley began taking advantage of the acting opportunities offered in Hollywood, and he appeared in 38 Western films in both bit parts and as a stand-in for that singing cowboy actor Roy Rogers. In a few films he appeared as a member of the Sons of the Pioneers.
By 1946 the band began to fall apart, with Tex Williams going solo and taking some members along with him to join his new backing band. He scored a hit with the novelty song “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette),” which stayed at the top of the charts for 16 weeks. Meanwhile, Cooley rebuilt his group with some of Bob Wills’ guys and in 1948 he began broadcasting on television from the Santa Monica Pier Ballroom. Called The Hoffman Hayride, the show won local Emmy Awards (1952, 1953) and at one point was so popular that it’s been estimated that 75% of the TV audience tuned in to watch it every Saturday night. By the mid-’50s, western swing music became less popular, Lawrence Welk’s star was ascending, and Cooley was off the air.
Ella Mae Evans was a singer in Cooley’s band, and he divorced his first wife and married her somewhere around 1945. Fifteen years younger than him, she soon quit show business and began to raise a family. As his fame in music and film increased, Cooley drank heavily and was a known womanizing cheat. Bobbi Bennett, his longtime manager starting in 1943, claimed in an unpublished manuscript that in one year alone she paid off ten women for abortions. (There is much more detail in a 2015 article by Timothy Lemucci for The Californian.)
Throughout their marriage, Evans was often beaten by Cooley, and on several occasions tried to leave him. When his fame began to slip away, they moved to their Water Wonderland Ranch, way out in the Mojave Desert in eastern Kern County. An intensely jealous man, Cooley had accused his wife of cheating, even with his former boss and good friend Roy Rogers. As the beatings escalated, Evans hired a lawyer and filed for divorce on March 17, 1961. A week later he beat her again, making her sign over property to him and admit infidelities to friends and their 14-year-old daughter.
On April 3, 1961, Cooley murdered his wife in an attack that was so vicious and cruel that I’ve decided not to share the details. Last year Burt Kearns and Jeff Abraham published an article about the entire crime, trial, conviction, and incarceration that you can read here, but be advised it ain’t for the faint of heart. It turns my stomach.
Although sentenced to life in prison, Cooley reportedly had close ties within law enforcement circles. He was treated very well in prison and was scheduled to be paroled on Feb. 22, 1970, after serving less than ten years for beating his wife to death.
In November 1969 he was given a special 72-hour furlough to play at a benefit in Oakland California for the Deputy Sheriffs Association of Alameda County. He gave his first performance in nine years to an appreciative audience and at intermission he went backstage, signed some autographs, and dropped his fiddle. Spade Cooley died on the spot from a heart attack at age 58. It was hardly soon enough.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline
Many of my past columns, articles, and essays can be accessed at my own site, therealeasyed.com. I also aggregate news and videos on both Flipboard and Facebook as The Real Easy Ed: Americana and Roots Music Daily. My Twitter handle is @therealeasyed and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.